Brazil in South America: The Awakening of the Giant

December 24, 2008

Since the beginning of the Lula administration in 2003, Brazilian foreign policy has been re-oriented towards a renewed and more extended approach to regional politics. Under Lula, Brazil’s foreign policy approach to South America has been outlined by a kind of ‘pragmatic solidarity’ towards its neighbours. Rather than a purely altruistic approach to regional relations, Brazilian diplomacy has delivered a number of ‘regional public goods’ (both material and symbolic) to win over the support of neighbours traditionally reluctant to recognise Brazil’s leadership role in the region.1 This foreign policy strategy has been named by Rubem Barbosa, former Brazilian Ambassador in Washington and London, as diplomacy of ‘generosity’.2

As a regional power, Brazil sought to enhance political influence by engaging in a number of diplomatic missions throughout the region. Brazilian diplomacy has intervened in several domestic and international crises involving Venezuela, Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Haiti. In 2004, Brazil sent a small force to war-torn Haiti taking over from American and French forces commanding the UN peacekeeping operation (MINUSTAH) in that Caribbean island. The key leadership role played by Brazil in Haiti, under the auspices of the UN, has significantly raised Brazil’s international profile as a regional power.3

Rather than being based on classical power attributes or ‘hard power’, Brazil’s influence in regional politics has been achieved through “normative leadership” and the use of ‘opinion-shaping instruments’.4 In this regard, the strategy of leading by example has been a strong feature of Brazilian foreign policy. In 1998, for example, during a ceremony in the US State Department to mark Brazil’s accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Brazilian Foreign Minister, Luis Felipe Lampreia, hailed Brazil’s example as a force for peace and co-operation in South America. In his words,

We believe Brazil has a positive role to play in the world. Brazil is proud to live in harmony with all its ten neighbors, and to have done so uninterruptedly for well over a century. South America today is at once the least-armed region in the world and we have accelerated economic integration. We are setting an example of cooperation and solidarity.5

Brazil’s investment in ‘soft power’ as a means to increase its regional and global stature is illustrated by its willingness to promote democratic rule and the peaceful resolution of conflicts through the strengthening of multilateral mechanisms. More recently, it played an important role within the ‘Rio Group’6 while mediating disputes between Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela over the killing of a key member of the Farc guerrilla group by the Colombian armed forces within Ecuadorian territory.7

The revival of ‘Bolivarianism’ by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela as an alternative source of regional identity is a clear sign of a division in the process of region building led by Brazilian diplomacy. However, the attractive power of Brazil’s economy and its pragmatic stance on regional and global politics have outflanked Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian revolution’ in the struggle for the hearts and minds of Latin American neighbours. Under Lula, the Brazilian government has invested in the diversification of Brazil’s already powerful industrial sector and spent political energy trying to establish new (and reinforcing old) regional institutions. Moreover, the recent discovery of massive oil reserves in Brazil’s Southern coast has allowed Lula to minimize the importance of Venezuela’s only “trump card” to win regional influence.8

Notwithstanding the Brazilian government’s increasing political engagement in South America, the actual recognition of its regional leadership role should not be taken for granted. According to Lima and Hirst, for example,

The expansion of Brazil’s political involvement in local crises, together with growing trade and investment activities with its South American neighbours, has not led to any easy or automatic acknowledgement of the country’s regional leadership in world affairs.9

The advent of open regionalism, which flowed from changes to the international political economy of trade and the reconciliation between newly democratising governments in Brasilia and Buenos Aires in the late 1980s, resulted in the formation of a common market in the southern cone (Mercosur). While trade initially surged within the region, the dominance of the Brazilian economy over the others was underscored by the unilateral decision to devalue its currency in 1999, a move that precipitated a meltdown in the Argentine economy and demonstrated that even the newly founded benevolent relationship could have a negative impact upon its neighbours.

In May 2006, the nationalisation of the gas and oil sectors by the Bolivian president Evo Morales negatively affected bilateral relations with Brazil whose investments, through the state-owned giant Petrobras, are close to US $1 billion. Moreover, Brazil has struggled to gain support among its neighbours for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, with Argentina and Mexico openly rejecting Brazilian claims. More recently, Argentina has angered Brazilian trade representatives by joining forces with India, China and Indonesia to block a trade agreement at the latest Doha round of trade talks. Buenos Aires in turn has accused Brazil of betrayal by moving away from Mercosur’s commonly agreed position on the liberalization of the industrial sector.

Bilateral diplomatic relations with the United States, the hemispheric hegemonic power, are also a key element of Brazil’s regional engagement. For the US, Brazil has small strategic interest in South America, if compared with India, for example, which is geographically located in a crucial region for the US’ ‘War on Terror’. However, bilateral links have been growing due to co-operation in the strategic area of biofuels. Moreover, the Bush administration has strongly invested in Brazil as an alternative source of regional leadership given the divisive role played by Venezuela in regional politics. Diplomatic relations between Brasilia and Washington have also been marked by tensions, mostly as a result of the growing American military involvement in the Colombian conflict in the shared Amazon region. The protection of Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon area has become a central aspect of Lula’s national defence strategy and the US military presence in the Colombian Amazon is seen as a potential threat to regional stability. Similarly, Lula has strongly reacted against criticism by transnational environmentalists, backed by Western governments, who place responsibility for the protection of the Amazon rain forest beyond the authority of the Brazilian government.

The increasing economic involvement of China and Russia in Latin America is perceived by Brazilian diplomacy as a positive development. China has become a major importer of Brazilian commodities and total trade between the two countries grew five-fold between 2000 and 2003 to a value of $8 billion. Similarly, in a recent trip to Brazil, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev affirmed Russia’s interest in deepening political co-ordination with Brazil, India and China (BRIC) to create a new global financial structure. In the security dimension, however, the newly established military ties between Russia and Venezuela can further strain the already troubled relations of Bogotá, Washington and Caracas with likely spill over consequences to neighbouring nations such as Brazil and Ecuador.

In spite of persistent suspicion towards Brazil’s actual interests in regional politics, its global stature and regional assertiveness has instilled admiration and respect by smaller states in the region. Similarly, its macro-economic stability and democratic credentials have worked as a powerful ‘soft power’ instrument vis-à-vis Brazil’s neighbours. Even Argentina, its most strident rival, has been trying to emulate some of Brazil’s foreign and domestic policy successes. In this respect, South-South alliances, such as the India, Brazil, South Africa Dialogue Forum (IBSA), represent an important asset to Brasilia’s goal of consolidating its position of leadership in South America. The recognition of this trilateral arrangement by the international community at large will further legitimate the new role of Brazil as a global leader and as the proper representative of South American interests.

  1. 1. As part of this foreign policy strategy, Brazil has pardoned a long-standing Bolivian debt as well as unfavourably accepted the Bolivian government’s terms concerning the nationalisation of Brazilian assets in Bolivia. It also made substantial donations to Paraguay and also accepted Asuncion’s demands to renegotiate the Itaipu Treaty which is the legal instrument for the economic exploitation of the largest operational hydroelectrical plant in the world in the shared Paraná river.
  2. 2. Lula’s “diplomacy of generosity” has generated a heated domestic debate about Brazil’s long and short-term foreign policy goals in South America. See, for example, R. Barbosa, “Diplomacia da Generosidade”, O Globo, May 13, 2008.
  3. 3. For example, the weekly magazine The Economist referred to Brazil’s presence in Haiti as “a small force, but of huge symbolic significance […] Brazil has begun to flex its muscles as a regional superpower.” For more, see, “Brazil’s Foreign Policy: A Giant Stirs,” The Economist, June 11, 2004.
  4. 4. C. Hill, The Changing Politics of Foreign Policy (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
  5. 5. L. F. Lampreia, Albright, Lampreia Hail Brazil’s Accession to NPT (Transcript). Washington D.C.: US Department of State, 1998, p. 10.
  6. 6. The “Rio Group” was established in 1986 at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is as a permanent mechanism of political consultation and co-ordination among Latin American and Caribbean States.
  7. 7. “Colombian Leader’s Raid Gamble Pays Off,” The Washington Post, March 11, 2008.
  8. 8. “Quietly, Brazil Eclipses and Ally,” The New York Times, July 7, 2008.
  9. 9. M. R. S. Lima and M. Hirst, “Brazil as an Intermediate State and Regional Power: Action, Choice and Responsibilities,” International Affairs 82 (1) 2006, p. 21.