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
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
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
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."