Brazilian Foreign Policy: Is There Room for Activism in Times of Hardship?


dilma rousseff

Last week, FGV's Center of International Relations, in cooperation with the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), invited a group of leading academics, journalists, activists and diplomats to São Paulo to discuss possible Brazilian contributions to challenges to international peace and security during Dilma Rousseff's second term (2015-2018). The policy-oriented discussion touched upon cases of Brazilian leadership in the past years -- such as Lula's 2010 attempt to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran ("Lula’s Weekend Trip to Tehran: Worth a Try") or Brazil's Responsibility While Protecting (RwP) concept, proposed in 2011. What motivated Brazil to assume leadership, how did outside factors help or hinder the country's strategy, and what are the lessons learned from past engagements? Can Brazil continue to play an active role considering its stagnating economy, uninspiring president, political crisis and a Foreign Ministry hamstrung by budget cuts? 

Despite all these constraints, Brazil currently makes some contribution to dealing with international security challenges: The UN Peacebuilding Commission is chaired by Antonio Patriota, and MINUSTAH in Haiti is led by Brazil. Brazil's General Carlos Alberto Santos Cruz is the incumbent force commander of the MONUSCO mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, perhaps the most challenging mission in the history of the United Nations. Brazil plays a role in the global discussion about internet freedom ("Can Brazil assume leadership in the debate about internet governance?") and it is one of the few developing countries with a global network of embassies, capable of providing a unique perspective. Still, several speakers voiced frustration at Brazil's passive stance when it comes to key international security challenges -- including the crisis in Ukraine, Ebola, ISIS, or a fast-developing global discussion about cyberspace. In the same way, one discussant bemoaned Brazil's failure to specify concepts such as "benign multipolarity" further, saying they contributed little to understanding the challenges and opportunities Brazil faced in times of multipolarization.

Interestingly enough, there was no consensus among participants about whether Brazil should or could assume a more prominent role vis-à-vis international security challenges.

One participant pointed to the advantages of not playing a leadership role in security affairs, arguing that achievements such as General Santos Cruz's appointment would have been far more difficult if Brazil was a permanent member of the UN Security Council. ("Brazil and UN Security Council reform: Is it time for another big push?") Another questioned the wisdom of Brazil seeking to play a more prominent role in international security issues, saying the country's national interests did not demand a global role at this point.

Similar disagreement emerged regarding what Brazilian foreign policy could achieve in the next four years, considering the toxic combination of a disinterested president and brutal budget cuts that greatly limit Itamaraty's scope for action. While some argued that the budget cuts forbade any meaningful initiatives over the next four years, others pointed out that austerity measures alone cannot justify inaction: After all, the decisions to stay away from key debates around Syria, the Munich Security Conference, or the 10th anniversary of the IBSA grouping in 2013 ("Is IBSA dead?") had little to do with financial constraints. In the same way, key initiatives such as Lula's decision to negotiate with Iran, the RwP proposal or the 2014 NetMundial conference barely cost anything and could, from a budget perspective, be easily repeated or continued today.

Furthermore, merely looking at Itamaraty's budget fails to take into account the many other international activities financed by the government, including Brazil's National Development Bank (BNDES) and the recently created New Development Bank (NDB), key elements of Brazil's foreign policy, and other ministries' international projects (such as the Ministry of Defense), which are often overlooked -- a complete analysis of Brazil's foreign policy should focus on the options these projects offer as well.

In the same way, one participant argued that past experience shows that Brazilian diplomats have been able to design shrewd policies in times of financial hardship and lackluster presidential leadership. For example, under President Figueiredo (1979-1985), Brazil stumbled from one economic crisis into the next, the president cared as little about foreign policy as Dilma Rousseff, and Itamaraty faced considerable financial constraints. And still, a small group of diplomats was able to implement a series of formidable new strategies both vis-à-vis its neighborhood and towards Africa. Brazil initiated a rapprochement with Argentina that would later transform the continent. For the first time, Brazil developed a clear policy towards neighboring countries in the Northwest, and Itamaraty convinced Figueiredo to become Brazil's first president ever to visit Colombia. If planned carefully, it seems, there may be some space for an active and innovative foreign policy during President Rousseff's second term.

Read also:

What would Lula’s return mean for Brazilian foreign policy?

Brazil’s missing voice at the Munich Security Conference

Can Mauro Vieira rescue Brazil’s foreign policy?

Brazilian Foreign Policy: Into the Dark

Photo credit: Evaristo Sá/AFP/VEJA