On Point: Brazil Seeks a Larger International Role

by Austin Bay
November 16, 2010

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

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

Brazilians contend their involvement in the high-profileIranian nuclear negotiations was not global grandstanding. They argue theybring relevant experience to any nuclear-related discussions, be the immediatesubject building nuclear reactors to generate electricity, or designingeffective programs to stop weapons proliferation, or prying existing bombs froma rogue power. Brazil once had a clandestine nuclear weapons program but endedit, 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 understoodthat Brazilian diplomats bargaining with Iran were demonstrating their abilityto marginalize him and his regime. He felt snubbed and declined an Iranianinvitation to attend a conference in Tehran. Brazil sees itself in SouthAmerica as the logical coordinator of regional policy. A jealous Chavez seeksthat role.

Poor Hugo. Brazil already possesses the size, populationand resources to become a global power, and it is certainly South America'ssuperpower. Over the last two decades, it has pursued several regional goalsthat 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 alsogave Brazil a "continental" political platform, which itswell-trained and sophisticated diplomatic corps knows how to use.

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

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

As for the larger world? Some Brazilian futurists seetheir nation, with its modern armaments industry, multiracial democracy andburgeoning population, as the potential leader of a group of modernized ThirdWorld nations, with South Korea and South Africa as members of this theoreticalgroup. It would offer an alternative economic and political alignment toWestern European-, American- or Chinese-led alliances. Though grandiose, thecenterpiece of the concept is mutual economic interests without historicalbaggage.

An alternative model for securing Brazilian powerinternationally, however, relies on historical and cultural connections: aPortuguese-speaking "Commonwealth" consisting of a looseconfederation of former Portuguese colonies, with Brazil supplying the leadership.The commonwealth would include Angola and Mozambique, and essentiallyre-establish the "band of the Portuguese" that once stretched fromGuinea 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 politicalcorruption and continues to shrink its debt, the scoffers joke that theirnation will perpetually remain the world's "future superpower." 

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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