Brazil: Towards a New Foreign Policy?

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On Wednesday afternoon, International Relations scholars across Brazil gathered in front of their computer screens as the newly minted Foreign Minister José Serra took to the podium at Itamaraty Palace for the first time. His 19-minute long speech, during which he presented the "guidelines of the New Brazilian Foreign Policy", marked the most significant change in Brazil's international strategy in years. Indeed, in comparison to his colleagues in the one-week old Temer cabinet, Serra most clearly sought to show how his policies would differ from those under Lula and Dilma Rousseff. Most importantly, the new Foreign Minister vowed to end what he called the PT's "ideology-driven foreign policy" (referring mostly to Brazil's strategic proximity to Venezuela and other left-leaning governments in the region) and announced Brazil would "no longer restrict its freedom and extent of initiative due to an exclusive and paralyzing adhesion to the multilateral efforts within the scope of the WTO."

Reactions were immediate across the board. Serra would destroy Brazil's hard fought gains achieved under Lula on the international stage and transform Brazil into Washington's lackey, the left-wing commentators crowed. Many PT critics, on the other hand, marvelled at the seemingly radical shift, hoping for closer ties with Western powers and less emphasis on South-South relations. 

Neither of those two groups' views adequately capture the major changes that Brazilian foreign policy under José Serra will most likely undergo. 

A political heavyweight in Itamaraty Palace

Indeed, the first change has little to do with José Serra's personal views and can only be explained by political dynamics in Brasília. Contrary to most of his predecessors in the past decades, Serra is a nationally known political figure who ran for President twice (losing to Lula in 2002 and Dilma Rousseff in 2010). He was Minister of Health under Fernando Henrique Cardoso, mayor of the city of São Paulo as well as governor and senator of São Paulo, Brazil's most populous state. This alone will change the weight and visibility of Itamaraty inside the Temer government.

And yet, more important still, Serra plans to run for president again in 2018, and will thus use international politics as a platform to articulate his candidacy. His first week as Foreign Minister provided some insight into how quickly his persona has elevated the importance of foreign policy. On Friday afternoon, the Foreign Ministry released a stern note, written by Serra himself, criticizing countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for spreading "misinformation about the domestic political process in Brazil." His move made headlines in the Brazilian media over the weekend, and Serra, perhaps more than any other Minister in the new cabinet, succeeded in representing the break with the former government's policies (Temer's Minister of Finance and Serra's rival in the 2018 presidential race, Henrique Meirelles, said he'd need a few more days to announce his economic plan). Serra's inaugural address on Wednesday was the most coveted event in Brasília that day, and his speech was interrupted by applause, two firsts in Itamaraty's recent history. These dynamics will be crucial to understand Brazil's foreign policy under Serra -- particularly considering that the presidential campaign for 2018 has already begun, being more pulverized and unpredictable than any other since 1989. 

While observers who dislike Serra fret that he'll "abuse" foreign policy for political purposes, having a known politician with presidential ambitions as Foreign Minister is not a bad thing per se -- indeed, there is little historical evidence that it does any harm, as the cases of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Foreign Minister in the 1990s) or Hillary Clinton (Foreign Minister under Obama) show. Quite to the contrary, Carl Bildt, Joschka Fischer, and Frank-Walter Steinmeier are additional examples that show how political heavyweights can strengthen a country's foreign policy. Indeed, in Brazil's case, it is a refreshing change after the remarkable potential of Itamaraty, an island of excellence in the Brazilian government, was woefully wasted under Dilma Rousseff, who never understood the importance of foreign policy for her government. 

A new macroeconomic and geopolitical context

The second change has less to do with the ideological differences between PT and PSDB, but with the radically new macroeconomic and geopolitical context Serra will operate in. Some believe that Fernando Henrique Cardoso's pro-Western views led him to seek closer ties to Washington, and Lula, more aligned with the Global South, single-handedly decided to change course. Serra, according to this view, will merely revert back to Brazil's pre-Lula foreign policy, and neglect the BRICS and Africa. 

Such a simplistic view overlooks that the context within which Brazil operated underwent profound changes over the past two decades. Asia and Africa mattered far less when Cardoso was President, so mostly focusing on South-South ties at the time would have been unrealistic. When Lula became President, the global shift of power to Asia was underway, and he adapted accordingly (for example, by brilliantly using a positive 'rising power' foreign policy to mute the mensalão corruption scandal in 2005, or by understanding that the 2008 financial crisis provided a window of opportunity for Brazil). Had Lula been President in the 1990s, before the commodity boom, he would not have been able to articulate and implement such an expansive foreign policy, involving remarkable institutional entrepreneurism (UNASUR, etc.) and Brazil's participation in the BRICS grouping. Conversely, had Serra won the presidential election in 2002, he would have also focused a lot on the rise of the Global South, which shaped the global agenda at the time. Indeed, Serra's critics are usually unaware of the fact that, as President, he would have named Celso Amorim as his Foreign Minister. As Minister of Health under Cardoso, Serra took an important step towards strengthening South-South ties when Brazil led the process of breaking patents of retrovirals and began producing generic drugs to address the HIV/AIDS crisis in the Global South. 

The same is true for the region, where considering the new geopolitical dynamics will be crucial to explain Brazil's strategy. Thanks to sky-high oil prices, Lula had to deal with an empowered Hugo Chavez, who had to be understood not as an ally, but as a threat to Brazil's regional leadership ambitions at the time. Containing Venezuela openly would have certainly backfired, as Caracas generously financed developing projects in the region, buying diplomatic support from Buenos Aires and Quito to Havana and beyond. Even a PSDB President at the time would have sought to accommodate, rather than attack, Venezuela's unpredictable leader. 

Ten years later, oil prices are back to normal, Venezuela is the world's worst performing economy and faces civil unrest and diplomatic isolation. Rather than symbolizing a complete break, Serra's decision to criticize Maduro is also, to an extent, a continuation of a process of estrangement between Venezuela and Brazil which had already been going on for years. Three months ago, Rousseff's Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira became the first leading Brazilian government representative in seventeen years to officially welcome members of Venezuela's opposition in Brasília. 

The same is true with regard to trade: Even high-ranking members of the Rousseff administration had agreed that Brazil's stance on trade needed change, and that Brasília's focus on multilateral negotiations had led to the isolation of the world's seventh largest economy. Looking forward, it remains to be seen whether little more than two years is enough for Serra to make any meaningful progress in the trade realm. 

This does not mean that Serra's promise of a 'New Brazilian Foreign Policy' is empty talk. Brazil's international strategy will change, most clearly vis-à-vis the region, and Serra's political weight and ambition will boost Itamaraty's visibility. Yet the new Foreign Minister's rhetoric may lead observers to overestimate the degree of change that is underway. While Folha de São Paulo commented that Serra would leave "no stone unturned", many key elements of Brazil's foreign policy will remain in place -- and rightly so. China is Brazil's most important trading partner and Serra understands that being on good terms with Beijing is mandatory in the 21st century. The benefits of the BRICS grouping are recognized, and Temer will participate in the 8th Summit in India in October. Ties to the United States may be strengthened, but several of the disagreements between Brasília and Washington -- for example regarding the United States' military presence in Colombia -- will remain as they are structural in nature. 

In the same way, ending unconditional support for Maduro was not decided on a whim, but can be understood as a very pragmatic decision, as Venezuela's politics and economy are imploding -- put differently, being Maduro's partner is no longer an asset, but increasingly toxic. Alas, dealing with the fallout of the Venezuelan crisis -- for which Brazil is partly responsible -- will be one of Serra's most difficult challenges early on. He has no choice but to hit the ground running.

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Photo credit: Reuters