Can Mauro Vieira rescue Brazil’s foreign policy?

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Mauro Vieira is a lucky man. Since yesterday, he occupies one the most coveted positions in the foreign policy world. Free from immediate security challenges in the neighborhood or complex military entanglements in far-away places, the Brazilian foreign minister has the opportunity and considerable authority to weigh in on virtually any international challenge. Brazil’s stable and vibrant democratic regime, no colonizer's past, one of the world's most diverse populations, considerable soft power and a unique capacity to engage with both Western and non-Western actors generates far more room for maneuver than most other governments possess. Even in issues the country has only a limited foreign-policy track record, such as humanitarian intervention or nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, Brazil can easily turn into a global agenda setter. In addition, Vieira heads the most nimble and qualified ministry of the entire government, a concentration of human talent few other Foreign Ministers have access to. Contrary to the US Secretary of State, who must accept often slow-witted donors as Ambassadors, Brazil’s Foreign Minister can handpick his top diplomats largely free from political interference from abroad. Finally, traditional powers’ difficulty in adapting to multipolarization and the need for new ideas in international affairs generates a world of opportunity for Brazil’s Foreign Minister.

And yet, paradoxically, few are likely to envy Vieira for his new position. After sixteen years of activism, Brazil’s foreign policy since 2011 fell victim to a President who cares little about diplomacy and who does not consider international affairs a useful element of her overall national strategy. The Foreign Ministry has suffered large budget cuts that dramatically reduce its capacity to engage internationally, generating strong criticism from both inside and outside of Itamaraty. Even the President’s staunchest supporters seek to change the subject when asked about the state of Brazil’s foreign policy.

There is little doubt that the new Foreign Minister is a highly qualified diplomat, having headed Brazil’s two most important embassies, in Buenos Aires and Washington, D.C., the latter at a time of considerable upheaval in US-Brazil relations. Yet Vieira’s most formidable challenge has little to do with international politics. Rather, he needs to establish a direct channel of communication with the President that does not involve Aloízio Mercadante, her powerful chief of staff who has taken a liking to dabbling in foreign policy and reducing the Foreign Minister’s influence. Possibly in an early attempt to reaffirm his authority over foreign policy, it was Mercadante who spoke to the media about Dilma Rousseff’s next trip to the United States, not Mauro Vieira.

As every crisis, today’s situation represents an opportunity. The only way to convince the President of Itamaraty’s importance will be to show that the Ministry can help in achieving her overall policy goals – only then will he be able to solve the current budgetary restrictions and boost morale among Brazil’s diplomats. Generating broader support among public opinion makers for a stronger foreign policy will also help convince Dilma Rousseff that change is urgently needed. Success would help protect Brazilian foreign policy in the long term from the whims of future Presidents oblivious to international affairs. Vieira has his work cut out.

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Photo credit: Lenin Nolly/Efe