For most of the 20th century the foreign policy of Brazil has been linked to the extraordinary ‘developmentalist’ adventure which has turned Brazil into one of the largest industrialised economies of the world.
Its growth concentrated income and power, to make one of the most unequal societies on earth. At the same time, for most of the century, Brazil sought to gain from the changing pattern of international politics. It endeavoured to retain the degree of sovereignty required to forge its own development, while rejecting the autarchy of an isolationist approach which its size made tempting.
From 1974-79, the military under Ernesto Geisel tried to promote industrialisation via vigorous import substitution. This led it to adopt the third world-inspired ‘independent foreign policy’, which it stripped of its leftist rhetoric and renamed as ‘responsible pragmatism’.
In the 1980s, a developmental crisis plunged the country into great social and political turmoil, which was not always accompanied by the measures that might have helped to provide a sustainable alternative.
The model was exhausted as complex and vertiginous changes took place in the international sphere. This led to the conservative option of the 1990s. Its chief condottiere, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (president from 1994-2002), promised he would ‘bring the Vargas era to an end’, referring to the whole period from Getulio Vargas’s assumption of power in 1930.
In effect, a form of national anti-project emerged, one which made a virtue of Brazil’s subordinate position in a disordered world.
It was supposed to herald ‘a new renaissance’ which would allow Brazil to take advantage of the ‘opportunities’ offered by globalisation by reducing its ‘risks’ – to employ the dichotomy incorporated into the diplomatic jargon of the time.
It did not work. The external vulnerability of the economy intensified the disintegration of its productive sectors, and this in turn reinforced social deterioration and crisis. The political system may no longer have been exposed to the dangers of the preceding decades, but the fragility of the economic and social democracy put political democracy in peril.
It led to a foreign policy that lacked internal national purpose. This was masked to some degree by presidential diplomacy which ensured the visibility of the leader of the government, even while this failed to lend strength to the country. Presidential speeches, so often celebrated abroad, proved little more than rhetoric.
The search for a national project required the framing of a new foreign policy. As it developed, this project has come to be at once the expression and a structural element of a new concept of development for Brazil.
It has three essential components: social inclusion; a more wide-ranging democracy; and the assertion of national sovereignty within a Latin American context.
Here we will just survey the third of these, but Brazil’s foreign policy is now rooted in its reforms at home, while these in turn will only succeed with a new kind of strengthening of the country’s ties abroad, especially with its neighbours.
President Lula came to power confronting well-known international constraints, which stemmed from a combination of financial, commercial and political upheavals. This required that any national project had to be coupled with the regional, for sustained national development now needs to be closely linked to the growth of the whole South American zone.
That is why the new foreign policy – ‘proud and active’, as the foreign secretary, Celso Amorim defined it – put Latin America at the forefront of its priorities.
It favours as a priority the rebuilding of Mercosur. This is the trading association launched in 1991 that includes Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay as well as Brazil (Bolivia and Chile later joined as associate members). In recent years, its revitalisation has been halted by the economic crises affecting its member countries. As a result its regional efforts have been limited to focusing on the establishment of a customs union.
But Mercosur should provide a framework for the active enhancement of industrial, agricultural and service policies so that they can converge and lead to the forging of productive regional links.
This is both a positive aim and a defensive one necessary to combat the asymmetries inherent in the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). A solid, regional space is indispensable to ensure that FTAA does not increase inequalities. To achieve this, it is fundamentally important that Mercosur and Latin America should have an interrelated foreign policy with the influence to reduce and then remove the high levels of US and European protectionism while at the same time making sure we retain national and regional control of our economies.
To achieve this it is necessary in turn to build our regional market with solid power, transport and communications infrastructure to bring about the effective physical integration of our countries.
Collaboration also requires intensive cultural exchanges, common radio and television channels, the sharing of tasks in the fields of science and technology and reciprocal interchange between the universities. For Mercosur, the building of political institutions – for solving controversies, empowering the executive secretariat and even establishing a directly elected parliament – is vital, and will also help to achieve economic integration.
Mercosur needs to be socialist with working-class values. It needs to start thinking of becoming a region with a common currency and centralised financial institutions, drawing in the Andean countries in the quest for economic, social and political union.
The wide array of activities discharged by the Lula government during its first seven months in office needs to be seen in this context. He has received practically all of the presidents of Latin America in Brasília, but not through any love of diplomatic ritual. The aim is to establish a strong foundation for bilateral cooperation and for forging Latin American unity.
To this end the Brazilian government has not hesitated to call on the National Economic Social Development Bank for the necessary help required to promote trade, expand the regional infrastructure and achieve economic integration.
Brazil has also not been remiss in helping to solve international conflicts, as attested by its performance in Venezuela and its diplomatic efforts towards establishing peace in Colombia. One result is the growing commitment of countries in the region, as well as other parts of the world, to the view that Brazil should become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, when the necessary reform of the UN and other multilateral organisations takes place.
The stress laid by Brazil on South America does not prevent it from devoting attention to other spheres of action, from the(re)opening of the African chapter to strengthening bilateral relations with India, China, South Africa, Russia and Mexico, as part of its efforts to help create a more democratic and multipolar world.
Last but not least, there is the United States. Despite the trade disputes largely caused by the pronounced protectionism of that country, and our different approach to some international issues – as became clear during the Iraqi crisis – relations between the two countries are going well.
There is no doubt that one of the factors which has contributed to this is the independent attitude adopted by Brazil in its activities on the world stage, linked together with the success achieved by the Lula administration at home during its first months in power.
Some of the critics of our foreign policy say that Brazil is taking steps that are bigger than its legs allow, and that the country does not have enough power to maintain the presence it seeks to project in the world. For some, this opinion reflects an error of judgment over what constitutes power, for others it is the expression of a pronounced vocation to submit to the status quo.
Brazil’s new standing in the world, achieved in just seven months, points to a different reality. Indeed, the country’s impact on international relationships, and especially its neighbour to the north, may even become the post-cold war equivalent of the ‘unfreezing’ which took place in the 1970s between China and the United States – the result of a shared decision to develop a pragmatic partnership that breaks through years of ideological prejudice and political fear.
As Brazil becomes aware of its size and potential it is trying to develop a foreign policy that is not just an instrument for sovereign action in the world, but is also a tool for restructuring its national development project at home. Should it succeed in eliminating hunger, developing democracy and unlocking sustained regional growth and more balanced development, it will also help initiate a politics of global equality.
Drawn from an article originally published by Revista Carta Capital-Brasil