Brazilian Ambition

A leader of developing nations, the South American nation inches closer toward the enemy camp.

Brazil is a rising middle power with a vibrant capitalist economy and a democratic government. It is the world’s eighth largest economy and could grow by seven percent or more this year. Its success gives hope to those who have long anticipated a “take off” in Latin America. But Brazil is also a revisionist power. Under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, it has worked with other rising powers to overthrow the international system designed by the Western powers and led by the United States. This month’s elections in Brazil will bring in a new president, but not a change in this policy.

In the years after the Soviet Union collapsed, it was hoped that the spread of democracy and capitalism would remove the ideological elements that had fueled great power confrontations and usher in an era of international cooperation. This is not how things have turned out. The realist view of world politics holds that nations have inherently conflicting interests because of competition for resources and markets, insecurity due to imbalances in power and wealth, and ambitions to control their surroundings. These factors exist independent of state or economic organization.

Brazil’s President Lula da Silva has served for eight years and cannot serve a third term. His designated successor and chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, is expected to win the Oct. 31 runoff election after winning 46 percent of the vote in the first round on Oct. 3. Under Lula, the country has emerged from its past chronic financial instability. Brazilian politics has shifted to the Left since the military dictatorship was replaced by democratic elections. There are still complaints about excessive government regulation and Lula has introduced new social programs, but he has also put economic growth first and supported the expansion of Brazilian business. He has more than doubled military spending, not only buying combat aircrafts, missiles, and submarines from Russia and Europe, but also developing a Brazilian defense industry and cooperating with China on space projects.

Lula has built a broad base of domestic support which has allowed him to move onto the world stage with a more active foreign policy based and on a more left-wing revisionist posture than is evident in his policies at home. Rousseff, an economist who was a guerrilla fighter during the dictatorship, is expected to continue Lula’s policies.

Lula has aimed at ending the “unipolar” hegemony of the United States by joining coalitions that can balance American (and Western) influence to create a multipolar order more favorable to Brazilian interests. These coalitions can act within international organizations like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization to contain American power and to influence the rules and norms that will govern world affairs. The objective is to constrain the ability of the U.S. to act unilaterally, while giving Brazil and its partners more freedom to act on their own.

The two main coalitions of powers to which Brazil belongs are BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) and BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China).

The first group’s main focus is the UN climate talks where a new global treaty is being written to limit green house gas (GHG) emissions after the current Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. The most recent conference hosted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was held in the Chinese port city of Tianjin on Oct. 4-9. It is the last conference before the Cancun, Mexico summit where a treaty might be presented. The attempt to reach agreement last December in Copenhagen failed due to the continuing clash of national interests between the developed and developing nations.

The developed countries, led by the U.S. and European Union, are the only ones required under the Kyoto treaty to reduce their GHG emissions. The developing countries, led by BASIC, are currently free of mandates and are determined to stay that way so as not to slow growth. This is called the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and is enshrined in UN documents. Thus, the impasse persisted in Tianjin.

China has assumed the informal leadership of BASIC.  Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo led the host country’s delegation. According to a report by the official Xinhua news service, he insisted that the developing countries “right” to economic growth be respected. “The developed countries should set the targets to take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and arrangements should be made to provide adequate financial and technological support to developing countries,” he said.

After the UNFCCC ended, the BASIC countries stayed in Tianjin and convened their own meeting with the addition of Yemen, Ethiopia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Egypt. The aim was to maintain their solidarity going towards Cancun in December. A major concern was that in the absence of a comprehensive treaty covering all nations, the developed countries, which may further expand their more restrictive environmental standards, will impose “border adjustment” taxes to prevent countries which do not adopt costly GHG limits from gaining a competitive advantage. BASIC wants the UNFCCC to adopt language to “reject the use of unilateral protectionist measures” by developed countries.

The statement issued by BASIC also called on the developed nations to make good on the $30 billion pledged last year in Copenhagen to aid developing nations in “adapting” to climate change, and to transfer technology to the developing world. And they declared that intellectual property rights should not be used to block such technology transfers.

The UNFCCC talks have little to do with climate, and everything to do with reordering the economic balance of power in the world. This is also the situation in the WTO Doha Round of trade talks where the same revisionist coalition is at work. The WTO talks started in 2001 in Doha, Qatar after failing to launch in Seattle in 1999. The negotiations broke down in Cancun in 2003 and have been stalled ever since. Brazil played a leading role in producing the stalemate by rallying developing states against the agenda presented by the U.S. and EU which concentrated on opening foreign markets to more Western investment, financial services, and government procurement, as well as more “free trade” in high-end manufactured goods. These are all areas of strategic interest to developing countries who do not want to be consigned to a secondary tier of activities in low wage industries and raw material production.

Brazil demanded that the Western agenda be blocked until agricultural markets in Europe and America are opened to its exports by the ending of programs that subsidize domestic farmers. China gave Brazil strong support. At the same time, the developing bloc objected to opening its own markets on the grounds of “food security”– a subject important to many developed countries as well. The developing countries have also demanded the right to protect key industries from import competition, using the classic “infant industries” argument as well as national security concerns. But at the same time, they have demanded (again with strong Brazilian leadership) that intellectual property rights be suspended for medicines so developing countries can produce cheaper copies of Western products to replace imports.

Brazil’s diplomacy has taken even more threatening forms as it has moved into non-traditional areas like the Middle East. Brazil has formed close ties with Iran. President Lula welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Brazil only a few months after Iran’s fraudulent 2009 elections, lending his credibility as a democrat to the Tehran regime. Brazil is working with Turkey as it shifts its alignment away from the West under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan’s Islam-based Justice and Development Party has won an impressive series of popular votes. In May, Brazil and Turkey crafted a nuclear deal that would have allowed Iran to ship some of its uranium abroad for enrichment. It proved an unsuccessful ploy to head off new UN sanctions on Iran, but strengthen Brazil’s position as a leader of the anti-sanctions movement.

Brazil and its BRIC partners are now targeting “unilateral” sanctions on Iran by the U.S. and its allies. The BRIC coalition has proposed a resolution to the UN General Assembly to condemn the use of unilateral (meaning non-UNSC approved) sanctions as a matter of principle. Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim has said, “In some cases we’re even against multilateral sanctions, so for sure unilateral sanctions aren’t welcome because they’re outside the U.N. system.” Iran would be the prime beneficiary of such a resolution, but it would also help many other rogue nations.

It will be harder to get a pro-Western consensus on UNSC action in the near future. Brazil was elected to the UN Security Council last year. On Oct. 12, India and South Africa were elected without opposition for two-year terms on the UNSC. China and Russia are permanent members of the UNSC with vetoes. Thus, the entire BASIC and BRIC groups will sit on the UN’s principal policy-making body for the next year.

Nationalism is a natural and powerful political force that can provide democratic majorities for governments whose ambitions are opposed to the interests of the United States. Washington will have to get its own financial house in order, maintain its military strength, and make full use of its diplomatic leverage in a world of increasingly contentious states. Rising powers cannot always be accommodated. America must be prepared to actively defend its preeminent position in the global order.