Brazil’s Foreign Policy under Dilma Rousseff: Retreat or Normalization?

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I thank professor Dawisson Belém Lopes for this thoughtful comments ("Recuo estratégico ou normalização da curva?", 17/03) on my previous article in Folha de São Paulo ("O risco do recuo estratégico brasileiro", 10/03), in which I argue that Brazil's diplomatic retreat over the past years is bad both for Brazil's national interest and the international community's capacity to address global challenges.

My initial argument was twofold. First of all, I contended that an active foreign policy is not at odds with a focus on fixing domestic problems Brazil nowadays confronts - quite to the contrary, it should be a key part of its overall strategy. Secondly, I wrote that we can no longer afford to live in a world in which only a few established powers have global diplomatic networks that provide them with access to privileged information on the ground, allowing them to dominate the debate about key issues such as terrorism, humanitarian intervention and nuclear proliferation.

In his response, Belém Lopes first points out that the traditional actors of a country's foreign policy - diplomats - are gradually being eclipsed by new actors such as NGOs, churches, private companies and subnational actors. In addition, he points to a trend of presidentialization of Brazilian foreign policy, and a growing number of ministries which directly engage internationally, inevitably reducing the Foreign Ministry's importance.

I certainly agree that diplomats are far from being the only actors who craft a country's foreign policy - the private sector, NGOs and citizens are important as well. In fact, as I have often argued, our vibrant civil society is a key asset as Brazil seeks to play a greater role in the world. Yet a strong Foreign Ministry remains indispensable for any country that seeks to strengthen its role in global affairs. Take the examples of China and Afghanistan. Without a large, agile and well-connected embassy in Beijing, Brazilian companies will not be able to thrive in China. Without a embassy in Kabul, Brazil will never be more than a backbencher during UN debates about the future of Afghanistan. This undermines the legitimacy of Brazil's calls for reforming international institutions such as the UN Security Council (UNSC).

More importantly, however, Belém Lopes writes that Rousseff, while traveling far less frequently than Lula da Silva, her predecessor, is on the road more often than Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002), making her less of an outlier than I had implied. Instead, the author suggests that Lula da Silva's expansive foreign policy (2003-2010) will be seen as an outlier, and that Rousseff is merely "bringing it back to normal."

It is important to point out here that the author does not address or comment on my argument that Brazil's retreat is bad for the country's national interest. Rather, what his text suggests is that there is no retreat to begin with, merely a corrective measure to undo Lula's expansion.

There is some truth to this claim, and even supporters of Lula's foreign policy recognize that his strong activism and expansion could not go on forever. Yet, I disagree with the idea that Brazil's foreign policy could safely go, even if the President wanted, "back to normal", simply because the Brazil led by Fernando Henrique Cardoso of the 1990s no longer exists.

Today, Brazil leads peacekeeping troops in Haiti. It has sponsored a web of new regional institutions. It has large-scale economic interests in Africa, having turned, in several countries, into a key investor and donor of both development and humanitarian aid. The BRICS and the G20, both of which Brazil is a member, have turned into fixtures in the international landscape. Brazil has turned into the world's 7th largest economy, and its most important trading partner is located in a region policy makers in Brasília traditionally know little about. Brazil's international responsibilities are far greater today that they were at any time in history.

In the same way, today's global order no longer resemble that of the late 1990s, when French foreign minister Hubert Védrine famously described the United States as a "hyperpower", and few doubted or disputed the G7's control over the international debate. Today, the G7's incapacity to solve global challenges alonehas long been accepted. The dramatic failures of addressing issues like climate change, financial volatility and human rights violations over the past decades are clear indicators that actors such as China, India and Brazil must contribute to finding meaningful solutions - strongly contrasting the global scenario of the late 20th century.

Reducing Brazil's diplomatic footprint, considering the closure of embassies, excessively limiting the Foreign Ministers' room for manoeuvre and staying away from important global security gatherings may be described by some as "a normalization of the curve". Yet pursuing such a strategy is far riskier than its name suggests. Considering how much both Brazil and the world have changed since the beginning of the 21st century, "retreat" is a more adequate way to describe Brazil's current foreign policy strategy.

Read also:

Brazilian foreign policy: Game over?

The Case against Brazil’s Retrenchment

Munich Security Conference: Brazil’s No-Show

Is Brazil abandoning its global ambitions?

Photo credit: Wilson Dias/Agência Brasil