Brazil – can she be everybody’s friend?

Brazil’s diplomats must be quietly pleased with their week’s work.

Last weekend, the country’s President, Dilma Rousseff, fresh from being named the world’s second most powerful woman (after Chancellor Merkel of Germany) by Forbes magazine, was one of the guests of honour at the 50th anniversary summit of the African Union in Ethiopia. A few days later she was playing host to the American Vice-President, Joe Biden, who confirmed Ms Rousseff has been invited to Washington on a state visit in October.

This one week in President Rousseff’s diary demonstrates something significant that has changed without much coverage in the western media – the unique role Brazil has been carving out for itself in world affairs. Brasilia sees itself as the emerging power  that’s uniquely placed to be the intermediary between the established powers in the global North and the global South.

So far, Brazil has played this role with some success in international trade talks and climate change negotiations, but has had less success persuading other countries to support its bid for a permanent seat on a reformed UN Security Council or its ill-fated attempt – along with Turkey – in 2010 to broker a deal between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

What lies behind this ambition?

Well it comes down to a desire to secure a global economic and political environment where the country can continue to prosper, and a growing economy that gives it the heft to influence others.

But Brasilia also brings a different approach to foreign policy. The then Brazilian Foreign Minister, Celso Amorim, explained it to the BBC’s The World Tonight in an interview a couple of years ago – he said Brazil has “a great skill – to be friends with everybody”.

Brazil is a continental-sized federal democracy which has developed a political culture that requires negotiation and compromise between different interests   and it has adopted that approach to the way it conducts itself on the world stage, where it eschews the use of force and relies on what is known as soft power. Much of the national anthem – which you’ll hear if you watch this weekend’s football match between Brazil and England – is a paean to the country’s natural bounty and beauty, rather than martial prowess.

Although the country has great – though diminishing – social and economic inequality,  accompanied by a high rate of violent crime, it is secure in its borders and has no foreign enemies. Unlike other emerging powers it is often bracketed with – China, India and Russia – it has no separatist movements or insurgencies. It also has a strong, cohesive national identity.  Like the US, Brazil is a product of European colonisation of indigenous Indian land much of which was worked by large numbers of African slaves, but unlike the US, there is no history of racial segregation and today everyone speaks Portuguese as their first language and regards themselves first and foremost as Brazilian.

President Rousseff’s  presence in Ethiopia was recognition of the success of her predecessor, President Lula’s,  policy of developing close economic and diplomatic links with Africa. Lula was fond of telling the world Brazil is home to the largest population of African descent after Nigeria, and argued the legacy of slavery (which wasn’t abolished until 1888) meant his country also had a responsibility to help African development.

This has involved billions of dollars in aid and loans – and in fact President Rousseff told African Union leaders last weekend she was cancelling another $900 million of debts.  But it also involves trade and investment. Of course, large multinational Brazilian mining and engineering companies have an economic interest in accessing African resources, but Brazilians have also invested in Africa and expanded trade from $2 billion a year to $26 billion since 2000, and they have done this  without attracting the same criticism for their activities as the Chinese have.

African countries are now sending students to train at Brazilian agricultural research institutes and soldiers and sailors to train with the Brazilian armed forces.  And in recent years, African migrants have started crossing the Atlantic in search of work.

Brazil’s global influence is growing as a result – the recent appointment of Roberto Azevedo as the new head of the World Trade Organisation in the face of American and European opposition was largely down to support from African and Asian countries.

Historically, Washington has not taken Brasilia very seriously and in his first term, President Obama showed no sign of changing that mindset,and much of the media can also be accused of the same thing, sticking largely to the stereotype of sun, soccer and samba in its coverage of Brazil.

But is this about to change?

Despite having much in common, relations between the two have been strained in recent years. They fell out badly over Brazil’s Iran initiative which the Americans denounced – somewhat hyperbolically – as a threat to world peace. The US has also refused to endorse Brazil’s ambition for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council – while giving India its full backing.

Over the past twenty years, Brazil has also quietly led the greater economic and political integration of South America, and successfully resisted Washington’s attempts to integrate the region into groupings the US dominates.

Vice President Biden’s visit this week suggests the US may be beginning to accept it has to deal with Brazil on more equal terms. Apart from inviting President Rousseff for that state visit, Mr Biden flattered his hosts in a keynote speech in Rio saying Brazil is now a developed nation and telling them the US wanted to be their partner.

This does not mean all will be sweetness and light from now on, as the US opposition to Brazil’s candidate for the WTO shows. But we need to keep an eye on President Rousseff’s visit to Washington later in the year – if President Obama backs Brazil’s UN ambitions that would be sign that Mr Biden’s warm words are being followed by action.

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Alistair Burnett

About Alistair Burnett

Alistair Burnett is Director of News for Sightsavers, the NGO that works around the world to eliminate avoidable blindness and promote equality for people with visual impairments and other disabilities. Before that he spent 26 years with BBC News where he was the Editor of 'The World Tonight' on Radio 4 for ten years and before that Editor of 'Newshour' on BBC World Service. Alistair has a particular interest in international relations and the shifting power relations in the world challenging the traditional US and European dominance of global affairs.