Book chapter: Brazil, South American Regionalism and Re-defining the ‘Atlantic Space’



Laying the Brics of a New Global Order. from Yekaterinburg 2009 to Ethekwini 2013, by Francis a. Kornegay (Editor), Narnia Bohler-Muller (Editor), Africa Institute of South Africa (21 Oct 2013), 480 pages. U$ 51.26 (paperback,

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Book chapter: Brazil, South American Regionalism and Re-defining the 'Atlantic Space'

by Oliver Stuenkel


Brazil’s economic rise over the past two decades has caused the country’s foreign policy making elite to seek a more prominent role for Brazil in the international community. On a global scale, it has sought to assume more responsibility and engage in international institutions, often criticizing established powers for not providing it with the status it deserves. Brazil’s newfound status has also caused Brazilian governments to reassess its regional role, although Brazil remains ambivalent about which strategy to adopt in South America. There is clearly a gap between Brazil’s global ambitions and its reluctance to adopt a more assertive role in its region. The country’s strategy in the region remains indecisive, combining restrained support for Mercosur, the creation of the Union of South American States (UNASUR) and the South American Defense Council (CSD) with a growing notion that a clearer vision is necessary to mitigate neighbor’s fears of a rising Brazil. Brazilian policy makers disagree on how they should characterize and understand their region – some see it as a source of problems, some as a shield against globalization, and some as a launching pad for global power. Brazil’s self-perception as a ‘BRICS country’ has fueled worries that it will pay little attention to regional matters (given that its trade interdependence with the region is far lower, percentage-wise, than that of its neighbors), causing critics of Brazil’s global focus to call it a ‘leader without followers’.

While Brazil has kept UNASUR relatively toothless, its decision to exclude Central America and Mexico from this institution is a clear sign that policy makers in Brasília have defined South America as Brazil’s immediate sphere of influence. With the majority of the continent’s landmass, population and economic output, and Venezuela’s faltering attempts to turn into a second pole, it is largely up to Brazil to define and design ‘South American Regionalism’. Brazil thus in theory holds a key coordinating role regarding important regional challenges, ranging from China’s growing economic importance, poverty, inequality, integrating the economy and security threats such as drug trafficking and smuggling.

Analogous to Brazil’s growing role on the continent, it is bound to play a larger role in the South Atlantic (at times called “Blue Amazon" in Brazil), and it has resisted attempts made by Europe and the United States to create one single Atlantic Space. Both Brazil’s and South Africa’s rise, but also West Africa’s and Angola’s increasingly prominent role as an energy provider will increase the South Atlantic’s strategic significance. Conscious of this shift, Brazil is interested in defining a separate South Atlantic Security Space, it has chosen Africa as a strategic priority, and it is developing a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. As ever larger ships can no longer pass through the Suez Canal, one can expect to see a revival of the Cape of Good Hope route, which could be controlled by Brazil and South Africa, but they still lack the capacity to control the area. At the same time, piracy has turned into a global problem that requires a concerted effort. As a consequence, security has emerged as a topic during IBSA summits, largely in the context of large scale oil findings off the Brazilian coast, thus causing Brazil to increasingly regard control and defense of the South Atlantic Space as its national interest.

This chapter will elaborate on how Brazil thinks about South America and the South Atlantic Space, how it will seek to shape the creation of a South American and a South Atlantic identity, and how this may affect the geopolitical dynamics in the region.

Brazil, regional hegemon?

Given its dominant role, it is no exaggeration to argue that Brazil seems destined to lead South America. The truth, however, is more complex. Brazil paid little attention to its neighbors during most of the Cold War, and severe domestic problems kept the country from adopting a more assertive international role. In the 1980s, Brazilian foreign policy makers perceived the necessity to engage with its neighbors, principally its rival Argentina, a trend that continued and strengthened throughout the 1990s. At the beginning of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s first term, the President began to articulate a vision that fundamentally diverged from Brazil’s traditional perspective – a vision that identified “South America” as a top priority. This trend has continued ever since, and was intensified under Cardoso’s successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Over the past years, as Brazil’s economic rise caught the world’s attention, the region has firmly stood at the center of Brazil’s foreign policy strategy. This trend continues under Brazil’s current administration: President Rousseff’s first international trip as President, in 2011, was to Argentina. The last fifteen years thus stand in stark contrast to Brazilian foreign policy tradition. Until 1981, no Brazilian President had ever visited Peru or Colombia. What further facilitated Brazil’s growing presence in the region was a power vacuum as the United States largely lost interest in South America as its strategic focus shifted to the Middle East and Central Asia in the so-called ‘War on Terror’.

Yet despite a growing capacity to engage in the global discourse, Brazil’s regional leadership remains restrained and ambivalent. As a consequence, Brazil lacks “endorsement from the region”, as Vieira and Alden put it. As Spektor points out, Brazil is reluctant to promote regional institutions that profoundly limit national sovereignty, as is the case in the European Union.

In order to better grasp Brazil’s regional strategy, it is useful to distinguish three different ways Brazil interprets the region: As an opportunity, as a source of problems, and as a launch pad for global power.

The region as an opportunity

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 who were 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. Brazilian investment in South America has increased significantly over the past years. In a similar vein, Matias Spektor has argued that Brazil may see the region as a shield – for example against potentially dangerous competition through globalization (e.g., the rise of China). The region can, according to this view, protect Brazil’s economy from external shocks.

In order to further integrate the region economically, Brazil has taken the lead in creating regional institutions such as Mercosur and UNASUR, but they remain superficial and do not reduce their members’ sovereignty. For example, neither UNASUR nor Mercosur meaningfully intervene in its members’ domestic affairs, such as when elaborating the national budget.

The region as a source of problems and concerns

As the classic geopolitical discourse about the menace of communist subversion and capitalist imperialism has vanished, other threats such as environmental degradation, drug trafficking and the violence and crime it brings with it have emerged. Rather than merely the strength of other states, the weakness of others is now a threat, as weak nations may not be able to provide basic levels of public order. For example, the violence and chaos that ensues in Bolivia could spill into Brazilian territory, and it may scare away investors who contemplate engaging in Brazil. Brazil is strong and getting stronger – but its neighbors are weak and some appear to be getting weaker. It is within this context that Brazil faces its biggest security challenges. While Brazil has solved all its border disputes, there remains a threat for interstate conflict in South America, as all countries in South America except Brazil have some sort of border dispute with at least one neighbor. While the Southern Cone has resolved most of its security issues,..

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