Brazil should take a shot at United Nations reform

The United States and others in NATO are looking to Brazil to help shoulder the burden in the world´s hot-spots, including Syria. Until now, Brazil has refused, but is focusing too obsessively on negotiations inside the United Nations.

Robert Muggah
29 May 2013

Brazil is on the cusp of becoming a genuine global power. The recent election of a Brazilian diplomat, Roberto Carvalho de Azevêdo, to lead the World Trade Organization illustrates the shift of influence southward. The recent decision by Brazil to cancel some $900 million worth of African debt is another sign of Brazil´s expanding role. But with global power status come global responsibilities. It often requires taking sides and implies political and military action to keep the peace. When it comes to assuming such duties, however, Brazil faces a dilemma.

On the one hand, Brazil has traditionally enjoyed close relations with the world´s superpower, the United States. It was, after all, the only South American country to send troops to Europe during the Second World War. On the other, Brazil is wary of the interventionist impulses of America and its allies. It is especially allergic to military actions such as those led by NATO in Libya in 2011.

Today, the United States and others in NATO are looking to Brazil to help shoulder the burden in the world´s hot-spots, including Syria. Until now, Brazilian authorities have steadfastly refused such entreaties. Instead, Brazil is intent on maintaining stability in its own neighbourhood, which it feels extends far into the South Atlantic.

Brazil’s diplomats have almost always been averse to intervention since short wars, they believe, have a habit of casting long shadows. They are determined to keep their backyard from becoming militarized. This is hardly surprising since Brazil has limited capacity to project much hard power beyond its borders.

A keen supporter of multilateralism, Brazil feels the only legitimate body able to make decisions to intervene militarily is the United Nations. And it has made it plain that it feels it deserves a seat at the high table. Brazil, along with other rising powers, is convinced that their membership to the Security Council will make for a more just and representative world order. Its proposal to promote responsibility while protecting is an example of how it hopes to promote more accountability within the Council.  

At the same time, Brasilia is worried that the United Nations is rapidly losing credibility and threatens to be the architect of its own irrelevance. The longer that rising powers are excluded from the Security Council as permanent members, the weaker the body will become. There is no sign that any of the current five veto-wielding countries are seriously interested in reform. The last time they tinkered with the Council was in 1965, resulting in a modest expansion in the number of non-permanent members.  

Countries like Brazil, but also India, and South Africa, are keen to transform the global architecture. With billions of people moving out of poverty and going online, they see the promise of progress but also signs of instability. But while there is general agreement about “why” reform of the Security Council is needed, there is rather less consensus over “how” this change should come about, much less “who” will benefit from the redistribution of power. Instead, negotiators in the United Nations are stalling, which suits the permanent members’ just fine. 

Countries like Brazil certainly have the credentials and experience to back their claim to become a permanent fixture in the Security Council. Now the most influential country in Latin America, it boasts one of the world’s largest economies and has been admitted to the Security Council as a non-permanent member no fewer than ten times since 1945. Brazil is also a major contributor of troops to peace-keeping operations, most recently in Haiti

None of this will mean anything, however, if Brazil doesn’t play its cards right. At the moment, Brazil focuses obsessively on negotiations inside the United Nations. Those narrow politics are a thing of the past. Its diplomats have to wake up to the necessity of engaging think tanks, civil society and business across the world in order to demonstrate that it is a muscle-bound global power. Check on Amazon – there are hundreds of books published in recent years on India and China but only a handful on the new, rising Brazil.

Despite its obvious attractions, Brazil has failed to capture the world's imagination. If it wants to make a successful bid for Security Council reform, its foreign policy establishment has to start engaging its own think tanks and businesses at home, as well as those in the United States and Europe. It is only when the major powers “feel the heat”, as United States ambassador Susan Rice recently said, that changes are going to occur.

The next three years will be decisive for Brazil if it is to make a mark internationally commensurate with its growing economic influence. It will be hosting both the World Cup and the Olympic Games over the next three years. The country has a maturing democracy and is also increasingly willing and able to keep its distance from United States foreign policy. But if it is to acquire the status and recognition it feels it deserves, its decision-makers need to get off the fence. They must set out a transformative vision for a new security architecture in the United Nations and then go out and sell it.

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