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Finally, Becoming Brazil

As Brazil, the Latin American powerhouse, is becoming more of an important actor on the world stage, questions arise as to what this means for the Southern hemisphere and the United States, for whom Brazil has been a strategic sphere of influence since the 1823 Monroe Doctrine. Brazil just took over the United Kingdom as the world’s sixth largest economy, with a GDP of 2.5 trillion dollars, and growth rates of 7.5 percent in 2010, and that despite a contraction over the last years. In addition to a population of 200 million, economic success will certainly be translated into diplomatic, political, and geostrategic clout. What kind of rising Brazil should we expect on the world scene, particularly in its foreign relations with its Latin American neighbors, and what does this all mean for the U.S’ waning hegemony?

Economic Modernization

Brazil’s ascendancy as a global power in the last twenty years has been a result of the country’s long, effective strides in two overlapping fields: its economy and politics. It could not have been expected otherwise, given that Brazil constitutes forty-three percent of the South American continent, and with an explosive multicultural demography of 200 million, Brazil is one of the most naturally endowed countries in the world. As take-off conditions have been met, the country has been propelled into the modern global economic order with unrivaled impetus, finally on track to fulfill its long-unrealized potential. After seven turbulent years readjusting to a civilian democratic regime, by 1992, with the arrival of Fernando Henrique Cardoso to the Ministry of Finance, the country switched gears, emerging as an international player with unpredictable celerity. Its economy has shifted a pauperized society into a consumer one. With less than three percent of the world population, Brazil accounts for over five percent of the global GDP. This cannot be attributed solely to the country’s astounding natural endowments; Brazil is not a petro-state. Its industry expanded by over ten percent in 2010, in the midst of the financial crisis. The features of Brazil’s rise are widely recognized: expanded exports, recent oil discoveries, a tamed inflation, financial confidence, social assistance focused on the needy, and growing foreign and domestic investment.

Brazil is becoming a pioneer in biofuels in an effort to secure its energy supplies and partake in the innovative search for alternate energies; its specialization in the manufacturing of heavy-duty equipment like submarines and aircraft illustrates Brazil’s polyvalence in domains that demarcate hegemons from the rest. Its top tier space program is just another exhibit of Brazil’s compelling emergence. The country’s growth, with many goals still to attain, has been formidably even, thanks to good governance and sound macroeconomic policies.

A key global player?

Aside from its economic success, Brazil’s ascendance also should be understood as a product of an effective domestic and foreign policy. Brazil’s foreign policy framework is predicated on the aegis of multilateralism and diplomacy. Brazil has become a key actor in multilateral forums on AIDS, poverty, environmental and climactic issues, energy security and other issues of global importance. While Brazil used to be a debtor nation from the IMF, its growing economic leverage over the last twenty years has been remarkable. Newly elected President Rousseff decided Brazil will donate approximately 10 billion dollars to the IMF, a policy deemed less risky than buying EU treasury bonds, to assist Europe in getting out of its debt crisis. This shows Brazil’s desire to nurture a global reputation and prestige in part through assistance as well as through major international events such as the FIFA World Cup in 2014 or the 2016 Summer Olympics. In addition, Brazil contributes important sums to the World Bank, UN peacekeeping operations, the G20, food security, and reconstruction funds and programs. Brazil’s leadership seems to have a reinvigorating effect for the global south and particularly growing powers such as China, India, Russia.

xH.E. Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, at the 66th session of the UN General Assembly in New York

Brazil also took the initiative with Turkey to negotiate a deal with Iran to resolve the nuclear imbroglio. The U.S did not take the deal seriously and marginalized the Brazilian-Turkish axis internationally and diplomatically. Nonetheless, Brazil has demonstrated that it is ready to play a vital global role, beyond regional hegemony. Brazil’s attempt to get a UN Security Council Seat, unendorsed by the U.S, was emblematic of the country’s position and vision as a global economic power.

Nationalist populism of a defensive kind is also taking root, and that might mean that Brazil will not be as deferential to Washington as in the past. Brazil wants to be taken seriously, as her vocalizations in the Iranian nuclear negotiations, to the detriment of U.S policy, demonstrated. The U.S should embrace the rising Brazilian giant; it should increase trade and investment, scientific exchange and cooperation, on the basis of mutual respect and strategic goals. Brazil seems to offer a palatable partner for other global giants; it seems less diplomatically inflexible than either China or Russia (as their unwavering support for Syria shows). Nonetheless, if the U.S wants to protect its hemispheric interests, it will have to welcome a Brazil that will be able to be a viable leader in the Southern Cone; one that can be trusted and one that can guarantee unity, openness in markets, and as little cross-border conflict or narcotics spills as possible. That will be the first test to one of the most underestimated BRICs and one of the most stunning examples of geopolitical emergences of this century.

This is not to say that the U.S is declining as a superpower. The U.S is still the world’s sole superpower in a unipolar order for years to come. However, its ability to exercise its influence is not the same as in the 1990s. What that means is that a more assertive Brazil, a Brazil cognizant of its own successes and determined to see a world order more reflective of the recent power transmutations in favor of the East, and thus less predicated on post World-War II distributions, will be a challenge to U.S hegemony in its traditional sphere of influence. This is especially true as Chinese interest in Latin America increases. Latin America’s raw materials and agricultural exports have been imported into China at an increasing rate. Chinese diplomacy wants to use trade and investment to strengthen its ties with the region; particularly with Brazil, as China seems to present itself to Latin America as an attractive strategic alternative to U.S hegemony.

Two Reflections on this Rise:

Skeptical View

Some believe, however, that the BRICS may not yet be capable of becoming world powers, mainly because of the West’s military and diplomatic muscle. Despite their impressive economic and regional expansion recently, the extent to which this has been translated effectively into political weight is still questionable. For example, Brazil – even if it is now the sixth largest economy in the world – could not have projected its own military power to intervene in Libyan theatre, compared to the British or French or any other NATO power, or even have much of a say in the geostrategically vital Middle East. The Western hemisphere is still under the U.S hegemonic umbrella at least for a while, and there are simply limits to Brazilian geopolitical rise for the time being. Nevertheless, it is clear Brazil will be a strong pole to be regarded highly by other hegemonic powers.

Yet one of the problems, not limited to Brazil alone, is the recent deindustrialization which has led to protectionist measures. Undermining the idea of a customs union (Mercosur), Brazil has imposed trade tariffs. Intra-Latin American trade is relatively low compared to intraregional trade elsewhere. Brazil should send a different economic message to its own neighbors – that it is committed to economic modernization, before projecting its power any further.

Also, according to The Economist ,Brazil is in the red zone with regards to its monetary maneuverability and fiscal flexibility. The “wiggle-room index” offers a rough ranking of which economies are best placed to withstand another global downturn, and Brazil’s indicators are concerning in that respect.

Optimistic View

Brazil’s emergence has been impressive because of its pragmatic, equilibrated nature. Its growing leverage has been much less controversial, and thus, more appealing than has the growth of any other BRIC nation: India with its unresolved status in Kashmir and very uneven growth is still lagging behind; China’s spectacular growth has been met with suspicion in and outside Asia with regards to its single-party dictatorship and the nature of its regional ambitions;  Russia has become increasingly unstable and authoritarian. Brazil presents an enviable alternative to global power configurations. Regionally the country has been a model to all its neighbors, regardless of the recent South American division between pro and anti-American camps. Through front-running the peacekeeping mission in Haiti in 2004 and the movement against the Honduran coup of Manuel Zelaya, as well as mediating between Colombia and its neighbors when sparks have flared, Brazil has been a viable mediator and regional anchor. However, its breadth is not limited to the region, as this article has shown.

Those who regard this ascendance with skepticism will ask what is Brazil really hoping to attain with its geopolitical rise? This question is a short-sighted question. One could reply by saying that perhaps what Brazil wants to earn is nothing more than a global reputation reflective of its growth and success. A distinct form of non-predatory leadership is bound to emerge. While much work is still to be done and many domestic and social issues remain  pending, Brazil’s sound policies and effective management will continue to pay dividends. Whatever the case, it’s not over yet. Brazil’s political and economic “Jogo Bonito” is here to stay. In the meanwhile, let the samba continue!


–  Jaïs Mehaji and Lorenzo Garcia-Andrade Llamas


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  1. Congratulations!! Very interesting. Big hug!

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