A place at the top of the tree

When I began to train as a diplomatic historian of Brazil, friends and family worried that my life was bound to be dull and lonely in the dusty archives. Before the millennium, nobody cared or worried about Brazilian foreign policy.

But then the world changed. The US went to war in the Middle East, Europe faltered, Asia rose, and the institutions that governed the world were evidently no longer up to the task. Unsettling as they were, these transformations opened up a new world of opportunities. Brazil responded accordingly.

It sponsored a web of regional institutions in South America, dished out aid and assistance to Africa, flexed its muscles in the World Trade Organisation, and pushed to make organisations such as the G20 and the Brics new fixtures in the international landscape. By the time the world financial crisis hit in 2007, in capitals around the globe everyone was asking: what does Brazil want?

The typical answers were inauspicious. In Foreign Affairs magazine you could read that Brazil was an “irresponsible stakeholder”, and in Foreign Policy that its aid policies would make the world more “corrupt, chaotic, and authoritarian”. A piece in Global Governance portrays the country as “the most revisionist of all emerging powers … a rising spoiler”.

To my mind, such criticisms miss a subtle point. The Brazilian establishment does not see itself as a challenger of the global order, even if in its eyes the world remains a nasty place dominated by a handful of powerful nations that will do what they can to keep the likes of Brazil in their place. The solution, it says, lies in piecemeal reforms to mitigate existing inequalities of power. Nobody in Brasília wants to rock the boat – just to make it bigger and more balanced.

Thus Brazil says that cherishing non-proliferation is one thing, but sanctioning Iran while rewarding nuclear-armed Israel or India is counterproductive. It also argues that you can be a lover of democracy, just like the US, but this ideal is better served by lifting a 50-year embargo on Cuba. And while Brasília argues that it is right and proper to suspend a country’s sovereign rights when rulers sponsor mass atrocities against their own people, it also insists that Nato’s behaviour in Libya smacked of neo-colonialism.

Yet, when push comes to shove, Brazil struggles to explain what the more balanced world of its dreams would look like. Securing itself a permanent seat in a reformed UN Security Council, or enjoying a few extra perks in the Bretton Woods institutions, does not add up to a compelling vision that others can share. Nor do platitudes about South America as a space of peace and co-operation, which fail to address the many worries of Brazil’s neighbours, some of whom see it, sometimes, as an unaccommodating regional hegemon.

Brazil is sharing the burden of global governance more than before – for example with peacekeeping troops in Haiti. But while its diplomatic service has expanded rapidly over the past decade, it remains too small and underfunded for the country to truly project itself abroad.

Some say that Brazil is exceptionally equipped to bridge the world’s rich and poor, black and white, and Arabs and Jews because its ethnically mixed society is living proof of reconciled national contradictions. But its record in international mediation is not impressive.

Others argue that Brazil represents the voice of the global disfranchised. Yet, for all the rhetoric of “development”, Brazilian foreign policy promotes big business abroad rather than seriously working to improve the lot of the Brazilian majority, who remain either poor or very poor.

No wonder some have construed Brazil’s quest for greater status as little more than an exercise in national vanity and pride, a sense of entitlement based on the country’s belief in its own exceptionalism. Exceptionalist accounts are common to all major powers. It is a rather aristocratic quality, which rests on the assumption that nations can operate on the basis of who they are rather than what they do (a more bourgeois ideal).

Perhaps Brazil’s pride is understandable in view of its long history of imperialism under the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, British and Americans. Only 40 years ago, for example, this is what the British ambassador in Rio de Janeiro had to say: “The Brazilians are still a tremendously second-rate people: but it is equally obvious that they are on their way to a first-rate future.” Today it is only natural that Brazilians should stand up to the hegemonic presumptions that they see as still prevalent in the world.

As I watch Brazil’s current rise from the dusty safety of the archives, my hope is that it will take part in the global conversation.

It would be a shame if policy makers east and west dismissed what Brazilian leaders had to say as too disruptive or irrelevant without first giving them the benefit of the doubt. And it would be a self-inflicted wound if Brazilian statesmen were to walk away, blinded by an overly fervent sense of national pride.

After all, Brazil’s trajectory from colony to economic powerhouse, from stale dictatorship to vibrant democracy, is simply spectacular. There’s a powerful message there.

Matias Spektor is the 2013 Rio Branco Chair in International Relations at King’s College London, and an associate professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro

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