Economic crisis cannot justify Brazil’s absence from global security debate

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 Germany's Angela Merkel at the Munich Security Conference

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For the past two years, Brazil was, of the world's top ten economies, the only country without a single participant at the Munich Security Conference. Equally telling, Latin America was the only region without any representation during the debates. Brazil's participation in the upcoming conference in February 2016 is crucial to avoid the country's exclusion from the global debate about how to address security challenges -- and to prevent that the rules and norms that will shape the 21st century will be made by a small group of traditional actors alone.

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The Munich Security Conference, which takes place on a yearly basis since 1963, is the world's most important independent forum for international security policy makers from around the globe. Rather than signing official documents or a final communiqué, leaders come to Munich for discreet backroom diplomacy. Informal meetings away from the public eye are used to explore opportunities for negotiations vis-à-vis complex security challenges, ranging from the civil war in Ukraine and Yemen to Syria and the global refugee crisis. In any given year, around twenty Heads of State and Government, fifty foreign and defense ministers and ninety government delegations participate.

Similar to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the economic realm, it is at the Munich Security Conference where leaders seek to, in their official remarks, set the global security agenda. In 2003, during a panel discussion, Germany's Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer famously told Donald Rumsfeld, in a mix of German and English, that he was "not convinced" of the United States' argument that war against Iraq was necessary. The verbal confrontation would become one of the defining moments of the rift between Germany and the United States in the run-up to the Iraq War. It was also an unmistakable sign that Germany would, along with France, assume a leading role in the anti-war coalition.

At the 2007 conference, Russia's President Vladimir Putin gave a strong-worded and much-remembered speech about the evils of unipolarity, which led to a sharp response by John McCain, who would become the Republican presidential candidate a year later. Six years later, on the final day of the conference, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi expressed his country’s willingness to accept the US’ negotiated bid on the Iranian nuclear program. In 2014 and 2015, important discussions took place regarding the conflict in Ukraine and Syria. Simply put, no country or organization interested in playing a role in the discussion about global security challenges can afford not to be at the Munich Security Conference.

In 2016, the war against the Islamic State and the global refugee crisis will loom large during debates in Bavaria. Together, they currently pose the most urgent and complex global security challenges that cannot possibly be solved by a small number of rich countries alone. More importantly, the decisions taken vis-à-vis the crisis in Syria will affect future conflicts and the way the international community reacts to them.

And yet, for the past two years, Brazil was, of the world's top ten economies , the only country without a single participant at the Munich Security Conference. Equally telling, Latin America was the only region without any representation during the debates. Brazil's participation in February 2016 is crucial to avoid the country's exclusion from the global debate about how to address security challenges -- and to prevent that a small group of traditional actors make the rules and norms that will shape the 21st century alone.

Brazil's absence from the debates in Munich is part of a worrisome trend. 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. Canada's new government has recently shown that it is not necessary to be a great power to have an impact in the global discussion about refugees. That requires, first of all, being in the room when such things are discussed. However, when it comes to international security policy, Brazil's government currently does not seem to consider Woody Allen's famous saying that "90 percent of life is simply showing up."

A Brazilian participant such as Defense Minister Aldo Rebelo, Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira, Special Advisor Marco Aurélio Garcia, Ambassador Antonio Patriota (who was in Munich in 2013 as Foreign Minister) or President Rousseff herself could provide a valuable perspective on security challenges from the Global South. Yet more worryingly, Brazil's absence sends a clear message to the other participants that the country does not seek a place at the table when the world's most complex security challenges are debated. This undermines Brazil's campaign for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council: Brazil was, in 2014 and 2015, the only G4 member that lacked any representation.

Brazil's current economic crisis cannot justify such aloofness. After all, what is the use of a country that is only ready to help address global challenges when its economy is going well? In fact, scaling back foreign policy initiatives as a reaction to the economic crisis underestimates how foreign policy can help the economy: Large companies like Airbus, Boeing and Raytheon (a major American defense contractor) are always present in Munich to network with key figures in the defense establishment, while Embraer and other Brazilian players in the defense industry are not.

Our global debate today is out of balance, and we can no longer solve global challenges 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 such as Brazil must contribute to finding meaningful solutions. Sending a senior policy maker to Munich in February is, of course, little more than a symbol -- yet an important one nonetheless, showing that Brazil, despite its economic and political crisis, is aware of its global responsibilities.

Read also:

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The Refugee Crisis Presents a Chance for Brazil

Munich Security Conference: Brazil’s No-Show

Curso de Férias: The Brazilian Crisis in Global Context

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PHOTO CREDIT : KAI PFAFFENBACH /REUTERS