Is Brazil a regional hegemon?

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Brazil’s economic rise over the past two decades has caused the country’s foreign policy making elite to seek a more prominent role for Brazil in the international community. On a global scale, it has sought to assume more responsibility and engage in international institutions, often criticizing established powers for not providing it with the status it deserves. Brazil’s newfound status has also caused Brazilian governments to reassess its regional role, although Brazil remains ambivalent about which strategy to adopt in South America. There is clearly a gap between Brazil’s global ambitions and its reluctance to adopt a more assertive role in its region. The country’s strategy in the region remains indecisive, combining restrained support for Mercosur, the creation of the Union of South American States (UNASUR) and the South American Defense Council (CSD) with a growing notion that a clearer vision is necessary to mitigate neighbor’s fears of a rising Brazil. Brazilian policy makers disagree on how they should characterize and understand their region – some see it as a source of problems, some as a shield against globalization, and some as a launching pad for global power. Brazil’s self-perception as a ‘BRICS country’ has fueled worries that it will pay little attention to regional matters (given that its trade interdependence with the region is far lower, percentage-wise, than that of its neighbors), causing critics of Brazil’s global focus to call it a ‘leader without followers’.

While Brazil has kept UNASUR relatively toothless, its decision to exclude Central America and Mexico from this institution is a clear sign that policy makers in Brasília have defined South America as Brazil’s immediate sphere of influence. With the majority of the continent’s landmass, population and economic output, and Venezuela’s faltering attempts to become a second pole, it is largely up to Brazil to define and design ‘South American Regionalism’. Brazil thus in theory holds a key coordinating role regarding important regional challenges, ranging from China’s growing economic importance, poverty, inequality, integrating the economy and security threats such as drug trafficking and smuggling.

Given its dominant role, it is no exaggeration to argue that Brazil seems destined to lead South America. The truth, however, is more complex. Brazil paid little attention to its neighbors during most of the Cold War, and severe domestic problems kept the country from adopting a more assertive international role. In the 1980s, Brazilian foreign policy makers perceived the necessity to engage with its neighbors, principally its rival Argentina, a trend that continued and strengthened throughout the 1990s. At the beginning of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s first term, the President began to articulate a vision that fundamentally diverged from Brazil’s traditional perspective – a vision that identified “South America” as a top priority. This trend has continued ever since, and was intensified under Cardoso’s successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Over the past years, as Brazil’s economic rise caught the world’s attention, the region has firmly stood at the center of Brazil’s foreign policy strategy. This trend continues under Brazil’s current administration: President Rousseff’s first international trip as President, in 2011, was to Argentina. The last fifteen years thus stand in stark contrast to Brazilian foreign policy tradition. Until 1981, no Brazilian President had ever visited Peru or Colombia. What further facilitated Brazil’s growing presence in the region was a power vacuum as the United States largely lost interest in South America as its strategic focus shifted to the Middle East and Central Asia in the so-called ‘War on Terror’.

Yet despite a growing capacity to engage in the global discourse, Brazil’s regional leadership remains restrained and ambivalent. As a consequence, Brazil lacks “endorsement from the region”, as Vieira and Alden put it. As Spektor points out, Brazil is reluctant to promote regional institutions that profoundly limit national sovereignty, as is the case in the European Union.

In order to better grasp Brazil’s regional strategy, it is useful to distinguish three different ways Brazil interprets the region: As an opportunity, as a source of problems, and as a launch pad for global power.

The region as an opportunity

As political and economic stability has led to unknown levels of prosperity and reduced levels of inequality and poverty, Brazil’s economic ties with the region have grown considerably. Brazil’s relative economic growth vis-à-vis its neighbors created significant structural incentives for Brasília to design more assertive strategies to boost regional cooperation. This implies the necessity to offer credit to large Brazilian companies who were in search for opportunities in largely untapped markets, and as a consequence, to establish clear rules and guidelines to make these countries more predictable and navigable for Brazilian companies. Brazilian investment in South America has increased significantly over the past years. In a similar vein, Matias Spektor has argued that Brazil may see the region as a shield – for example against potentially dangerous competition through globalization (e.g., the rise of China). The region can, according to this view, protect Brazil’s economy from external shocks.

In order to further integrate the region economically, Brazil has taken the lead in creating regional institutions such as Mercosur and UNASUR, but they remain superficial and do not reduce their members’ sovereignty. For example, neither UNASUR nor Mercosur meaningfully intervene in its members’ domestic affairs, such as when elaborating the national budget.

The region as a source of problems and concerns

As the classic geopolitical discourse about the menace of communist subversion and capitalist imperialism has vanished, other threats such as environmental degradation, drug trafficking and the violence and crime it brings with it have emerged. Rather than merely the strength of other states, the weakness of others is now a threat, as weak nations may not be able to provide basic levels of public order. For example, the violence and chaos that ensues in Bolivia could spill into Brazilian territory, and it may scare away investors who contemplate engaging in Brazil. Brazil is strong and getting stronger – but its neighbors are weak and some appear to be getting weaker. It is within this context that Brazil faces its biggest security challenges. While Brazil has solved all its border disputes, there remains a threat for interstate conflict in South America, as all countries in South America except Brazil have some sort of border dispute with at least one neighbor. While the Southern Cone has resolved most of its security issues, in the northern region of the continent it is still difficult to talk about anything resembling a security community, and old mistrust persists.

As a consequence, South America’s largest country has been forced to assume more responsibility and develop a more consistent regional strategy. In 1996, Brazil successfully avoided a military coup in Paraguay, and in 2002 it actively engaged to preserve democracy in Venezuela after a coup d’état against President Hugo Chavez. In addition, Brazil intervened in humanitarian and political crises involving Bolivia, Ecuador, Haiti and Honduras. In 2000, Brazil organized the first regional summit in history. In 2004, Brazil took over from US and French forces the command of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and it has played a key leadership role in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. In the same year, it developed the first doctrinal expression of regional leadership: ‘non-indifference’, a concept that, in a subtle fashion, indicated that Brazil would take a more flexible approach to respecting sovereignty if regional stability was at stake. In 2012, Brazil strongly objected to the impeachment of Paraguay’s President Fernando Lugo and led efforts to suspend Paraguay’s UNASUR and Mercosur membership. This increased willingness to intervene in other countries’ affairs must also be understood as a means to reduce the probability of US intervention on the continent – thus implying a timid claim towards controlling the region and assuring stability.

An additional step in this direction occurred in 2008 with Brazil’s proposal for a South American Defense Council, an agency of UNASUR. While Brazil was traditionally reluctant to assume the role of manager of regional security challenges (a role that the United States wanted Brazil to assume decades ago), it slowly seems to become more comfortable with this position. As Brazil’s economy is ever more connected internationally, it can no longer afford instability next door. Contrary to general expectations, the Defense Council has indeed strengthened military-to-military contacts in the region, and helped armies deal with common threats – such as drug trafficking – more effectively. Recently, some member governments took the important step of submitting reports that exposed their defense spending, seeking to reduce mutual suspicion. In addition, one of the Council’s stated objectives is transparency about each army’s military exercises. Such moves, however, are unlikely to have an immediate impact. As Alex Sánchez points out, it would still be difficult “to conceive that a Chilean colonel could take orders from a Peruvian General within a South American Council of Defense chain of command.” The Santiago de Chile Declaration in 2009 introduced several initiatives, expressing the hope to become a dialogue platform for conflicts between its members, to coordinate every nation’s external security, to foster cooperation in defense issues, and to overcome differences in military expenditure. The Declaration’s Action Plan focused on defense policies and military cooperation; humanitarian actions and peace operations; defense industry and technology; and military education and training – several of these ideas are already stated in UNASUR’s statues.

While obvious to Argentines or Uruguayans, the potentially negative effects of Brazil’s economic growth on its reputation in the region are only slowly emerging topics in Brazil’s public discussion. Only recently, some of Brazil’s leading policy analysts have warned that growing economic asymmetry and fear of economic dependence in neighboring countries could lead to a backlash that could seriously hurt Brazil. This engagement in the region is thus a direct response to the problems and challenges Brazil faces in South America. Seen from this perspective, the region is largely a source of problems for Brazil that need to be addressed.

The region as a launch pad for global power

Due to Brazil’s at times half-hearted regional leadership and the emergence of regional challenges, Brazil has rarely used its dominant role in South America as the basis for its claim to global leadership, for example the permanent seat in the UN Security Council. This indicates that Brazil has not identified its regional dominance as an asset in its quest for a more visible global position. This considers the fundamental problem Brasília faces in obtaining its neighbors’ support in multilateral negotiations. When Brazil sought to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2005 as part of the so-called G4, Colombia and Argentina openly rejected Brazil’s claim and formed an opposition group. In the same way, Brazil’s arguments for being given a place at the high table on other occasions – such as the San Francisco Conference or the Bretton Woods conference – were always based on its size, its democracy, or its diversity – but almost never on its capacity to represent its region. Even its current participation in fora such as IBSA or BRICS is largely justified by its growing power rather than its regional leadership – although foreign observers continuously attribute this capacity to Brazil.

However, Brazil’s decision in the 1990s to define its region as ‘South America’ rather than ‘Latin America’ and itself as a ‘South American country’ does show that its conception of its neighborhood changed significantly. Mexico’s orientation towards the North (in the context of NAFTA) was seen as proof that ‘Latin America’ as a concept had lost its meaning. In addition, Argentina’s financial crisis seemed to have given the term a negative connotation; whereas South America was more neutral. Focusing on South America also removed the only credible competitor to Brazil in the region, thus strengthening Brazil’s position as the dominant actor.

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The South American Defense Council

The South American Defense Council (CSD, in its Spanish and Portuguese acronym), an agency of UNASUR, formally came into being in 2008, but already in 2007 the Brazilian government began to articulate the necessity to create such a regional body that would help it reduce tensions between its neighbors and build confidence through increased and institutionalized interaction. This strategy was underscored by a tour through South America by Brazil’s then Minister of Defense, Nelson Jobim. In an extraordinary session, on December 16th 2008, the heads of state of the member countries created the Defense Council as a consultative entity designed to facilitate cooperation. After Colombia’s initial decision not to join the Council due to political tensions between Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, it later decided to join. The Council is today composed of the region’s Ministers of Defense. Its per tempore presidency is guided by the same rotational principle as UNASUR. The first meeting took place in January 2009 in Santiago de Chile, in which the so-called ‘Action Plan’. This resolution called for greater cooperation on all levels, ranging from military technology, best practices, transparency on military expenditures, exchange of military students, humanitarian aid and the creation of a single South American defense market.

While tangible results since then have been relatively few, the Council did succeed in creating a regular platform for discussion between the defense establishments of all countries, thus achieving Brazil’s main goal. For example, these regular meetings have helped each country’s ministries of defense coordinate the measured retreat of troops who participated in the MINUSTAH peacekeeping mission in Haiti. At the same time, several of the propositions in the plan have been followed up upon very slowly. For example, the plan’s mention of military cooperation in the field of humanitarian aid did not generate any joint action until 2010, when UNASUR member states did in fact cooperate in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Regarding defense industry cooperation and military technology transfer, progress has yet to occur. Yet considering that it is the first time ministries of defense in the region are in constant communication, several analysts regard even these initial steps as meaningful progress. Indeed, it is perhaps the symbolism of cooperation that was at the heart of Brazil’s strategy, thus seeking to mitigate some neighbors’ worries about growing Brazilian regional hegemony.

Yet contrary to NATO or any other military alliance, the main purpose of the Council is to consolidate internal relations, rather than challenging outside powers. Security implications are thus kept to the region itself, and not to extra-regional issues. Brazil thus keeps the tradition of creating regional institutions that do not curtail its sovereignty, as would an institution similar to NATO. Contrary to NATO, the Council has no operational capacity, no permanent physical headquarters, and its creation is not the result of the common identification of an enemy, as was the case with NATO. As Antônio Jorge Ramalho points out, any structure similar to that of NATO, implying collective security principles, would take “generations to build.” This is not only due to a lack of mutual trust, but also due to a lack of military capacity to project power outside of the region. Yet this has not kept the Council from developing novel ideas. In 2012, the Council’ new Action Plan for the first time articulated the idea of the creation of a South American Space Agency, which may jointly finance the development of unmanned aircraft to secure border regions against drugs- and arms trafficking. This idea is closely connected to Brazil’s growing interest in the regional defense market: Several of its neighbors are likely to soon modernize their armed forces, a demand Brazilian the defense industry is interested in. At the same time, the Council does have the secondary aim of fostering the creation of a South American identity, which does not yet exist given that the usage of the term is relatively recent.

Still, Brazil’s initiative to create the South American Council of Defense can be seen as a growing willingness to assume leadership and, at the same time, a step towards reducing US influence in the region. In fact, when the United States expressed interest in contributing to the Council, Brazil rejected any US participation. In the same way, former Minister of Defense Nelson Jobim has argued against joining the North Atlantic and South Atlantic Security Space, arguing that the particular strategic interests in the South justify the creation of an autonomous security space. However, its stance is far from anti-American, and stands in contrast to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who argued for the creation of ‘SATO’, NATO’s equivalent for the South Atlantic.

After decades of hesitation, Brazil is finally beginning to use the potential of its dominant role on the South American continent. While the regional institutions Brazil has created are still relatively superficial, they are still meaningful on a continent with virtually no history of regional cooperation. UNASUR and the South American Defense Council, both designed by Brazil, are clear indicators that Brazil is aware of its capacity to engage with its neighbors and promote regional integration – while tangible progress may be years away, the creation of ‘South American Regionalism’ and a ‘South American identity’ is every more clearly articulated by Brazilian foreign policy makers. Once a reluctant hegemon, Brazil is increasingly comfortable with the role. The main challenge now is to assure neighbors that Brazil's rise is good for them, too. 

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Photo credit: José Cruz/ABr