Book review: “Brazil’s Africa Strategy” by Christina Stolte (Latin American Politics and Society)


Book review: Brazil's Africa Strategy. Role Conception and the Drive for International Status. By Christina Stolte. Palgrave, 2015. U$ 100,00 (

Published in: Latin American Politics and Society, Volume 58, Issue 1, pages 156–184, Spring 2016

Brazil's growing diplomatic and economic presence in Africa was one of the defining characteristics of President Lula's foreign policy (2003-2010). Frequent high-level visits, the opening of 20 embassies (bringing the total to 37), strong growth in Brazil-Africa trade (a sixfold increase between 2000 and 2011, rising from US$ 4.2 billion to US$ 27.6 billion) and Brazilian technical assistance to African countries provide strong evidence that strengthening ties with Africa was one of President Lula's international priorities.

Analysts usually offer three explanations for Brazil's decision to focus on Africa. They point to hopes for economic gains, political considerations (Africa has 54 votes in the UN General Assembly), and to a strategy to project and strengthen Brazil's 'African identity', which may help it speak in the name of the Global South. In a new book about Brazil's Africa strategy, Christina Stolte claims that Brazil’s Africa engagement—beyond the seeking of economic benefits and votes from African countries at the UN—is motivated by the aspiration to gain recognition as a great power. Put differently, Brazil has tried to use its neighboring continent as a stage to demonstrate its credentials for great power status.

Contrary to what most readers will expect, Brazil's Africa Strategy is not a story about Brazil's growing influence on the African continent akin to Deborah Brautigam's excellent The Gift of the Dragon (reviewed here), but rather an IR theory book that looks at Brazil's Africa strategy as a relatively brief case study that only appears in the fourth chapter.

Stolte's theoretical discussion deals with broad questions like power and status. Following a popular saying that "it is not the bigger army that wins, but the better story", Stolte argues that

role expectations for Great Powers and aspirants to this status have changed. The Great Power privileges of using force and deciding on the world’s most crucial issues are no longer conquered through violence and military superiority but are earned by persuasion and the demonstration of the worthiness to receive this status. (p.25)

Yet paradoxically, some would say the case of Brazil seems to suggest otherwise. Three examples may illustrate how hard power still matters more than anything else. First, while Brazil decided to sign the NPT in 1998 and become a 'good global citizen', India refused to sign, and tested nuclear weapons in the same year. Today, the United States has not only recognized India's nuclear power status, but it also officially supports India's candidacy for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council -- while it merely 'appreciates' Brazil's desire to join the UNSC on a permanent basis. The second example is Brazil's attempt to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, which was met with broad rejection in the United States, largely because it did not believe Brazil had the legitimacy to negotiate a deal (Stolte herself refers to the case, p.48). The final example is the P3's rejection of Brazil's and India's concerns about the implementation of UNSC Resolution 1973 regarding the intervention in Libya -- a topic which, policy makers in London, Paris and Washington believed, was far too weighty to be discussed with peripheral states like Brazil. The lack of hard power has, some may argue, posed considerable limits on Brasília's great power ambitions. Indeed, Celso Amorim's often repeated argument that "Brazil should no longer ask for permission to act in international relations" very much reflects that frustration.

Dilma Rousseff with Nigeria's former President Goodluck Jonathan

In her historical analysis of Brazilian foreign policy, Stolte embraces, perhaps unwittingly, Paulo Visentini's position that is highly critical of both Fernando Collor and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, accusing them of suffering from a "stray-dog" complex and of adopting a "submissive posture" vis-à-vis the United States. That overlooks that Brazil's position in the 1990s was far weaker, providing only limited room for maneuver, than in 2003, when President Lula adopted a more assertive tone. More recent analyses, such as Matias Spektor's 18 Dias (reviewed here), show that Cardoso's policy towards the United States was far more complex than Stolte or Visentini suggest. Cardoso and Clinton disagreed on a range of issues, including how to handle the war in Colombia and how to react to the coup d'état in Venezuela. 

Brazil's role in Africa remains little understood, so Stolte's book is an important contribution to the debate. Her analysis shows well that by building a stronger presence in Africa, Brazil could develop a narrative that supported the country's bid for global power, constantly mentioning its contribution in helping combat poverty in Africa, and reinforcing the idea that Brazil's development model was a great success and global reference. In that sense, Brazil's foreign aid project can be seen as a way to strengthen the legitimacy and visibility of Brazil's domestic success. Furthermore, as the 'last frontier' of the global economy, penetrating markets in Africa was  far easier for Brazilian companies than more saturated markets in Europe and Asia. 

Since the author did not conduct field research in Africa, however, the book generally relies on information provided by the Brazilian government -- hardly a neutral observer.

Citing Brazil's Development Agency ABC, Stolte reports that

While Brazil already executed 115 cooperation projects in Africa in 2008, their number almost tripled to three hundred until the end of President Lula’s term in 2010. (p.109)

However, there is little certainty about whether official Brazilian rhetoric about successful development projects and anectdotal evidence about how popular Brazilians are in Africa is grounded in reality. It is significant in this context that Brazil has not signed on to the major international agreements on aid effectiveness. No systematic study exists, until today, about the actual impact of Brazilian development projects or large-scale investments. This general ignorance is aggravated by the fact that Brazilian newspapers possess only an extremely limited number of international correspondents and journalists with the time to conduct serious investigative work. Finally, there is no formal training for development project managers in Brazil, and universities have yet to offer specialized courses.

The same applies to Brazil's Foreign Ministry. There is no doubt that President Lula and his Foreign Minister frequently traveled to Africa and spoke about the issue even more often. Yet did their activism 'trickle down' to the embassy level? Did Ambassadors in key African countries receive detailed instructions on how to turn Brazil's new strategy into a reality, and did they implement it? The case of IBSA, a trilateral grouping, suggests caution: Despite being Celso Amorim's pet project, the number of Brazilian diplomats in Delhi and Pretoria did not increase. Today, a decade after the creation of the grouping, being sent to the Brazilian Embassy in India is still regarded by many as a punishment rather than a reward.

In the same way, the data presented in the book does not include Brazil's diplomatic retreat over the past years, thus offering only an incomplete picture. While the author mentions Rousseff's more passive stance, Stolte only provides aid data up to 2009 (p.76) or 2010 (p.108). Still, for those studying Brazil's engagement in Africa under President Lula, the book offers a lot of useful information and an interesting interpretation about this important episode. Future analyses need to take more recent data into consideration, which suggest that Brazil's diplomatic and economic expansion in Africa was not yet institutionalized enough to withstand an economic crisis and a President who cared little about foreign policy. Furthermore, as Brazil itself is facing questions about the sustainability of its development model, it remains to be seen how easily its technical assistance can adapt and apply successful domestic policies abroad.

Read also:

What is Brazil doing in Africa?

Brazil in Africa – Bridging the Atlantic? (International Reports)

Why Africa matters to Brazil

Photo credit: Roberto Stuckert Filho