Can Neymar help Brazil regain soft power in Libya?

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Afonso Carbonar, Brazil's recently appointed ambassador to Libya, faces a difficult task: He needs to remake Brazil's image in the North African country and help diffuse the anger Libyans guard against Brazil, along with all those governments that were reluctant to break with the country's brutal dictator Muhammad Gaddafi during the Libyan civil war. In the same way, Russia, Germany and China are now working hard to make Libyans forget that they did little to help remove one of Africa's longest-ruling autocrats from power.

The new government has made clear, as is common practice in such circumstances, that it may give preference to companies from countries that did most to help the rebels. This raised fears among those Brazilian multinationals that had signed large infrastructure contracts with the Gaddafi regime. During a recent visit to Brazil, however, Libya's Vice-Prime Minister assured the Brazilian government that Odebrecht and Co. would continue to be welcomed. Still, rumors are that the Brazilian government is planning to bring its national soccer team to Tripoli as a means to regain lost soft power.

Neymar
Neymar: Soon on its way to Libya?

While Brazil's economic interests in the region are growing, they are not yet comparable to those of China, which is increasingly worried about how to maintain close economic ties in countries where it acted as a strong defender of former autocrats - such as Libya and Egypt - and possibly soon Syria and Sudan.

This can have important consequences about how these countries think about ideas such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). As Johan Lagerkwist points out in a recent article,

..in the course of events in the Arab world, Beijing’s stance shifted from resistance to foreign intervention to a surprising abstention on the March 2011 UN Security Council vote on Resolution 1973, which aimed to halt the Gaddafi regime’s onslaught on rebel groups in Libya.

Yet he also concedes that

Then, in February 2012, China backtracked to its usual principle of non-interference and together with Russia vetoed a draft resolution to end horrific violence in Syria.

In the case of Libya, China accepted intervention due its own commercial interests (Libya has the 7th largest oil reserves), the risks posed to Chinese lives, a negative fallout in world opinion and growing pressure from the West and the Arab League. In the case of Syria, China may have returned to its traditional stance because it did not want to be seen by its own people to be supporting a revolution elsewhere. In the future, these two issues - economic interests on the one hand and fear of domestic consequences on the other - will be determining Beijing's strategy.

As Mohamed El Dashan recently pointed out in an article in Foreign Policy, there is a revolution underway in Sudan, but the international community has not yet picked up on it. If it seems as if the tide is turning against the country's President Omar al-Bashir, all eyes will turn to China. In few other countries are China's economic interests so vast, and it will do everything to avoid being marginalized in a post-al-Bashir Sudan. In case of an all-out civil war, China would probably hedge its bets, officially support the government but also swiftly make friends with the rebels, as it has already done in the case of Libya.

Emerging powers are finding out that even holding on to a conservative, pro-sovereignty position can have its risks. To appease Libya's public, China is likely to pour millions of dollars into Libya's economy. Brazil, for its part, will rely on the star power of Ronaldinho, Neymar and Co. As a Twitterati pointed out yesterday, Brazil's seleção may soon have to play in Syria as well.

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Read also:

Emerging powers remain divided on R2P and RwP

Brazil and the responsibility while protecting

Book review: “The future of Power” by Joseph Nye Jr.

Book review: “Brazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed” by Larry Rohter

Photo credit: Felipe Dana/AP