Brazil’s next government must reassert its global role

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Two and a half decades after the end of the Cold War, global order remains fundamentally unipolar. Yet paradoxically, neither US economic nor military dominance are the decisive factors. The global economy is multipolar, and while the United States military budget still makes up almost half of global military spending, the world has witnessed the clear limits of US military power during recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rather, unipolarity is still a reality because the West - led by the United States - is still able to set the agenda in the international debate and engage on a global scale. Setting the agenda is the result of initiating, legitimizing and successfully advocating a specific policy issue - in the economic, security, or any other realm.

Just consider three big issues that dominate current affairs -- Ukraine, ISIS and Ebola. Where do the ideas come from that shape the way we think and act upon these challenges? What have policy makers in Brasília, New Delhi and Beijing recently said about their countries' role in providing tangible solutions, and how have those views affected global opinion and policy?

International agenda setting is an arduous and uncertain process. It requires a specific combination of factors. The first is brain power - the intellectual capital to develop an innovative initiative or response capable of helping the international community address a global challenge. Second, it requires a national leader willing to invest political capital. The President or Prime Minister does not have to be actively involved in promoting the idea or strategy, but he or she must provide the foreign minister with the certainty that the initiative will not be withdrawn at the first sign of resistance or criticism. Third, it requires some international credibility. That is not a matter of hard power - small countries such as Norway have succeeded in setting the agenda on specific issues- yet the initiative's backer must have the necessary standing - e.g., a successful domestic model of addressing the issue - to be seen as legitimate. Finally, it needs the logistical diplomatic structure to promote the initiative on a global scale. That requires fine-tuning global communication, involving embassies around the world, identifying allies early in the process, anticipating where resistance will emerge, and engaging global public opinion. It also involves policy makers and diplomats responding the media enquiries and writing convincing op-eds, as well as going on local TV to promote the idea. At home, it requires engaging opinion-makers, academics and journalists to seminars to explain and defend the idea. Yet notably, it does not necessarily require economic or military power.

Under Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula, Brazil did, in several instances, seek to set the agenda. In the 1990s, Brazil began to assume regional leadership and actively defended democratic governance in the region. Under President Lula, Brazil engaged in the Middle East, in a bid to show that addressing the world's most complex geopolitical conflict should not be a task limited to traditional powers alone. Celso Amorim defended the Tehran Declaration in the international media, writing op-eds in the New York Times ("Giving Diplomacy a Chance" and "Let's Hear From the New Kids on the Block"). The Tehran Declaration ultimately failed, partly because the United States felt Brazil had not properly consulted with decision-makers in Washington, DC. Even in Brazil, skepticism prevailed. Yet in many ways, Brazil's move was a powerful signal that established powers no longer held a monopoly on addressing the world's greatest problems. Policy makers in India and South Africa privately expressed deep admiration for Brazil's initiative.

Lula's successor could have built on this track record - learning from Brazil's initial mistakes, proposing new initiatives, and convincing other emerging powers such as India, Indonesia, Colombia and Nigeria to follow suit. The Responsibility while Protecting (RwP) initiative gave observers hope that Dilma Rousseff would continue to engage internationally. Yet the President failed to empower her Foreign Minister to go on a global tour to promote the idea. Compared to Celso Amorim, who constantly visited the Middle East, Brazil has been largely absent from the region since 2011. The same can be said about Africa. Rousseff's cancellation of a state visit to Washington DC and her decision to organize a global summit on internet governance were laudable, but both were the result of domestic dynamics, and not genuine foreign policy initiatives. Over the past four years, Brazil has assumed the initiative far less often than between 1995 and 2010. Worst of all, it at times allowed other, smaller actors in the region to take the lead, such as in 2012, when Argentina's President Kirchner insisted on punishing Paraguay for fear of losing power at home.

Dilma Rousseff may have a personal interest in foreign policy, yet she declined to adopt a pro-active strategy over the past four years, and the Foreign Ministry has suffered dramatic budget cuts. The consequences of this passive stance have been negative both for Brazil's national interest and for the international community's capacity to effectively address global challenges.

Brazil's next government must therefore rediscover international activism. That not only includes contributing to solving global challenges - such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa - but also putting new ideas and issues on the table that the traditional agenda-setters are neglecting.

Take the climate crisis, which international leaders have so far utterly failed to address in a meaningful way. The election of Marina Silva would make her the world's first environmental leader turned President - and could easily turn her into a global spokesperson on the matter. Equipped with a set of innovative policy proposals and a politically empowered Minister of the Environment, Brazil could turn into a key actor, an internationally visible agenda-setter capable of generating international momentum on the issue. Yet even a second Rousseff government could turn into a more active voice, if only she decided to emphasize foreign policy as much as her predecessors did.

Critics may ask why Brazil should assume international leadership in the first place. Why not let established powers address the world's most pressing problems? Such an attitude is short-sighted and dangerous for two reasons. First, the past decades have shown that rich countries are unable to solve key challenges on their own. Abdicating responsibility in times like these amounts to leaving the future of humanity in the hands of a small group of actors that lack legitimacy (and often expertise) to take any meaningful steps. Secondly, assuming thought leadership strengthens a state's legitimacy and prestige, allowing it to influence international rules and norms according to its interests. Agenda setting, in short, can be motivated by a commitment to global norms and by self-interest.

Pointing to Brazil's limited economic or military power, or to domestic problems, increasingly rings hollow in a world where influence is often not based on raw power, but on persuasion and innovative ideas. Brazil's next President should therefore use the first months in office to articulate Brazil's regional and global vision -- and a detailed plan of how to implement it.

Read also: 

Is Brazil abandoning its global ambitions?

Brazilian foreign policy: Game over?

The Case against Brazil’s Retrenchment

Munich Security Conference: Brazil’s No-Show

Photo credit: Reuters/Reuters