Brazil and the democratization of foreign policy

Celso Amorim  World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2008

At a conference today at the University of Ottawa in Canada, participants from around the world discussed the state of democracy in global affairs, with a particular focus on the role emerging powers played in it. Civil society activists, scholars and policy makers from Asia, Europe, Africa, North- and Latin America came together to discuss their experiences. Between sessions, I spoke to a courageous Indian woman who had helped organize elections in Afghanistan and to a young Brazilian scholar based in Cambridge who is studying Brazil’s engagement in Africa and its impact on democracy there.

On the first day, the debate soon began to revolve around Brazil – the protest that shook the nation several months ago, the country's stance vis-à-vis Venezuela and Cuba, and its unprecedented presence in Africa. What, several participants wondered, did such issues mean for the future of democracy on a global scale? Was Brazil committed to defending democracy in its neighborhood? 

The first Brazilian presenter painted a negative picture. Brazilian foreign policy, he argued, is being hijacked by the Workers' Party since 2002, and it no longer defends national interests. According to him, the politicization of foreign policy had been amongst the most damaging elements of Lula's legacy. Celso Amorim's decision to join the Workers' Party while being in charge of Itamaraty symbolized, the speaker argued, policy makers' confusion between "state politics" and "party politics". As a consequence, Brazil's only interest nowadays was not furthering democracy but cozying up to leftist leaders in Caracas and Havana, and promoting "anti-hegemonic South-South cooperation". 

To my mind, such criticism misses two important points. First of all, foreign policy did not change that much after Lula assumed the presidency. His predecessor Fernando Henrique Cardoso was reluctant to put pressure on Cuba. The idea to invite Venezuela to join Mercosur was Cardoso's, not Lula's. Finally, Cardoso had recognized the importance of Africa and other emerging powers, and he did not voice any criticism when Lula frequently traveled to Africa. Celso Amorim, who designed and implemented Brazil's decision to engage the Global South, would possibly have become Foreign Minister had Lula lost in 2002. 

Yet most importantly, criticizing the politicization of foreign policy is akin to rejecting the integration of foreign policy into the democratic process. Foreign policy is, just like health or education policy, a discipline that is part a government's overall policy strategy - which should be subject to public scrutiny. Naturally, the strategy and focus in each of these areas may change according to the party that is in power. While the minister of health will have to defend and discuss his or her policies publicly, so must the foreign minister justify his or her choices in the face of the public eye. Criticizing Brazil's Foreign Minister for joining a political party is bizarre: After all, who criticized Barack Obama for nominating Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State in 2008 on the grounds that she was member of the Democratic Party? One may very well disagree with Brazil's international strategy, but that disagreements should be based on actual foreign policy issues, not based on the fact that it is "too politicized".

If Brazil is to assume global responsibilities, a strong Foreign Ministry is not enough- a more vibrant, constant (and inevitably at times more acrimonious) domestic debate about its foreign policy is also necessary. The solution is not less, but more politics and democracy in the debate about foreign affairs - with tens of NGOs like Conectas Human Rights making noise, hundreds of foreign policy bloggers, columnists, lobbyists, students, former foreign policy makers and policy analysts commenting on, criticizing or defending Brazil's international strategy.

Read also: 

IBSA: Where do we go from here?

Book review: “Breves narrativas diplomáticas” by Celso Amorim

Why Dilma is right to say no

Photo credit: World Economic Forum