Brazil’s Retreat from the International Stage Continues


A Brazilian peacekeeper of the the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH)


Despite some cautious optimism during the first days of the Temer government, there are worrisome signs that Brazil's retreat from the global stage, initiated around 2012 during Dilma Rousseff's first term, is set to continue. Brazil's stance on three security-related issues — UN Security Council reform, the situation in Venezuela and the global refugee crisis — suggest South America's largest country will continue to be a bystander when key challenges to global stability are discussed. That is bad news for Brazil's strategic interests, global governance, and the future of democracy.


The history of Dilma Rousseff's foreign policy will begin to be written on the day that Brazil's Senate confirms her impeachment and interim President Michel Temer fully takes over. Analyses written during her time in office (or even now, when she may, in theory, still be reinstated) can be useful, but they are inevitably influenced by day-to-day occurrences and will lack objectivity, access to secret documents and in-depth oral history interviews scholars will be able to use five or ten years from now. 

And yet, even among Rousseff supporters and those who regard the 2016 impeachment proceedings as illegitimate, there is a broad consensus that Lula's successor will be regarded, by historians, as remarkably inept and damaging to her country's interests on the foreign policy front — to the chagrin of her Foreign Ministry, whose human resources and talent were underutilized during her five and a half years in office. It thus took José Serra, Brazil's new top diplomat, little effort to generate a cautiously positive response when he vowed, upon taking office, to boost the Foreign Ministry's strategic importance and revamp Brazil's global strategy. Even those who disagree with Serra's ideas recognized that his political visibility would be an asset after his three predecessors hardly mattered in Dilma Rousseff's grand strategy.

Slowing or even reversing the decline of Brazil's role in global affairs is a challenging task under current circumstances, and Serra is right to focus on issues that have the greatest and most immediate impact on the country's struggling economy. His decision to pursue trade deals is correct (and, contrary to what both he and his critics argue) not much different from what Joaquim Levy and Mauro Vieira sought to achieve early on during Rousseff's second term. His decision to take a fresh look at issues such as OECD membership or to rethink Mercosur may generate a useful debate and should be welcomed.

What is worrisome, however, is the apparent belief that a focus on economic and trade-related matters (ideally helping put Brazil's economy back on track) is sufficient to defend the interests of the world's seventh-largest economy. Aside from the shift of power towards Asia, the major trend in global affairs since the turn of the century is the growing importance of international security. That becomes obvious when we look at the dominant themes in international relations over the past years -- the rise of the Islamic State, the global refugee crisis, the civil war in Ukraine and tensions in the South China Sea. Many of the new issues that are set to dominate the global debate in the coming years — the cyber components of terrorism and interstate war, migration and climate change — have key security elements. Brazil is a laggard when it comes to developing the knowledge necessary to take on a leading role in debates around these topics.

Under Rousseff, 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 (when it engaged in the debate about the Libya intervention), internet governance (when it hosted the NetMundial meeting but then disengaged), peacekeeping (when it took the lead in Haiti), conflict resolution and defending democracy (when it played a constructive role in Venezuela in 2002 and 2003).

UN Security Council Reform

Despite the apparently genuine attempt to revive foreign policy, Serra's stance on security issues over the past month has been discouraging in several ways. In one of his first major interviews on television, the Foreign Minister suggested UN Security Council reform was not a priority. That may be coherent (considering Brazil's no-show when it comes to several global security challenges), but worrisome nonetheless: Brazil's quest for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council is a long-term endeavor that precedes the Lula government. Irrespective of Brazil's current crisis, the case for reform is strong and keeping quiet about the issue may create the impression that Brazil is no longer interested in reforming global structures, and unwilling to assume greater responsibilities in the decades to come.

The crisis in Venezuela

The Temer government may have adopted a new rhetoric vis-à-vis Venezuela, but little has changed when it comes to Brasília's reluctance to exert greater pressure on Caracas to respect democracy and human rights. Despite helping create a series of normative rules and norms in the region over the past decades, Brazil remains unwilling to punish Maduro, however dictatorial. And yet, Venezuela’s crisis damages the region’s reputation and encourages the notion that South America is adrift and that Brazil lacks the capacity to solve the problems in its neighborhood. 

The global refugee crisis

During the final months of the Rousseff government, negotiations between Brazil and the EU were underway to bring more refugees to South America's largest nation. Brazil, which maintains an open-door policy and already granted asylum to several thousand Syrians, was discussing ways to offer a home specifically to refugees who are already in Europe or who are on their way there — provided that European governments pay for their integration in Brazil. The move was laudable and far-sighted as it would have underlined Brazil's willingness to contribute to dealing with global challenges, boosted its soft power, and even could have helped it revive its flagging economy. 

It therefore came as a disappointment when it emerged that Brazil's new Minister of Justice Alexandre de Moraes had suspended the negotiations a few days after taking office. Making a contribution vis-à-vis the refugee issue would have significantly boosted Brazil's reputation abroad and helped partially offset the negative image its current economic crisis generates. With governments in Europe and the Middle East desperate to deal with the situation, actively seeking to find ways to bring more refugees to Brazil could have helped the country in future negotiations with policy makers most affected by the crisis — particularly considering that the rise of populists across Europe, partly in response to the refugee crisis, can be seen as a major threat to stable democracy across the continent. 

The standard response to all this is that Brazil lacks the financial muscle to engage in security-related issues. Yet 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. Since Brazil would receive financial help to welcome and integrate the growing number of refugees, its global contribution would come without the costs usually associated to international leadership on such a sensitive issue.

Brazil's continued retreat, in particular when it comes to security issues, is bad news both for the country's strategic interests and for the international community as a whole. In an ever more multipolar world, rich countries' dominance in the global security conversation is highly counterproductive and unlikely to produce sustainable solutions to the world's most pressing issues. Until around 2012, Brazil's stronger voice - be it in the UN Security Council, during negotiations in Iran, as a peacekeeper in Haiti, in the neighborhood, or in a resurging Africa — has contributed to a richer and more balanced global debate. 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.

Read also:

Brazilian foreign policy: Game over?

Is Brazil abandoning its global ambitions?

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

Photo credit: PATRICK SANFAÇON La Presse