Why Brazil’s next President may pursue an activist foreign policy

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Brazilian peacekeepers in Lebanon

Irrespective of what happens in Brasília over the next days and weeks, someone other than Dilma Rousseff will soon call the shots in Brazil. If the Rousseff government survives impeachment proceedings this month, ex-President Lula, as Rousseff's chief of staff, is likely to become the de facto President (or a sort of 'Prime Minister'). If impeachment proceedings succeed, Vice-President Michel Temer will take over. Finally, if Brazil's electoral court decides that Rousseff's 2014 campaign was financed with illicit money, both Rousseff and Temer will be removed from office in a process known in Brazil as cassação -- which will lead to new general elections within 90 days (if decided by the end of 2016) or an indirect election (if a cassação should take place in 2017 or 2018).

Dilma Rousseff failed to articulate anything resembling a foreign policy doctrine. Since 2011, Brazil's foreign policy has been shaped, above all, by the President’s mind-boggling indifference to all things international and foreign policy makers’ incapacity to convince Rousseff that foreign policy could be used to promote the government’s domestic goals – as both Lula and Fernando Henrique Cardoso so skillfully showed. After Rousseff’s reelection in 2014, when the government entered full crisis mode, even optimists had to come to terms with the fact that Brazil’s top diplomats would have to act in a highly restrained manner for another four years. Indeed, uncertainty and paralysis have been the defining elements of Dilma Rousseff's second term in office, and it is an open secret that the President regards trips abroad as a nuisance.

Rousseff's fight for survival has also had a strong impact on regional affairs, where a power vacuum emerged that other actors have partly filled. Indeed, since Brazil turned inwards, those shaping regional affairs are based in Buenos Aires (one may think of Kirchner's alliance with chavismo, or Argentina's new President Maurício Macri's stance vis-à-vis Venezuela and his decision to settle claims with international investors) or in Bogotá, where negotiations with the FARC rebels may transform the region's third-largest economy and put an end to a conflict that has raged for decades.

Most observers believe that Rousseff’s successor will be too busy fixing domestic affairs to bring back Brazil’s vibrant pre-2011 foreign policy. They have a point. No president will be able to travel the world and coordinate global initiatives without a minimal degree of stability at home. Irrespective of who will succeed Rousseff, stability and legitimacy will be short in supply.
Yet paradoxically, precisely this scenario may lead the new top decision-maker in Brasília to pursue an activist foreign policy. Whoever takes the reins in Brasília will face profound skepticism and even rejection at home from the very start. Lula would be seen as illegitimate by good part of the opposition. Temer, little known, would be regarded as an opportunist. Even the winner of a direct or indirect election would be seen as illegitimate by PT supporters who regard new elections as a veiled coup d’état. In moments like these, the international stage may very well serve as a source of much-needed legitimacy for the new person in charge.

Indeed, a bilateral presidential meeting in Buenos Aires, a handshake with Barack Obama, or the articulation of a regional pro-growth and anti-poverty initiative (ideally, announced in a ceremony with several other presidents and the UN Secretary General) would serve as weighty symbols that the international community accepts Brazil's new leader – signaling a type of support that would initially be hard to obtain on a domestic level. In the same way, embattled leaders can use foreign policy to show they are able to “get things done”, given that fewer checks and balances apply – which can strengthen their appeal at home. Decision-makers abroad are likely to support such activism. After all, Brazil’s internal crisis is seen nowadays as one of the key risks to global economic stability, and even countries that are at times wary of Brazil’s international posture – such as Argentina – are aware that their recovery very much depends on Brazil’s capacity to return to normalcy.

Granted, Brazil's public may care too little about the rest of the world for such overtures to have a tangible impact on the way they think about the new government. In addition, an active foreign policy requires financial muscle, currently lacking in Brazil – and yet, there are innumerable ways in which meaningful international activism would be possible even in today’s dire financial scenario – ranging from thought leadership on how to reinvent Mercosur, broadening regional cooperation on key issues such as organized crime, drug trafficking and infrastructure to designing better mechanisms to deal with democratic crises such as the one in Venezuela.
It is worth keeping in mind that one of Brazil’s most innovative foreign policies since World War II was designed and implemented under President Figueiredo in the 1980s, a time when Brazil faced enormous economic difficulties. Financial constraints may even be seen as a window of opportunity, and Argentina and Brazil could finally begin to put in practice plans to jointly operate consulates in far-flung places, a powerful symbol of closer cooperation. Any of such steps, undertaken by 'Prime Minister' Lula, President Temer, or whoever wins a potential direct or indirect election, could provide Brazil’s new top decision-maker some domestic legitimacy needed to steer the country through the painful years ahead.

The benefits of a smart foreign policy, of course, go beyond symbolism. Reviving Mercosur, rethinking BNDES' international strategy, 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, actively attracting skilled migrants (from places like Syria) and slashing cumbersome visa rules to increase the number of foreign tourists would contribute to turning Brazil's economic fortunes around.

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photo credit: Pasqual Gorriz/UNIFIL