The Case against Brazil’s Retrenchment

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maria luiza viotti Brazil President

Ambassador Viotti, Permanent Representative of Brazil to the UN (2007-2013)

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Those who argue that Brazil's global ambitions are misguided and a waste of resources at a time of domestic economic difficulties should recognize that Brazil's retreat would damage both its strategic and economic interests. More importantly, it would weaken the coalition of those countries with an active interest in reforming global governance to assure that today's institutions maintain their legitimacy and effectiveness by adapting to a new balance of power. 

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During a recent intensive two-week undergraduate seminar on China, India, Brazil and the future of global governance, I asked my students to write a policy memo to Brazil's Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado about Brazil's strategy to obtain a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Rather notably (and quite certainly to the Foreign Minister's dismay had he received the memos), all students - several of whom aspire to become diplomats upon graduation - argued that Brazil should no longer pursue a permanent UNSC seat. For the first time in years (I regularly use this case study since 2008), not a single student recommended launching a new campaign similar to that in 2005, when the G4 proposal was almost put to the vote in the UN General Assembly. 

Granted, the class took place during the horrid revelations about human rights violations in Brazil's prison system, which led several students to argue that Brazil should focus on domestic issues rather than engage internationally. In a way, it is precisely this line of argument that has led President Rousseff to reverse her predecessor's active foreign policy.

Notably, many regard Brazil's global engagement of the past decade as a dispensable elite-driven activity of no importance to the lives of common citizens. Commenting on my recent article about the importance of Brazilian embassies in global trouble spots (Brazilian foreign policy: Game over?), one person wrote (representative of many other messages I received):

(...) these 140 embassies are a total waste of public funds – they add no value to the country. They are good for those inside the “gravy train”, but very bad for the taxpayer. Brazil needs to concentrate on good governance, internal reforms and forget this ridiculous fantasy of being a “global player”. Brazil already offers little to its own citizens… it has absolutely nothing to offer to other countries.

Yet arguing that a strong foreign policy is at odds with addressing domestic challenges is both wrong and short-sighted on two counts.

First of all, an active Brazilian foreign policy does not involve large military deployments abroad and security commitments that may pull it into costly faraway conflicts - as is the case with the United States. Maintaining a broad diplomatic network and an active role in international negotiations and debates is a low-cost affair. Furthermore, it can be conducted by the Foreign Minister - provided that he enjoys the autonomy and the President's trust necessary to stick his neck out - and thus consumes only a limited amount of the President's time and attention.

Secondly, and more importantly, an active foreign policy is not at odds with a focus on fixing domestic problems. Quite to the contrary, it is an essential and necessary tool when addressing those challenges. Advancing multilateral trade negotiations (affecting Brazilian agriculture), promoting democracy in neighboring Paraguay (assuring Brazil's energy security) and regional integration (trafficking of arms, drugs and humans, border security), are profoundly intertwined with national interests that affect citizens' daily lives. More indirectly related to, but no less important for, Brazil's national interest are issues such as promoting peace in Afghanistan (global terrorism), peace in the Middle East (global energy prices), and climate change negotiations.

The Foreign Ministry’s yearly budget is so small compared to that of other Ministries that it would be misguided to single out Itamaraty as an example of public waste in Brazil. Those who argue that diplomats accept living in Baghdad, Pyongyang or Kinshasa (it is in places like these were the new embassies are) for financial gain are unaware of the hardships such an assignment entails. There are many easier ways to become a public sector fat cat.

Still, the comment points to an important debate: How do we assess and measure the benefits of our foreign policy? How does opening an embassy in a small country far away from Brazil serve our national interest? Which countries should have a global diplomatic network, and which should not? Unless it wants to lose all relevance in the hostile climate during Rousseff's likely second term, the Foreign Ministry must do more to answer these very important questions in a clearer and more direct way.

Yet there is an important argument in support of an internationally active Brazil that goes beyond its national interest. During the first decade after the Cold War, only very few rich countries maintained embassies all over the world. As a consequence, these countries (let’s call them G7) had access to privileged information on the ground – in key strategic regions like Afghanistan, the DRC, North Korea and Rwanda. As a consequence, those countries dominated the debate about these countries and shaped the way the global community thought about key issues such as terrorism, humanitarian intervention and nuclear proliferation. The effects are clearly visible today: In the UNSC, permanent members speak with much greater authority on many global issues because they possess more knowledge (and because they have more specialists who excel at interpreting the politics of the UNSC). "It takes a lot of courage to challenge a permanent member head-on during a debate at the UNSC", a former Brazilian Foreign Minister once said.

Unless countries like Brazil increase their diplomatic network, they will be automatically cut off from crucial debates about many major international issues - and its calls for reforming international institutions will ring hollow. Our global debate today is out of balance, and we can no longer solve global challenge by merely relying on a few countries' wisdom. The dramatic failures of addressing issues like climate change, financial volatility and human rights violations over the past decades are clear indicators that new actors must contribute to finding meaningful solutions.

Making that clear to both the President and the public is perhaps most important. After all, Dilma Rousseff’s main motivation for strategic retreat is not that Brazil’s foreign policy is currently too expensive. Rather, taking the lead in the debate about internet governance, sending the Foreign Minister to participate in a very important peace conference or developing new ideas about how to use the BRICS grouping are decisions that do not cost any public money. But supporting them requires trust and confidence in Brazil’s capacity to positively contribute to the global debate and defend its national interest – as it has done many times in the past.

Read also:

Brazil and UN Security Council reform: Is it time for another big push? 

Can Itamaraty engage civil society?

How many diplomats does an emerging power need?

Should Brazil have an embassy in North Korea?

Photo credit: Paulo Yokota/Asia Comentada