Brazil’s Hesitant BRICS Summit Preparation // http://www.brics6.com.br Still Offline

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Two months from now, the leaders of five major powers from the Global South are set to meet in Fortaleza for the 6th BRICS Summit.

It is Brazil's chance to reaffirm its commitment to playing a pro-active role in global affairs. In addition, if the Brazilian government succeeds in organizing a well-attended BRICS-UNASUR meeting the day after the BRICS Summit, it will powerfully symbolize Brazil's convening power and regional leadership ambitions.

Yet preparations seem to be somewhat hesitant, if not lackluster.

The circumstances are, admittedly, far from ideal. Brazil is bracing for an increasingly tight election battle and large sports events largely viewed negatively by voters, reducing the small space foreign policy traditionally occupies in the public debate even further. Gay rights groups and human rights organizations are to openly criticize the government for hosting President Putin. Organizing a multilateral summit (with more than 1000 journalists present) two days after the end of the World Cup is a logistical nightmare and Fortaleza is hardly the ideal place for the event, particularly since it will still be full of World Cup tourists.

Furthermore, it seems unclear whether the Foreign Ministry, politically distant from the President's inner-circle and currently dealing with one of the most drastic budget cuts in recent history, can convince President Rousseff of the meeting's great importance. Brazil's current leader is said to have little patience for and limited interest in international diplomacy.

External factors also influence negatively. Tensions between Russia and the West will lend the summit a strong geopolitical connotation that Brazil may be uncomfortable with. South Africa's President Zuma is increasingly seen as the major obstacle to South Africa's quest for greater prosperity. The only positive aspect may be that the BRICS Summit will be the first international trip of India's new Prime Minister, and thus a chance to lend the encounter a whiff of dynamism and optimism that Brazil, Russia and South Africa so clearly lack at this moment. Interestingly enough, Narendra Modi, who recently said he has “no interest in visiting America other than to attend the UN in New York”, may exacerbate the anti-American tone at the summit.

Yet the Brazilian government could have done more to generate at least some excitement about the meeting. The government organized an academic event in Rio de Janeiro in March and an info session in late April in Fortaleza, the first of which included a series of academics from the other BRICS countries. Both initiatives are laudable, particularly because they sought to engage the public. 

Yet while South Africa created a relatively useful website and a social media presence prior to the 5th Summit in Durban in 2013, the upcoming 6th BRICS Summit has virtually no online presence at all. When searching for the term "BRICS" on the Foreign Ministry's website, 347 (very interesting) results come up, yet none is about the 6th BRICS Summit. Brazil is thus missing the chance to establish a convincing narrative about the summit.

A growing number of journalists complains that there still does not appear to be a website for the event for international media to register. Even NETmundial, an ad hoc summit about the future of internet governance organized in São Paulo in April, had a good website and even a twitter presence.

Engaging the public both at home and abroad is crucial particularly because the majority of Brazilians does not know what the BRICS grouping is. More worryingly still, those who have heard of the concept are deeply skeptical. Public diplomacy is no panacea and its impact should never be overestimated, but a series of op-eds by the Foreign Minister in all BRICS countries, perhaps a TED Talk, a solid summit website and a strong presence on Facebook and Twitter would be helpful to engage civil society - both in Brazil and elsewhere - and start a debate about what the BRICS grouping is all about. This may also help demystify and clarify the concept in Europe and the United States, where the BRICS grouping is often thought of either as an investment category it was more than a decade ago or an alliance determined to overthrow global order.

Photo credit: Alexei Nikolsky/AP

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