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Brazil: regional power, global power

Brazil's sense of its place in its neighbourhood and in the world has undergone a profound shift since 1990. Leslie Bethell traces the ingredients of a momentous process, and asks whether the country has a long-term strategic vision of its place in the emerging global order.

Brazil hosted on successive days, 15 and 16 April 2010, two international meetings with great symbolic significance: the fourth IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) summit and the second BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) summit. These two gatherings in the capital, Brasília, serve to underline the fact that at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Brazil’s sense of itself has undergone a deep change. For the first time in its history, Brazil regards itself, and is internationally regarded, as not only an emerging or rising regional power (in South America, if not Latin America), but also an emerging or rising global power - or at least a regional power with global influence and aspirations. 

Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world in both territory and population. It is, exceptionally, a country without significant linguistic, cultural, racial, ethnic, religious or regional internal conflict. Since 1985 and the end of the twenty-one-year military dictatorship it has become a stable democracy, the world’s fourth largest, with regular, fair and free elections based on universal suffrage. Its economy is the eighth largest in the world. It has one of most advanced industrial bases in the developing world. It has huge natural resources, and is one of the world’s major exporters of agricultural produce and minerals. It is largely self-sufficient in energy and is about to become a major exporter of oil. It is a world leader in alternative, renewable-energy technology, especially in the production of ethanol. The future of the Amazon rainforest, which is 75% Brazilian, is central to international environmental concerns (see Sue Branford, “Lula’s last challenge: the Amazon”, 9 December 2009). 

Brazil’s language, Portuguese, is the world’s seventh most spoken language – ahead of French, German, Italian and Japanese. Its culture, especially its music, art and architecture, cinema and television and (not least) football, is widely recognised and appreciated throughout the world. Finally, Brazil has an outstanding record as an essentially non-military country. Since the last of three wars in the Río de la Plata, the Paraguayan war (1865-70), it has lived peacefully with all its neighbours.  

Thus, Brazil has an enormous amount of “soft power”. What it does not have is significant “hard power”.   

Since its separation from Portugal and the establishment of an independent empire in 1822, Brazil has always viewed itself as destined for greatness. And the outside world has tended to reinforce this view. Dozens of books over the past two centuries have recognised Brazil’s huge potential, most famously Stefan Zweig’s Brazil: land of the future (1941). But throughout its history Brazil, like many continent-sized countries, has been largely inward-looking, concerned primarily with its own progress and development, and therefore relatively peripheral, punching well below its weight, both regionally and globally.  

Only since around 1990 and the end of the cold war, especially under the two administrations of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) and, even more, the two administrations of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-10), has Brazil begun to play an active role in regional and world affairs commensurate with its size, population, economy, natural resources - and “soft power”.  

A regional power     

Brazil has actively pursued a policy of greater engagement, both economic and political, with its neighbours - especially in South America, to a lesser extent in central America (including relatively little involvement with Mexico) and the Caribbean. Its relationship with the United States is generally good, but remains complicated; Brazil, for example, has resisted the US agenda for the economic integration of the western hemisphere.  

Brazil is a member of the Organisation of American States (OAS), founded in 1948; and the country’s presidents have attended all five Summits of the Americas held since 1994. Brazil has not for most of its history considered itself an integral part of “Latin America” - a concept which for Brazilians generally referred to Spanish America only; but it has given its active support to the Rio Group of Latin American and Caribbean states (currently with twenty-three members), founded in 1986. It is also committed to the formation in 2011 of a Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (with thirty-two members - that is to say, all the states in the hemisphere except the United States and Canada).  

Brazil has since 2004 led the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (Minustah). President Lula and other leaders of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party / PT) have close personal ties with the Raul Castro regime in Cuba. Brazilian companies, public and private, have invested modestly in (for example) Cuba, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Brazil was deeply involved in the Honduran crisis of 2009, during which Lula referred on more than one occasion to Nossa América Latina (Our Latin America).

However, the principal focus of Brazil’s regional foreign policy has been South America. The pattern has its roots in the rapprochement with Argentina after 1985, and the Treaty of Asunción in 1991 that led to the creation of the Mercosur trade bloc (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay); but it is also the result of a conscious decision taken in 1992-93, and was reinforced by the joining of Mexico in 1994 with the United States and Canada in “North America”. President Cardoso hosted the first summit of South American presidents in Brasília in 2000; and at the third summit held in Cusco in December 2004 (during the first Lula administration), a South American Community of Nations was formed, consisting of twelve nations, including Guyana and Suriname. At the summit held in Brasília in May 2008, the community became the Union of South American Nations (Unasur).  

The Lula administration has made a top priority for Brazil improved relations with its South American neighbours and increased regional trade and investment - but also South America’s economic and political integration

In view of the asymmetry of power in South America – Brazil accounts for more than 50% of its territory, population, resources and GDP – it is difficult for the country to avoid a leadership role. Brazil has begun to accept this role (with, it has to be said, a good deal of uncertainty and hesitation) and to assume some of the responsibilities that necessarily follow. The United States has been prepared to allow, indeed at times has seemed to encourage, Brazil to lead in South America, especially if this means that it is able to control its more troublesome neighbours and maintain stability in a region of relatively low priority to the United States; though Brazil has, historically, always been reluctant to adopt this particular stance.  

But is the rest of South America willing to be led by Brazil?  Argentina, though now a pale shadow of its former self, is Brazil’s historic rival in South America; Chile and Colombia each has a special relationship with the United States; Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have ideological differences with Brazil, are virulently opposed to the United States and support Hugo Chávez’s Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América [Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas / Alba]). There has always existed in South America a certain suspicion of Brazilian “imperialism”, and this has intensified as Brazil’s dominance in the region has become increasingly evident in recent years.

Brazil could turn its back on the turbulent continent in which it finds itself, as it has done throughout most of its history, and focus more on its new and increasingly important role in global affairs.  But regional integration – economic integration at least – has progressed so far that it would now be impossible for Brazil totally to disengage from South America. Moreover, besides integration being in Brazil’s long-term economic and strategic interests, regional power, it is argued by many in Itamaraty (the Brazilian ministry of foreign relations) is a necessary condition for global power.

A global power

During the last twenty years, Brazil’s presence and influence in the world has grown significantly. The profound shifts that have taken place in the global order since the end of the cold war (in particular the relative decline of the United States and the continued ineffectiveness of the European Union in world politics, together with the intensification of the process of economic and financial globalisation) have created opportunities and space for the emergence of new powers like China, India - and Brazil. Equally important have been the fundamental changes that have taken place in Brazil itself, both political (the consolidation of democracy) and economic (first stabilisation after 1994, then the renewal of growth from 2003, not least due to Chinese demand for Brazilian commodities).  

Brazil has played an increasingly important role in the World Trade Organisation, in world trade negotiations and in the efforts (albeit so far unsuccessful) to bring the Doha round to a conclusion. Brazil has actively promoted the reform and “democratisation” (both formal and informal) of multilateral institutions. This is true of political institutions, principally the United Nations (with a notably vigorous pursuit of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council for the “G4” [Brazil, India, Germany and Japan]), and of economic, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the G8/G13 (now G20). Brazil has been a key player in discussions on a whole range of global issues, including nuclear proliferation, the reduction of world poverty and disease (especially HIV/Aids), intellectual-property rights and, most importantly, climate change.  

Under the Lula administration, Brazil had given a great deal of attention to the strengthening of its relations with the rest of the “global south”, above all China (although China is rapidly becoming more of a competitor than a partner), but also India and South Africa (through the IBSA group); and with the “deep south”, especially the countries in Africa and Asia which belong to the Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa [Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries / CPLP]), Angola in particular.  

This emphasis on south-south at the expense of north-south relations has left uncertain Brazil’s relations with Europe and the United States. For reasons of history, language and culture as well as economic interest, Brazil has close ties with the EU, now a “strategic partner’ and (after China and the United States) Brazil’s third most important trading partner. The close links extend to several individual European countries: Portugal, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Britain and the Netherlands.

Brazil’s most important bilateral relationship - at once economic and political, regional and global - continues to be with the United States. It is a complex relationship, with some minor but few major crises, yet with no intense engagement on either side. It may also be about to become more problematic. Washington’s mild irritation with Brazil’s ambivalent and contradictory attitude to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, for example, is nothing compared to its concern with Lula’s warm embrace of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and support for Iran’s nuclear programme (in the assumption that this is, as Iran claims, peaceful) (see Mariano Aguirre, “Brazil-Turkey and Iran: a new global balance”, 2 June 2010).

The United States is beginning to take account of the fact that for the first time another American state has serious aspirations to become not only a regional power – in South America, perhaps even in Latin America, a region in which the United States has been the undisputed hegemon for more than a century; but also a global power. At the same time, it will not be easy for the Barack Obama administration to make Brazil a strategic partner in both regional and global affairs, if this is what it wishes to do (and it is not clear that it does); not least because Brazil has shown little interest in making closer relations with the United States a priority. Indeed there has been a disturbing, unnecessary and in the long-term counterproductive degree of thinly veiled anti-Americanism in Brazilian foreign policy under Lula.

Brazil has a presence and influence on the international stage that would have been unimaginable twenty years ago. There remain, however, doubts about the coherence and consistency of Brazilian foreign policy. Does Brazil have a long-term strategic vision of its place in the new global order? Is it able to reconcile its regional and global interests, its geopolitical and economic interests? Is it engaged on too many fronts, and over-confident in its ability to solve intractable international issues such as those in the middle east (where its own interests are limited)? Fundamentally, can Brazil wield greater global influence through the exercise of soft power alone, without the hard power of the other BRICs (China, India and Russia), and without a closer relationship with the United States and Europe?

 It is difficult to resist the thought that if Brazil punched below its weight in regional and global affairs before the 1990s it is now attempting to punch above its weight - in global affairs at least.

About the author

Leslie Bethell is emeritus professor of Latin American history, University of London; emeritus fellow, St Antony’s College, Oxford; honorary research fellow, Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London; senior research associate, Centro de Pesquisa e Documentação de História Contemporânea do Brasil, Fundação Getulio Vargas, Rio de Janeiro; and senior scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC.

He was the founding director of the Centre for Brazilian Studies (1997-2007) at the University of Oxford. The final volume of his twelve-volume Cambridge History of Latin Ameria - Vol 9, Brazil since 1930 (Cambridge University Press, 1984 - ) was published in 2008. He is currently living in Rio de Janeiro.

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Leslie Bethell is emeritus professor of Latin American history, University of London; emeritus fellow, St Antony’s College, Oxford; honorary research fellow, Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London; senior research associate, Centro de Pesquisa e Documentação de História Contemporânea do Brasil, Fundação Getulio Vargas, Rio de Janeiro; and senior scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC.

He was the founding director of the Centre for Brazilian Studies (1997-2007) at the University of Oxford. The final volume of his twelve-volume Cambridge History of Latin Ameria - Vol 9, Brazil since 1930 (Cambridge University Press, 1984 - ) was published in 2008. He is currently living in Rio de Janeiro.

Also by Leslie Bethell in openDemocracy:

"Brazil's election: politics and personalities" (16 April 2010)


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