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On Point

Brazil Seeks a Larger International Role


by Austin Bay
November 16, 2010

When Brazil and Turkey tried to negotiate a complex uranium swap with Iran this past summer, international media focused on Turkey's diplomatic role. That focus was understandable. Turkey is a neighbor of Iran's and is a military and economic power in the Middle East.

Brazil, however, has for over a decade signaled its intention to play a larger role in international affairs. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva expanded Brazil's diplomatic and political reach, with Brazil's strong economy as leverage. Brazil has the world's eighth largest economy in terms of gross domestic product. President-elect Dilma Rousseff has given every indication she will continue his active foreign policy and economic programs. Though ostensibly left-leaning (as is Lula), after her election Roussef announced she would control inflation and limit government spending. She takes office in January 2011.

Brazilians contend their involvement in the high-profile Iranian nuclear negotiations was not global grandstanding. They argue they bring relevant experience to any nuclear-related discussions, be the immediate subject building nuclear reactors to generate electricity, or designing effective programs to stop weapons proliferation, or prying existing bombs from a rogue power. Brazil once had a clandestine nuclear weapons program but ended it, peacefully, without warfare.

Engaging Iran also involved Brazilian regional interests, albeit opaquely. Iran and Brazil's troublesome neighbor to the north, Venezuela, have a budding alliance. Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez understood that Brazilian diplomats bargaining with Iran were demonstrating their ability to marginalize him and his regime. He felt snubbed and declined an Iranian invitation to attend a conference in Tehran. Brazil sees itself in South America as the logical coordinator of regional policy. A jealous Chavez seeks that role.

Poor Hugo. Brazil already possesses the size, population and resources to become a global power, and it is certainly South America's superpower. Over the last two decades, it has pursued several regional goals that have secured its dominance on the continent.

The creation of the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR, also Mercosul in Portuguese) in 1995 made economic sense. The organization also gave Brazil a "continental" political platform, which its well-trained and sophisticated diplomatic corps knows how to use.

Brazil's various Amazon defense initiatives have strengthened it domestically and regionally. Brazil has 11,000 kilometers of Amazonian border facing seven different countries. Various military journals have reported that Brazil is constructing an "advanced military belt" in Amazon regions facing Colombia, Guyana, Venezuela and Bolivia. Government control in many of these regions is weak. Drug traffickers, gold miners, landowners and criminal organizations operate outside of Brazilian law. Brazil intends to end that anarchy and exert control.

Stabilizing shaky governments in the western hemisphere is another Brazilian interest. This used to mean controlling Castroite insurgents; now it means blunting the likes of Chavez and fighting drug gangs. This has an internal security dimension. Defense officials are concerned that links between former leftists and the gangs in Brazil's violent urban slums could produce a new series of insurgencies. The "favelas" (slums) of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are already plagued by gang warfare, crime and political turmoil.

As for the larger world? Some Brazilian futurists see their nation, with its modern armaments industry, multiracial democracy and burgeoning population, as the potential leader of a group of modernized Third World nations, with South Korea and South Africa as members of this theoretical group. It would offer an alternative economic and political alignment to Western European-, American- or Chinese-led alliances. Though grandiose, the centerpiece of the concept is mutual economic interests without historical baggage.

An alternative model for securing Brazilian power internationally, however, relies on historical and cultural connections: a Portuguese-speaking "Commonwealth" consisting of a loose confederation of former Portuguese colonies, with Brazil supplying the leadership. The commonwealth would include Angola and Mozambique, and essentially re-establish the "band of the Portuguese" that once stretched from Guinea Bisseau to Macau. Please avoid the term "neo-colonialism," especially in front of the Angolans.

Many Brazilians scoff that both notions are grandiose. Unless Brazil reduces poverty, solves its problem of endemic political corruption and continues to shrink its debt, the scoffers joke that their nation will perpetually remain the world's "future superpower." 

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