Brazil’s top 10 foreign policy challenges in 2014

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Disclaimer: Selecting merely ten issues from the multitude of foreign policy challenges Brazil faces is, of course, a rather impossible task, and bound to omit crucial topics. This list therefore does not claim to be complete (it does not contemplate key topics such as the environment, development aid, non-proliferation, peacekeeping in Haiti, the WTO and the Middle East), but seeks to stimulate the debate about an exciting year ahead. Comments (preferably of the critical sort) are, as usual, most welcome.

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1. Get Brazil-US ties back on track

With a tight election race looming, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff preferred not to risk being seen as weak and submissive in the face of an ongoing US spying scandal and rightly canceled her 2013 trip to Washington, D.C. After this historic low point in the bilateral relationship, it is time to take first steps to eventually get things back to normal. Studying Germany's reaction and negotiation tactics after the spying revelations may be instructive when thinking about how Brazil could benefit most from the episode. Important projects such as the visa-waiver agreement that have been put on hold after the NSA affair could be restarted, even if seeking closer ties to the US is currently unpopular. Then, Brazil could adopt a proactive policy vis-à-vis the United States and build on Obama's previous statement that he "appreciates" Brazil's desire for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Despite China's rise, the United States remains a crucial actor that profoundly influences Brazil's foreign relations.

2. Convince the President and Congress that foreign policy (and the Foreign Ministry) matters

2013 was a difficult year for Itamaraty - it included the crisis in Bolivia which led to Minister Patriota's resignation, public attacks against supposed super-salaries and budget cuts. In order to reverse the situation, the Foreign Ministry needs to convince both the President and Congress that it requires more, not fewer resources. As Brazil seeks to project more influence, its relatively low number of diplomats may pose limitations on its capacity to operationalize new policies. Smart strategies developed at home may fail to have the desired impact because there are not enough Foreign Service officers to implement the new policy. Complex bilateral negotiations can be negatively affected if one side's negotiators have not been briefed properly due to a lack of diplomatic staff and on-the-ground knowledge on the domestic constraints the other side is facing. Finally, maintaining an understaffed embassy can send a negative signal to the host country, in some cases causing more damage than opening no embassy at all. Yet the President cares little about diplomacy, and some of Brazil's major international initiatives - such as the successful campaign to put a Brazilian at the helm of the World Trade Organization (WTO) - was not initiated by Itamaraty, but by other parts of government (although the Foreign Ministry was key in coordinating the effort). Foreign policy makers' thus face a double challenge: convince both Congress and the President that foreign policy matter, and that the Foreign Ministry is the best place to design and implement it.

3. Assume leadership in the global debate about internet governance

In September 2013, Rousseff took the initiative and placed Brazil in the center of the debate about the future of internet governance. This is indicative of a growing willingness to play a key role in international affairs. At the same time, Rousseff's presentation has also raised global expectations considerably. In April, the government will organize a summit that will involve national governments as well as representatives from industry, civil society, and the private sector International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which currently oversees aspects of Internet governance like IP addresses. In São Paulo, they will brainstorm about new global rules for privacy in the digital age. The debates may strengthen those who wish to wrest management of the Internet from the multi-stakeholder ICANN and place it in the hands of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), where it would be even more susceptible to national manipulation.

Brazil's credibility as a global actor will, to no small degree, depend on its capacity to follow-up on such promises and make a meaningful contribution to this highly complex debate. As I have argued before in the debate about RwP, Brazil's attempt to act as an agenda-setter may have been useful to provide a glimpse of what Brazil is capable of on a global scale. Between 2011 and 2012, despite Brazil's limited hard power, it temporarily exercised international leadership in the debate about humanitarian intervention. Just like back then, Brazil will have to prepare for a tough discussion, which is likely to include fierce criticism from many sides.

4. Continue to engage in the global debate about how to prevent mass atrocities

With Ambassador Patriota in New York, Brazil possesses considerable authority at the UN to play a leading role in the discussions about how to deal with humanitarian crises around the world. Having created the concept of RwP (the Responsibility while Protecting), Patriota placed Brazil in the midst of the controversy about the legality of the way the Libya intervention was conducted. In many ways, RwP symbolized the very strategy Brazil aspired to pursue: turn into a bridge builder, mediator and consensus seeker through thought leadership. RwP, despite its flaws, was an innovative and constructive proposal to bridge the gap between an overly trigger-happy NATO and excessively resistant China and Russia. With the severe humanitarian crisis in Syria ongoing, and new ones erupting in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, Brazil would do well to take a leading role in the global debate about preventing mass atrocities in the future - a debate that is far richer and more complex than the usual NATO-Russia duality.

5. Show that the BRICS grouping is worth keeping

During the first week of April, Brazil will organize the 6th BRICS Summit. Since the host has the right to set the agenda of the summit, Brazil has a unique chance to give the 6th BRICS Summit its own imprint - and thus engage the leaders of China, India, Russia and South Africa on one or several topics of its choice. This is a tremendous opportunity for Brazil. Yet the public is likely to remain skeptical of the usefulness of the BRICS concept, particularly as growth in the Global South has slowed markedly. Add to that a President who never really warmed to the idea and foreign policy makers face a tough challenge to keep the momentum going and show that Brazil benefits from being part of the BRICS grouping. In the midst of all the gloom, the BRICS grouping will hold its 6th Summit in Brazil and launch the BRICS Development Bank, marking the most important step towards institutionalization in its young history.

6. Project stability in the neighborhood

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 that are 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. While demand from China will remain important, it may weaken, increasing the significance of Brazil's neighborhood even further. Yet the region does not only present opportunities, but also risks. Rather than merely the strength of other states, the weakness of others may produce threats, as weak nations may not be able to provide basic levels of public order. For example, violence and chaos that ensues in Bolivia could spill into Brazilian territory. Brazil is strong and getting stronger – but some of its neighbors are weak and some appear to be getting weaker. It is within this context that Brazil faces its biggest security challenges. Projecting political stability and strengthening governance and the rule of law in the neighborhood thus remain high on Brazil's foreign policy agenda.

7. Engage the public - both at home and abroad

Few Foreign Ministers spent as much time talking to students, representatives of NGOs and academics as Antonio Patriota during his time in office. Rightly so: Itamaraty must convince civil society that Brazil should turn into a global actor strongly involved in many issues around the world. Yet foreign policy still plays only a marginal role in Brazil's bustling public debate. Itamaraty's greatest projects are often greeted with a mixture of neglect and rejection by both the media and public opinion. A supportive public, however, could help the Foreign Ministry precisely with the sort of problems it faced in 2013. A youtube channel, a public diplomacy blog, a twitter presence and an accessible Foreign Minister are important first steps. Launching a complete English-language Foreign Ministry website would make a tremendous difference to those who follow Brazilian foreign policy abroad, making Brazil's international strategy more transparent and accessible.

8. Solve the trade conundrum

In the past 13 years more than 350 trade deals were registered at the WTO.  Mercosur, for its part, signed just four, with Egypt, Peru, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Trade talks between the EU and Mercosur are also incredibly difficult, having started 14 years ago. They stalled over similar issues to those which made the WTO negotiations so complex: European unwillingness to expose its protected farmers to competition and South American desire to shelter industry from high-quality imports. Yet in Brazil, a number of stakeholders supports trade agreements not only with Europe but also with the United States, arguing that Brazil's industry could compete on equal terms if the government reduced the long-standing “Brazil cost” by facilitating tax rules and improving infrastructure. As big regional negotiations such as one between the EU and United States advance, one cannot but notice the prospect of a world divided into trade blocs. Brazil will have to make up its mind about which strategy to pursue should such a scenario come true. In the case of the negotiations with the EU, this involves making a decision about whether to take more protectionist Argentina along or whether to pursue a two-speed solution,  leaving Argentina behind.

9. Keep IBSA alive

In 2013, the IBSA grouping celebrated its tenth anniversary. Yet the way leaders in the Global South marked the special occasion was rather underwhelming: They canceled the summit that was supposed to take place in June 2013 in New Delhi. To make matters worse, the schedule in 2014 looks particularly crowded, with a BRICS Summit as well as a Football World Cup in Brazil, and general elections in all three member countries. While IBSA's survival does not solely depend on leaders' summits (the grouping contains 16 working groups and a trilateral commission), not organizing a leaders' meeting in 2014 would send a bad signal.

10. Keep opening up Brazil

Brazil has undergone an incredible and unprecedented process of internationalization over the past decade. Foreign investment skyrocketed. Never in history have as many Brazilians traveled or studied abroad. The number of foreign tourists, business travelers and exchange students has never been as high. And yet, Brazil remains, in many ways, more isolated than other countries. Far more tourists travel to Argentina than to Brazil. The number of foreign tourists coming to Paris alone exceeds that of visitors to all of Brazil by more than three times. The number of Brazilian students who go abroad remains low by international comparison. The government's growing financial support for exchange programs is thus to be welcomed. Universities should push governments to make recognizing diplomas abroad easier. Following the example of the Brazil-Russia visa waiver deal, visa requirements with other countries (such as the United States) should be eased. Brazil has little to lose and lots to gain from enhancing this international people-to-people diplomacy.

Read also:

International Politics in 2014: Ten Predictions

The Thirteen Most-Read Post-Western World Articles of 2013

Post-Western World’s Books of the Year

2013 Review: Events at the Center for International Relations – FGV

Photo credit: Valter Campanato/ABr