Time for Brazil’s Foreign Minister to help relaunch the IBSA grouping

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Played a key role in strengthening South-South relations prior to the existence of IBSA: José Serra, Brazil's new Foreign Minister

The year 2013 will be remembered in Brazil as a time of almost unprecedented social upheaval and large-scale protest. Dilma Rousseff's approval ratings, which had been sky-high, would never recover. For foreign policy analysts in Brazil, 2013 marked yet another year of the country's tragic retreat from the international stage under Lula's successor. The Brazilian President, who was supposed to travel to India to mark the 10th anniversary of the IBSA grouping in June of that year, canceled her trip at short notice, due to "scheduling issues". Insiders were not surprised, remembering how, in October 2011, during the previous IBSA Summit in South Africa, Rousseff struggled to comprehend why the grouping mattered. Since then, no presidential IBSA Summit has taken place, and, despite the continued existence of the small IBSA Fund, the grouping has largely fallen into oblivion. This was, above all, a diplomatic victory for China, which saw the continued existence of the all-democratic IBSA as a nuisance, and hence increased intra-BRICS activities to make IBSA superfluous. Even though South Africa and India could also have done more, policy makers in Delhi and Pretoria privately blamed Dilma Rousseff for allowing the innovative outfit to wilt. 

It is not without irony that today, three years later, Brazil's new Foreign Minister José Serra is particularly well-positioned to help revive the grouping. Many left-wing scholars fear that Serra may undo the progress made in the realm of strengthening South-South relations under thirteen years of PT rule, implying that the PSDB politician and former presidential candidate cares little about the Global South. Yet Serra's critics are usually unaware of the fact that, as President, he would have named Celso Amorim as his Foreign Minister. In 2002, 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. As I describe in my book "IBSA: Rise of the Global South?" (Routledge, 2015), Serra's leadership on the matter, saving thousands of lives, laid the groundwork of stronger cooperation between Brazil, India and South Africa at a time when few in Brazil cared much about such issues. The campaign led to the 2003 WTO General Council Decision (the ‘TRIPS Waiver’) that allowed developing countries to export locally produced generic drugs to countries facing public health crises, thus ensuring poor countries’ access to cheaper versions of on-patent pharmaceuticals.

Today, considering the multitude of challenges Brazil faces, why should José Serra invest time and energy in helping revive IBSA? There are four reasons why the world would benefit from a strong IBSA grouping, and why it is in their member countries' strategic interest to relaunch the grouping this year.

To begin with, IBSA member countries matter greatly when it comes to the future of democracy at a time when populists and autocrats are advancing, leading to a global crackdown on human rights. Human rights organizations and campaign groups face their biggest difficulties in a generation as a wave of countries pass restrictive laws and curtail activity. Almost half the world’s countries have implemented controls that affect tens of thousands of organizations across the globe. While the BRICS grouping is important and should be preserved as well, it is no place to discuss ways to preserve and defend human rights and democracy. This is particularly important considering that soon, for the first time in more than a century, the world's biggest and most influential country on earth will no longer be a democracy, but a dictatorship. The trilateral IBSA summits could provide a useful space to discuss ways in which the largest democracies of Latin America, Southern Africa and South Asia could help preserve and protect human rights and democracy in their respective regions. 

Secondly, the IBSA grouping is an ideal platform to articulate strategies to deal with the most complex challenge of our time: the irreversible shift of economic and political power to China, with all its implications around the world. In many ways, this development is positive, as it is the result of lifting millions of people out of poverty. Yet at the same time, a constant channel of communication between Brasília, Pretoria and Delhi, irrespective of the challenges Brazil and South Africa are currently undergoing, will be helpful as China's influence in South America, Africa and South Asia increases. 

Thirdly, even if neither Brazilian nor South African diplomats are currently keen to talk about UN Security Council reform, the issue will resurface at some point. Then, institutionalized links between the Foreign Ministries of the three countries, all natural candidates for a permanent seat, will be crucial. 

Finally, from Brazil's and South Africa's perspective, enhancing ties to Delhi is essential considering that India is today (and will be for years to come) one of the world's fastest growing economies. It is too soon for the Indian economy to compensate for the slowing of Chinese demand, but there is little doubt that India's importance in global affairs is set to grow in ways we cannot image at this point, especially considering that India will receive ever greater support from the United States in the coming decades. 

The first steps towards reviving the IBSA grouping would be fairly easy. The Indian government could simply organize a presidential IBSA summit in Delhi a day before the BRICS Summit in Goa in October. At the meeting, IBSA leaders would do well to discuss ways to finally move ahead on an issue that has seen little progress so far: the much-commented IBSA free trade agreement, a topic certainly of interest to Serra, who is keen to strengthen Brazil's participation in the global economy, and the Modi government. Considering Brazil's role in reducing IBSA's importance in 2013, Serra should therefore send a signal to his counterparts in Pretoria and Delhi and express his interest in seeing IBSA thrive again.    

Read also:

IBSA: The Rise of the Global South?

Why is there still no IBSA free trade agreement?

The Uncertain Future of IBSA (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)

Photo credit: Eraldo Peres / Agência AP