No Consistency in Brazil's Foreign Policy
Written by John Fitzpatrick
Tuesday, 20 December 2005
Brazil has been hitting the international headlines recently, not for the usual reasons of the Carnaval, destruction of the Amazon or urban violence, but because of its participation in the world trade talks in Hong Kong. Brazil was among the leading developing countries demanding an end to farm subsidies in the European Union and United States.
Foreign Minister, Celso Amorim, and Trade Minister, Luiz Furlan, were insistent in their defense of Brazil's position. Perhaps their efforts helped bring about the pledge by the EU to phase out subsidies by 2013 although if you believe that will happen then you will believe anything.
However, this "tough" approach, as TV Bandeirantes described it, contrasts with Brazil's pussycat approach to trade talks with China, Russia and Argentina. These three countries got ample concessions from the government of President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva but gave nothing in return. This highlights the inconsistency of Brazil's foreign policy.
China, for example, was recognized as a "market economy" at the end of 2004. By doing so, Brazil gave up its right, under international trade regulations, to impose anti-dumping barriers on subsidized Chinese goods. For its part, China did nothing to help Brazil in its desire for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and then blocked soybean imports on flimsy technical grounds.
Russia got Brazilian support for its application to join the World Trade Organization but also did nothing to help Brazil achieve its UN aims. It was also quick to ban imports of Brazilian beef following the recent isolated incidents of foot-and-mouth disease.
Brazil has allowed Argentina to impose protectionist measures against selected Brazilian exports even though these went against the rules governing the Mercosur free trade area.
The approach adopted in Hong Kong shows how incompetently Brazil acts in foreign affairs. This should not come as a surprise since it is debatable whether the Lula government even has a foreign policy. Few people complain, since most Brazilians are uninterested in what happens abroad.
There are understandable reasons for this popular indifference. Brazil consists of vast regions which could have formed separate countries, as happened in Spanish-speaking Latin America. The differences between the regions are often striking.
Brazilians in southern states like Rio Grande do Sul, for example, have more in common with their neighbors in Uruguay and Argentina than their countrymen in Belém. The lifestyle of the people in Acre is more like that of neighboring Bolivia (to which it used to belong) than Rio de Janeiro. Most Brazilians will go through their lives without visiting other regions or even states.
Unlike China, which has fought fairly recent wars with neighbors, such as the Soviet Union, India and Vietnam, or India, which has fought China and Pakistan, Brazil has had no serious security problem with its neighbors.
This means it does not constantly have to check on what its neighbors are doing, with the exception of Argentina which sees itself as a rival to Brazil. Nor does not have to keep the country alert to alleged threats from its neighbors and whip up xenophobia. This antagonism is directed more towards the distant Americans and, to a lesser extent, Europeans.
The end of mass immigration almost a century ago has left Brazil and Latin America more isolated culturally from Europe. Economically, the rise of the Pacific Rim countries and the break-up of the Soviet Union have pushed Latin America even further aside.
Compare the pace of development of places like Japan and South Korea over the last 40 years with the decline of Brazil and Argentina. These trends have helped marginalize Brazil and South America and the region has struggled to cope with globalization. English Not Spoken Here
This indifference to foreign affairs is seen in domestic politics. Few politicians have any interest in foreign affairs or speak another language, even Spanish. Lula has frequently sneered at his polyglot predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, probably the most cosmopolitan of Brazilian politicians.
Lula showed his own ignorance earlier this year when he told a meeting in New York that Brazil shared a border with every Latin American country except Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia, overlooking the fact that Brazil has a 3,000 kilometer border with Bolivia.
This inward-looking approach does not prevent politicians going on foreign trips usually described as "fact-finding" missions. São Paulo state governor and potential presidential candidate, Geraldo Alckmin, recently visited the Middle East and India.
Former president José Sarney is a Francophile and is constantly in France although how these visits help his constituents in Amapá is a mystery. Events like the opening of the United Nations General Assembly always draw a Congressional contingent, which can spend an enjoyable few days in Manhattan visiting Central Park and catching the latest Broadway musical at the taxpayers' expense.
The result of this popular and political lack of interest is that foreign policy is left in the hands of the officials at the Itamaraty Palace in Brasília. The FOREIGN MINISTER in this government, Celso Amorim, is a career diplomat rather than a politician. His predecessor in the Cardoso government, Celso Lafer, was also not a politician.
This is part of a tradition going back a century. The Baron of Rio Branco, who helped shape Brazil's modern frontiers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, said on assuming the post of Foreign Minister: "I have not come here to serve a political party but to serve our Brazil which we all want to see united, integrated, strong and respected."
In an article which appeared in the November issue of the magazine "Nossa História", Professor Francisco Doratioto of the Catholic University of Brasília, said of Rio Branco's statement: "It established, therefore, the principle that the Itamaraty represents the interests of the Brazilian nation and not those of the government...
"This directive resulted in Brazilian foreign policy being more consistent and coherent in the following decades than that of neighboring countries where diplomatic activity varied as governments changed, making it difficult for them to defend their national interests."
This is how the current head of the Itamaraty, Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães Neto, summed up Brazil's foreign policy when he assumed office in 2003: "Political and economic cooperation with Europe, that has been so important for our development, should be expanded. Cooperation with Africa should seek new projects to help overcome its difficulties, a policy in which the CPLP (Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries) play a valuable role.
"With respect to the countries of the Middle East, whose descendants live in harmony here, we wish to help them find a peaceful solution for their differences. And we will do our best to cultivate closer relations of every kind with Japan, India, and China."Sham Agenda
The reality behind this rhetoric is that Brazil's foreign policy is a sham, established by bureaucrats, which combines anti-Americanism (sometimes strident, sometimes mild), anti-Europeanism in terms of trade but pro-European when Europe is against American interests, a phony friendship with "brother" Latin countries like Venezuela and Cuba, an uneasy rivalry with Argentina, an avuncular relationship with minnows like Paraguay, a wishy-washy "solidarity" with poor countries in Africa, particularly Portuguese-speaking places, and closer links with some Middle Eastern countries but not Israel.
It is underpinned by an almost obsessive desire to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a distinct reluctance to see any kind of Pan-American free trade area which would be dominated by the US.
One of the few signs that Brazil was beginning to pull its weight in foreign affairs was when it agreed to take charge of the UN peacekeeping force in Haiti. Actions like this are more likely to gain it a permanent place on the Security Council than backing from countries which say one thing one day and another thing the next. The Haiti mission has been fairly low key so far, but one wonders if Brazil would keep its troops there if there was a real flare-up of violence and its soldiers started getting killed.
The civil servants who run the Itamaraty are remnants of the old-style nationalists found in Brazil and other Latin American countries. Earlier this year, the Itamaraty announced that candidates for the diplomatic service did not need to know English to gain entry.
Senior diplomats are given a reading list of ideologically-approved books they are required to read and answer questions on if they are to be promoted. If you want a taste of the world of the Itamaraty, visit the English version of the Foreign Ministry site (www.mre.gov.br).
Have a look at the collection of dusty old speeches and press releases. The top press release with the dreary headline "A Joint Statement between the Federative Republic of Brazil and the Kingdom of Thailand" dates from June 16, 2004. Other releases include a communiqué issued after a G-20 meeting held in September 2003.
The only recent item is Lula's latest address to the UN General Assembly. There is nothing about the recent Pan-American summit in Uruguay, the subsequent visit to Brazil by US President George Bush, or the announcement that Venezuela is to join the Mercosur, In fact, the Brazilian version of the Mercosur site is not even operating. Visit it and you will find it is under "maintenance" and you will be guided to the Foreign Ministry site.Venezuela Walks into the Mercosur Club
Let us take a brief look at the recent announcement that Venezuela had become a member of the Mercosur free trade area along with Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. This statement, made at a Mercosur summit meeting held in Montevideo on December 10, came as quite a surprise since no meaningful negotiations had been held beforehand.
There had been reports in October that Venezuela would become a member but no-one expected it to happen so quickly. Consider how long it took the UK to join the European Common Market (the forerunner of the European Union) or the lengthy processes other countries have undergone to join the EU. Turkey, for example, has been trying to join for decades. However, Venezuela became a Mercosur member overnight.
Although Venezuela will have no immediate voting rights until the formal negotiations have been completed, it will be able to attend all meetings and have the right to express an opinion. According to some press reports, Argentina's President, Nestor Kirchner, had wanted Venezuela to be accepted as a full member straight away and it was at the insistence of tiny Paraguay - not giant Brazil - that this move was put off.
Sometimes foreign policy is not even shaped by the Itamaraty at all. This was the case in late 2003 when a low-ranking judge in the state of Mato Grosso issued a ruling that American visitors should be fingerprinted and photographed before being allowed into Brazil. This judge made the ruling following a complaint by a local prosecutor who did not like the fact that the United States was forcing Brazilians entering the US to be fingerprinted and photographed.
Despite the fact that this decision caused great disruption at Brazilian airports, which did not have the necessary monitoring equipment, and strained diplomatic relations with the US, the Brazilian government has let it stand unchallenged to this day.
It is difficult to take an administration seriously which allows an unelected official who lives in a landlocked state which has no international airport to decide how visitors from a friendly state should be admitted.
In his weekly radio address after the end of the WTO talks in Hong Kong, Lula said the rich countries were doing very little to help poorer countries meet the UN Millennium Goals. He also claimed that Brazil was acting selflessly on behalf of poorer countries, which were not as competitive or strong in terms of technology.
This sums up the simplistic dead-end approach to foreign affairs one has come to expect from this government. Even if it is the case that the rich countries do not care then it is up to the poorer countries to help themselves. Nor is it Brazil's mission to be the champion of the world's poorest states. Brazil has enough problems of its own to resolve.
There is also no reason for Brazil to be poor forever. It has enviable natural and human resources and if politicians like Lula were to assume responsibility for the country's future and stop blaming "rich" foreigners then we would be on the right path.
John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br
. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
© John Fitzpatrick 2005