Brazil Rising


Autumn 2008

Brazil Rising

Maria Regina Soares de Lima

Brazil’s very recent emergence on the global stage has fueled debate in the country between those advocating adaptation to international norms and those who view Brazil’s real interests conflicting with the current world order. The latter position urges the Brasilia leadership to strive to create new norms that serve Brazil’s interests.

The key aim of Brazilian foreign policy has long been to achieve international recognition as a major player in international affairs. This aim stemmed from its belief that it should assume its “natural” role as a “big country” in the world arena.1 Now, as a result of the concurrence of a changing international environment and an altered domestic polity, Brazil seems closer than ever before to achieving this aim. It is gaining increasing international recognition and is poised to emerge as a “big power.” However, there remain several challenges that need to be addressed in order for Brazil to meaningfully participate in global governance. This article outlines the factors that have led to Brazil’s rise, the conceptual basis of Brazilian foreign policy, and the challenges ahead.

It is clearly visible that Brazil is increasingly recognized as a major player in the international arena. It is included among the “outreach five countries” along with China, India, Mexico, and South Africa, which participate in “constructive engagement” with the G-8. Engagement also seems to be the goal of the European Union, which has established strategic partnerships with countries such as South Africa, Brazil, and India. It is interesting that the increased attention given to Brazil is not necessarily linked to military capacity, but rather to Brazil’s ever greater importance in the global economy.

This rising importance has been triggered by two major changes in the international environment. The first is economic globalization and the spread of capitalism. Many developing countries abandoned their previous economic models and took to capitalism after the end of the Cold War. As a result, many of these peripheral countries, such as Brazil, became strongly integrated into the international economy through their participation in global chains of production. This has led to a new intermediate layer of emerging economies such as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and the Large Peripheral Countries (LPC). Some of these developing countries evolved their own forms of state-coordinated capitalism through which governments perform not only the regulatory role of the state, but also foster policies for social inclusion, and more assertive foreign policies. A consequence of this has been the questioning of the traditional models of economic growth and development. The space available for countries such as Brazil to showcase their own paths of development in the international arena has increased.

The second major change in the international environment that had a positive impact on Brazil was the demise of authoritarian governments and the successful transitions to democracy in Latin America and Eastern Europe in the 1990s. Latin America’s position under US influence during the Cold War had been detrimental for democracy in the region. Today, Cold War-style military interventions are no longer possible. In this new context progressive governments have not only been elected but have also been able to carry out their terms.

It was in this new international context that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government was elected to power in 2002. As Brazil has become more integrated into the global economy, its negotiating positions have gradually become more assertive—both in the domain of trade and in the political forums of the United Nations. In the future, Brazil might benefit further from the rising importance of energy and food production in global geopolitics. It is already a large producer of bio-fuels. If the expected discovery of oil off the Brazilian coast is confirmed, Brazil will also play a major role in the production of conventional fuels. In food production, Brazil stands out not only as a competitive agricultural and mineral commodities exporter but also as an important agricultural producer. Naturally, the potential benefits of these strengths will also depend on the policies followed by the Brazilian government.

Brazilian Foreign Policy

It is possible to identify two main strands of thought in Brazilian foreign policy. The first could be called “cosmopolitanism” or a “search for credibility,” which places emphasis on the need to view the country from the outside. According to this view, Brazil does not have a surplus of power, and therefore needs to assert itself through international cooperation on the basis of international rules and institutions. In concrete terms, this implies that Brazil should adjust to the world by adapting itself to the constraints of global governance, and it should complete the cycle of structural economic reforms initiated in the 1990s in response to the demands of global capitalism. This concept also advocates that Brazil should play a constructive role in the international order, which could lead to the forsaking of traditional Brazilian foreign policy principles such as nonintervention, in order to promote democracy or on the grounds of humanitarian intervention.2

The second strand of thought places much more direct emphasis on an “autonomous foreign policy.” However, the Brazilian perception of autonomy should not be confused with autonomy as defined by realist theorists of international relations. It does not mean attempting to avoid any dependence on other countries and seeking complete self-sufficiency. Rather, it means conceiving Brazil’s position in the world “from the inside,” i.e. based on its specific interests. It implies pursuing Brazil’s interests within a global structure that is perceived to be restrictive and does not favor these interests. The pursuit of autonomy should lead to Brazil’s active participation in the creation and application of international norms that are closer to Brazilian interests and values.3

This second strand of thought has been the guiding principle for the Lula government’s foreign policy. In brief, the government has attempted to: (1) affirm Brazil’s national interests; (2) undertake collective action with other countries from the South to transform the world order; and (3) work toward a global balance of power through the formation of regional power poles.

The government’s actions and the two dominant strands of thought must be viewed within the historical context of Brazilian foreign policy. The two strands of thought can be linked back to two positions that emerged after World War II. The first championed the establishment of privileged relationships with the developed world and the United States in particular as a means to achieve international recognition. A second route placed emphasis on Brazil’s identity as a developing country and advised closer links with what was then called the Third World.4 Each one of these visions was more or less dominant in different governments. Among Brazilian diplomats, the prevailing belief was that Brazil could act as a bridge between the North and the South by serving as a mediator, especially in negotiations involving the international development agenda.

This period produced two important legacies in Brazilian foreign policy. One was the primacy of development over political and military goals in the shaping of foreign policy. The second was a strong attachment to multilateralism. Multilateral arenas were prioritized because of the country’s limited capacity, but also because of Brazil’s support for a series of normative principles closely associated with multilateralism, namely self-determination, nonintervention, and respect for international law.5

In this context the specific contribution of the Lula government’s foreign policy consists in putting into practice through diplomacy the autonomy that for many years was envisioned by much of the foreign policy community. However, even though this concept of autonomy acts as a guiding principle, this does not imply that it will be fully implemented. There are restrictions imposed by the coalition government that supports Lula, which includes centrist parties. The other chief restriction in the pursuit of autonomy is that the government has continued to follow its predecessor’s current-account surplus goals in order to maintain macroeconomic stability.

Despite these constraints, there has been significant foreign policy innovation in Brazil that highlights the assertiveness of the current administration. Brazil is now participating in global politics through many different channels. There is increasing emphasis on regional collaboration within South America through the creation of a South American political community known as the Union of South American Nations (Unasul). Brazil took command of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti (Minustah) in 2004, and has assumed a high-profile role in regional politics. Most recently, it floated a proposal to create a South American Defense Council as a mechanism to prevent conflict in the region.

Brazil’s active campaign for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council demonstrates its new assertiveness. It has also taken a leading role in the coordination of collective action among developing countries through the creation of the G-20, which focuses on agriculture-related issues in the WTO. It has formed South-South coalitions such as the IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) initiative. The formalization of relations between the BRICs, the group made up by Brazil, Russia, India, and China, has created a significant coalition that may become a further mechanism for coordinated action. According to the current Brazilian foreign minister, Celso Amorim, these four countries “are trying to consolidate themselves politically as a bloc that will help to balance and democratize the international order in the beginning of this century.”6

Challenges Ahead

Although Brazil is participating much more actively in international affairs with hopes of democratizing the international order, many challenges remain. Naturally, a foreign policy conception that emphasizes the pursuit of autonomy makes it more difficult to construct convergent positions with dominant powers on a range of issues such as technological innovation, intellectual property, non-tariff barriers, protectionism in agricultural trade, and climate change. This difficulty would be diminished if Brazilian positions shifted toward a more “cosmopolitan” view of participation in international relations. However, if such a shift occurred, then it would be more difficult to establish common positions with countries in the South. This would undermine Brazil’s importance in global governance as a potential leader and coordinator for collective action and consensus in the South.

On the other hand, the harmonization of positions tends to be more costly with countries in the South: either because the North-South agenda is cross-cut by a variety of issues that the current pattern of alignments does not neatly mirror, or because the former Third World coalition today unites an uneven set of countries displaying considerable structural heterogeneity and differentiated interests. For a country like Brazil, the coordination of collective action with countries in the South often implies having to put aside its optimal demands for the sake of the coalition’s cohesion as, for example, in the case of the G-20.

Another significant challenge that must be overcome is the global-regional dilemma common to all regional powers that aspire to become global protagonists. In order to achieve global recognition, these candidates must first be legitimated at the regional level since they do not possess enough material capacity or soft power to act autonomously in international politics. On the other hand, their status also depends on their capacity to coordinate and establish consensus within the South. This delicate equation is not easy to resolve and Brazil has already clashed with Argentina over the possibility of a -permanent seat in the UN Security Council. For Brazil, which has only recently put into practice active regional cooperation, the alliance with Argentina is crucial in order to coordinate collective action in South America, particularly on issues related to security and regional stability. Past experience has shown that positive results are achieved when this happens as, for example, in the recent crises involving Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador.

A second challenge relates specifically to South American politics in which Brazil simultaneously faces fear from other countries in the region and high expectations. Some of its neighbors fear “Brazilian expansionism.” Yet they also expect Brazil to have the capacity and will to provide regional and bilateral collective goods. Brazil’s willingness to fulfil this role will depend not only on its foreign policy aims, but also on the extent to which Brazilian policy makers and society at large acknowledge that substantial investments today will pay off in the long run. This acknowledgement will be strengthened by increasing the volume of Brazilian trade and investment in South America. As borders become increasingly permeable, there will be growing realization in Brazil that a considerable power differential between neighbors presents an enormous challenge, even for the strongest among them. It is still uncertain whether Brazil will be able to advance adequate responses to the challenges and opportunities in its relationship with other South American countries. In doing so, Brazil must avoid giving in to the temptations of hegemony while at the same time maintaining positive relations with its neighbors.

Besides the foreign policy challenges mentioned above, there are also domestic challenges that need to be overcome before Brazil can meaningfully participate in global governance. The Brazilian government needs to develop policies that convert potential wealth into well-being for its population. There is anxiety that the country’s successful participation in the global production of energy and food might further the classical division of labor in which Brazil’s role as a commodities exporter would become inescapable. If this were to happen, Brazil would lose the incentive to invest in technological development and its labor force might not acquire the skills it needs to face global competition, which today is based on the production and trade of goods with high scientific and technological value.

The last but most urgent challenge is the extreme inequalities of wealth that continue to characterize Brazilian society. Although the Lula government, by means of its current income transfer policies, has taken fundamental steps in the reduction of inequality, Brazilian indicators are still far from those of a democratic country that aspires to become a protagonist in global governance.

In order to assume a role as an active participant in global governance, Brazil needs to resolve domestic challenges such as social inequality and technological development. It will also need to resolve complex challenges at the international level, including the need to reconcile diverging interests in its relations with the North, with the South, and with its neighbors. While this international balancing act may never be resolved entirely, its successful management will require a careful synthesis of the “autonomous” and the “cosmopolitan” strands in Brazilian foreign policy.

1) Maria Regina Soares de Lima and Monica Hirst, “Brazil as an Intermediate State and Regional Power: Challenges and Opportunities,” International Affairs, Vol. 82, No. 1 (January 2006) p. 21.
2) For a discussion of the cosmopolitan view in the present, see Maria Regina Soares de Lima, “Aspiração Internacional e Política Externa,” Revista Brasileira de Comércio Exterior, Vol. 19, No. 82 (January/March, 2005).
3) For such elaboration, see Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães, Desafios Brasileiros na Era dos Gigantes, (Contraponto Editora Ltda., 2006).
4)For an analysis of these two positions in the 1950s, see Helio Jaguaribe, O Nacionalismo na Atualidade Brasileira, (Editora Universitária Candido Mendes, 2005). For a similar argument with respect to Latin America, see Rubens Ricupero, “O Brasil, a América Latina e os EUA desde 1930: 60 Anos de uma Relação Triangular,” in J. A. G. Albuquerque (ed.), Sessenta anos de política externa brasileira (1930-1990), (Cultura Editores Associados, 1996).
5) See Maria Regina Soares de Lima and Monica Hirst, “Brazil as an Intermediate State & Regional Power: Challenges and Opportunities,” International Affairs, Vol. 82, No. 1 (January 2006).
6) See Celso Amorim, “Os Brics e a reorganização do mundo,” Tendências/Debates, 08/06/2008.

IP–Global Edition are published by the German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin (DGAP), Germany.

LIMA, Maria R. S. (2008) “Brazil Rising”, IP–Global. Outono de 2008: “Perspectives on a Multipolar World”, pg. 62-67. Disponível em <;

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