Brazil in the Middle East

A Regional Power in a Changed Hemisphere

Michael Werz and Winny Chen analyze Brazil’s newfound clout in international affairs and how this clout highlights a shift in traditional power structures.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, welcomes Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva during an official welcoming ceremony in Tehran on May 16, 2010. Brazil and Turkey both voted against a United Nations Security Council measure two weeks ago to enhance sanctions on Iran. (AP/Vahid Salemi)
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, welcomes Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva during an official welcoming ceremony in Tehran on May 16, 2010. Brazil and Turkey both voted against a United Nations Security Council measure two weeks ago to enhance sanctions on Iran. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

The vote two weeks ago by the United Nations Security Council to enhance sanctions on Iran was yet another indication that traditional power structures in international affairs are slowly but steadily shifting. The U.N. resolution—a response to Iran’s continued efforts to build a nuclear weapon—will expand the existing arms embargo, freeze Iranian assets, and prevent the regime from acquiring technology for ballistic missiles. Brazil and Turkey, both close partners of the United States until very recently, were the only dissenters among a total of 15 Security Council members, and both voted against the measure, openly distancing themselves from the Obama administration and the world community.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan negotiated a preliminary deal with the Iranian government on uranium enrichment in recent weeks, attempting to stamp their respective countries’ tickets for the diplomatic big league. The initiative irritated the United States, Russia, and Europe, but the Security Council ultimately brushed it aside when permanent member country representatives argued that “the swap proposal negotiated by Brazil and Turkey would leave Iran with enough material to make a nuclear weapon,” noting that “Iran intends to continue a new program of enriching uranium to a higher level.”

Brazil failed to convince a single other country to vote against the American-sponsored resolution, which rendered ambivalent results of its major attempt to secure a new position on the global stage and publicly assert its independence from the United States. But Iran might not really have been at the core of Brazil’s initiative, commented Oliver Stuenkel, a visiting professor of international affairs at the University of Sao Paulo, in the Los Angeles Times. Rather, Lula was “making a broader argument that current structures of global governance are unjust and that emerging powers should have greater say.”

The Iran initiative—celebrated as a “triumph of diplomacy” by President Lula—is only the latest in a series of diplomatic activities that indicate how much Latin America has changed during the past decade. For instance, China has become a strategic ally for Brazil and is its second-largest trading partner. And the country has played an increasingly important role in the Doha round of international trade negotiations. Its buoyancy was also expressed during the Copenhagen climate summit this year when Brazil, India, South Africa, and China vigorously and successfully challenged the United States and Europe by blocking a binding agreement.

Brazil’s ultimately unsuccessful step into Middle Eastern affairs is an important indicator of the country’s ambitions in global relations, and these ambitions illustrate a trend that affects the United States: The American role as stabilizer of the world is seen as a given, but unlike in the Cold War era, active disengagement from the U.S. agenda does not decrease an emerging country’s power in the international sphere—in fact, it often does the opposite. Additionally, emerging powers see recognition and public difference of opinion with the United States as valuable political currencies in their foreign policies.

The disintegration of the block confrontation has provided many opportunities for emerging powers to establish pragmatic associations like the one between Brazil, Turkey, and Iran, and these associations are potentially counterproductive to U.S. interests. Lula has used the Iran nuclear crisis to take yet another step in creating a new, alternative paradigm of developing or medium-power countries in world affairs, and the United States should pay particular attention to Brazil’s rise on the world stage and what this means for global power structures.

A regional powerhouse and international player

The military still had the final say in Brazil’s foreign policy as recently as 1984, but democratization and economic growth have opened up new options for Latin America’s most important nation. While the United States was absorbed with antinarcotic strategies in Colombia during the 1990s, Lula’s predecessor President Fernando Henrique Cardoso engaged many neighboring countries in a project of greater economic integration resulting in the Brasilia Communiqué.

Over the last seven years the country has seen solid economic growth. Its international reserves have ballooned from $38 billion to $240 billion, its inflation has been significantly controlled, and roughly 20 million people have been lifted from poverty in Latin America’s largest economy. Moreover, Brazil has been active in the Doha Development Round of trade negotiations for the World Trade Organization.

A successful U.S. foreign policy must fully appreciate Brazil’s new position. The country has become a regional powerhouse with many international ties. It has, for example, earned a seat at some of the most influential international institutions, and is now a member of the U.N. Security Council, the G-20, and the informal groupings of BRIC and BASIC.

Brazil’s move to help create a South American Defense Council within the intergovernmental Union of South American Nations in March of 2009 is another example of its increasing leadership role. This defense forum aims to increase transparency in military expenditures, promote military cooperation among its member states, and resolve regional disputes. The creation of defense organizations that exclude the United States highlights the increasing pressure on the United States to renew its presence in a dramatically changed regional environment.

Brazil also has led the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti for the last several years. It deployed 1,200 troops in 2004 and continues to be a key partner with the United States in postearthquake reconstruction efforts. Its leadership role in the earthquake mission helped build its credibility as a regional crisis mediator.

Brazil is using this soft power as yet another important and new tool to reach out to the world. When President Lula inaugurated the new TV Brazil International station, he noted that an additional 40 countries would finally receive “neutral news,” implying partisanship in the traditional American and European news outlets. Such statements indicate a deep-seated unease with the perceived double standards of the old Western politics and media—feelings that are widespread in many emerging societies.

Brazil discovers the Middle East

The joint Brazilian-Turkish negotiation with the Iranian regime was more than just a temporary alliance of convenience, and it will not be the last of such nontraditional coalitions that U.S. diplomacy needs to address in the future. The Brazilian government has seized the opportunity to consolidate its leadership role in the global south and force a conversation about a more inclusive global governance structure. Lula’s international engagement is partly driven by interests of further economic integration, but there’s also a national consensus in the idealistic belief that the country is capable of playing a constructive role through diplomacy.

At the same time, Brazil’s attempts to broker a deal with the Tehran regime undermines the country’s newly acquired respect because the agreement between Brazil, Turkey, and Iran goes against a broad global consensus in at least two important ways. First, Brazil’s democratic and progressive government turns a blind eye to Iran’s flawed elections last year and subsequent repression. Iran also lacks adherence to the principles of the U.N. “Human Development Report.” Second, the agreement that Brazil and Turkey presented to the United Nations went against what the International Atomic Energy Agency and other countries deemed to be necessary actions aimed at stopping Iran from obtaining weapons grade materials. The agreement therefore did not meet the international community’s standards.

Some U.S. policymakers belittled the Iran initiative as naïve. And indeed, Brazil and Turkey both lack experience in diplomatic negotiations with regimes like the one in Tehran. The respective diplomatic corps have yet to deliver solutions that go beyond a “zero problem” policy with neighboring countries. This is proven by the fact that Lula vehemently defended Iran’s nuclear program but did not test Tehran’s willingness to seriously negotiate a deal.

But regardless of these flaws, Brazil’s attempt to establish a new role for itself in the region and in unexpected parts of the world reflects the massive changes that have taken place in South America. One visible consequence is the region’s increased independence from the United States—an ironic development at first sight since democracy only recently took a strong foothold in South America after decades of military dictatorships during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Foreign policy in emerging democracies

Brazil’s and Turkey’s leaders have pursued their international engagement partly because they need to cater to a democratic and vibrant domestic audience. It is easy for the Brazilian government to take on the United States, which is rightly seen as the only global leader that can be held accountable. Such actions allow the Brazilian government to elevate its status by claiming to be better able to define right and wrong in a multipolar world whether this is true or not. This generates considerable political gain at home.

Of course, such a notion of American unipolarity is an illusion, and blaming the United States is a cheap game. But it is a convenient game for progressive Latin American leaders like President Lula, who can draw upon remnants of social-revolutionary rhetoric for popular support and mask the lack of political and ethical direction in their own foreign policy.

Herein lies a challenge for U.S. foreign policy: Hillary Clinton has acknowledged that America sees Brazil “as part of the solution” for global problems and wants a “relationship with Brazil that stands the test of time no matter who our president is and what the political constellation in Brazil is.” But principles for international engagement need to be established for emerging democratic powers such as Brazil, and we need their cooperation in global governance. Brazil has to be recognized as part of an emerging contest and debate over what should be the global standard—but it also has to be reminded that this recognition comes with responsibility.

Brazil has changed dramatically since the United States last checked in on it, but the region’s mammoth has not seen the attention from America that Mexico or Colombia received. Brazil has become the only Latin American country to consciously develop an independent and potentially global foreign policy in over a decade, and it is no doubt only the first of many challenges to the current system of global governance that the Obama administration will face. It is a good place to start trying new and progressive strategies and help reorient Brazil toward becoming a responsible actor within the international community.

Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow at American Progress and Winny Chen is a Policy Analyst and Manager of China Studies for the National Security and International Policy Team at American Progress.

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