Brazil’s top 10 foreign policy challenges in 2016




Disclaimer: Selecting merely ten issues from the multitude of foreign policy challenges Brazil faces is, of course, a rather impossible task, and bound to omit crucial topics. This list therefore does not claim to be complete (it does not contemplate key topics such as the environment, development aid and non-proliferation), but seeks to stimulate the debate about an exciting and very challenging year ahead. Comments (preferably of the critical sort) are, as usual, most welcome.


1. Help fix the economy

Brazil's economy is in tatters and no foreign policy in the world could fix it without profound domestic reforms -- and yet, a wisely designed foreign policy can make an important contribution. That implies reviving Mercosur and actively pursuing free-trade agreements (see #5), making BNDES' foreign lending more transparent and effective, and clearly articulating to international investors how Brazil seeks to get our of the economic mess (a plan to move up 30 spots in the World Bank's Doing Business Ranking would be a good start). It also includes aggressively seeking funding from the BRICS-led New Development Bank, restarting the scholarship program for Brazilian students abroad (but limiting it to engineers), facilitating immigration rules and actively attract skilled migrants (from places like Syria) and slashing cumbersome visa rules to increase the number of foreign tourists.

2. Reclaim regional leadership

Nothing symbolizes Brazilian foreign policy's lost dynamism better than Brasília's passive and aloof regional policy. Where does the Brazilian President see the region in five, ten or twenty years? What is Brazil's "regional project", and how should it be implemented? Does it seek to set the regional agenda in any meaningful way? While Brazil pursued a pro-active regional policy under both Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula, few in the region today understand what Brazil wants. This does not mean Brazil has to impose its views, far from it. However, it is the only country in the region with sufficient convocatory power to articulate an inclusive vision and generate momentum to pursue it. Over the past years, there have been some reasons for optimism. For example, Brazil invited the region's leaders to meet Xi Jinping, who had come to Brazil for the 6th BRICS Summit, which could have been the beginning of a systematic dialogue between leaders in the region about how to deal with the rise of China. Brazil could take the initiative far more frequently, as it has done in the past -- for example by building the South American Defense Council. 

3. Put human rights and democracy back on the agenda

As President-elect, in December 2010, Dilma Rousseff called Iran's policy of stoning women convicted of adultery "medieval", generating hopes  that Brazil would take a clearer stance on human rights violations around the world. Even Brazilian senior diplomats took her comment as a green light to criticize abuses elsewhere. Yet only days later, the Foreign Ministry received a stern warning from Rousseff's advisor Marco Aurélio Garcia not to mention human rights issues in Cuba and Venezuela without the President's authorization. If any country in the region could have effectively dealt with the democratic crisis in Venezuela, it is Brazil. However, Brasília provided President Maduro with a blank cheque to go after his political opponents, control the media and the judiciary, without having to fear international censure.

4. Recover Brazil's lost voice vis-à-vis global challenges

When it comes to the dominant themes in global affairs over the past twelve months, such as the rise of the Islamic State, the global refugee crisis or the ongoing civil war in Ukraine, Brazil has rarely gone beyond the role of a bystander, ceding airtime to traditional powers. Yet Brasília could be far more pro-active in the global discussion about how to effectively address the challenges listed above, and positively influence dynamics -- as it has done, in the past years, regarding humanitarian intervention, internet governance, peacekeeping, conflict resolution and defending democracy. That requires, first of all, being in the room when such things are discussed -- such as at the yearly Munich Security Conference, where Brazil has been conspicuously absent in the past years. Our global debate today is out of balance, and we can no longer solve global challenge by merely relying on a few countries' wisdom. The dramatic failures of addressing key challenges over the past decades are clear indicators that new actors must contribute to finding meaningful solutions.

5. Pursue more free-trade agreements

In the past decade and a half, hundreds trade deals were registered at the WTO. Mercosur, for its part, signed just a handful, with markets of limited importance. Trade talks between the EU and Mercosur are incredibly difficult, having started 15 years ago. They stalled over similar issues to those which made the WTO negotiations so complex: European unwillingness to expose its protected farmers to competition and South American desire to shelter industry from high-quality imports. Yet in Brazil, a growing number of stakeholders supports trade agreements not only with Europe but also with the United States, arguing that Brazil’s industry could compete on equal terms if the government reduced the long-standing “Brazil cost” by facilitating tax rules and improving infrastructure. As big regional negotiations such as one between the EU and United States advance (and trade across the Pacific will be transformed by the TPP), one cannot but notice the prospect of a world divided into trade blocs. Together with Argentina, Brazil should change gears and adapt to this new reality.

6. Convince the President, Congress and the public that foreign policy matters

Mauro Vieira has succeeded in addressing the most immediate internal challenges at the Foreign Ministry (such as boosting troop morale) since taking over a year ago. He must now continue, even at time of extreme austerity, to convince both the President and Congress that Itamaraty requires more, not fewer resources. As Brazil seeks to defend its interests abroad, its relatively low number of diplomats pose limitations on its capacity to operationalize new policies. Smart strategies developed at home may fail to have the desired impact because there are not enough Foreign Service officers to implement the new policy. Complex bilateral negotiations can be negatively affected if one side’s negotiators have not been briefed properly due to a lack of diplomatic staff and on-the-ground knowledge on the domestic constraints the other side is facing. Finally, maintaining an understaffed embassy can send a negative signal to the host country, in some cases causing more damage than opening no embassy at all. Yet the President cares little about diplomacy, and some of Brazil’s major international initiatives were not initiated by Itamaraty, but by other parts of government. Foreign policy makers’ thus face a double challenge: convince both Congress and the President that foreign policy matter, and that the Foreign Ministry is the best place to design and implement it. As long as few resources are available and as long as the President is too busy with fighting for her survival, Itamaraty must practice what Matias Spektor once called, in a felicitous phrase, "gymnastics in the prison cell" and learn how to operate below the radar.

7. Build up world-class expertise in cybersecurity

New communication technologies erode hierarchies, collapse time and distance, and empower networks. That will have a massive impact on international relations, and cybersecurity will be a key element of foreign policy making in the coming decades. Issues that define cybersecurity today -- such as incident response, the problem of attribution, overlapping investigative and legal authorities, public-private partnerships, and the necessity of international cooperation -- are much-discussed in Washington and Beijing, but Brazil still lacks the expertise to play a key role in the global debate about the rules and norms of cybersecurity. The same applies to international relations scholars at Brazilian universities and think tanks, which remain largely unprepared to weigh in on the issue.

8. Prepare for a more Asia-centric world

China may grow somewhat slower than before, but few would seriously dispute that we are witnessing a momentous transition. The world economy will not return to the distribution of power of the late 20th century, and Asia's weight will make itself felt in every aspect of global affairs. Brazil's embassy in Beijing has grown over the past years, but the number of diplomats in other key locations like Tokyo, Delhi, Manila and Hanoi is far too small. After all, it is in these countries that the most important dynamic of the 21st century (a growing clash of interests between Washington and Beijing) will play out. Embracing a more Asia-centric world cannot be done by the Foreign Ministry alone -- Brazilian universities, newspapers and companies are an essential element in this reorientation. Being a founding member of the China-led AIIB and actively involved in the BRICS grouping are important steps in the right direction.

9. Continue to work towards reforming international institutions

Why should Brazil care about reforming the UN Security Council in times like these? The answer is simple: Because global responsibilities are not a function of fluctuating growth rates at home. There is little use for an emerging power that engages constructively on international issues in good times, only to disappear when the economy is not doing so well. That is why Brazil's diplomatic retreat under Dilma Rousseff has been so damaging: The moment a future president will adopt a more visible international role, it will make international observers wonder whether this is just another fluke. The logic of why international institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the UNSC need reform remains as valid as ever, and Brazil's crisis does not alter the overall trend of multipolarization. 

10. Use the Olympic Games to promote Brazil's battered image in the world

The Olympic Games provide a unique opportunity to strengthen Brazil's image around the world. Such activities are often coordinated by the Ministries of Tourism or Sports, yet without a clear strategy developed by the Foreign Ministry, they are unlikely to succeed.  The Olympics in 2012 in London should serve as an example. British sports stars and other celebrities traveled around the world to promote the event, and embassies around the world adopted a coherent and sophisticated media communication strategy. Organized at a time or pessimism in Great Britain (admittedly, not comparable to Brazil's current malaise), they reinvigorated the country's image around the world, something Brazil badly needs to attract visitors and investors.

Read also:

The Ailing Continent

Curso de Férias: The Brazilian Crisis in Global Context

The Refugee Crisis Presents a Chance for Emerging Countries Like Brazil to Be Players