Brazil's Plea for Global-Power Recognition

By Antonio Sampaio

The 66th Session of the UN General Assembly on 21 September, presented a precious opportunity for Brazilian president Dilma Roussef to shine on the international stage, even without the personal charisma of her popular predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. She held talks with US and European authorities on the financial crisis and in November will again be in the international spotlight during the G20 summit in France.

During her speech to the General Assembly (the first time a woman opened the general debate), Roussef reiterated Brazil's desire for a permanent place on the Security Council, highlighting the country's vibrant economy and its record of promoting peace and development. The speech was so popular in Brazil that Twitter was flooded with references to "Dilmaday". But gaining global power status will be a lot more difficult than gaining recognition for economic accomplishment and regional leadership. Latin America's largest country is also the world's fifth in size and population, and the seventh largest economy, according to the World Bank, but it still lacks the prestige and influence in political affairs that some countries of similar dimensions have.

Its bid for global attention rests on two pillars: economic power (the sheer size of its economy, its relatively stable fiscal situation and sustained GDP growth, among other achievements) and soft power. Defence minister Celso Amorim once stated that Brazil has "negotiating power", but is it enough to give the country what it wants?  

The government has enthusiastically adopted the "BRIC" identity, coined by Goldman Sachs in 2003 as an acronym for what the bank considered to be the most prominent emerging countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China). A paper published by the UN University in 2008 compared the current situation in emerging economies to the one existing at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Britain's dominance was waning and the US was rising, a process that took half a century. In an article entitled "Let Us In", Amorim asked why Brazil is excluded from the UN Security Council when its "economy is already as big as that of Britain or France". The sheer size of the country's economy and its achievements in macroeconomics are critical pillars both of Brasília's foreign policy aspirations and of the global buzz surrounding Brazil.

However, when it came time to demonstrate political clout in the international arena one of the country's boldest incursions failed. In 2010, then-president Lula and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan were photographed smiling and shaking hands with the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahamadinejad after the closing of a nuclear fuel-swap deal. It was Brazil’s moment to prove its soft-power credentials and influence by diving into a major international issue distant from its traditional arenas.

But the deal was received with, at best, scepticism, and mostly with criticism from the established world powers. The US was especially irritated, since by that time Washington regarded sanctions as the best strategy to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Iran deal was a bold attempt to show not only "negotiating power" but also political sophistication, by handling a complicated and potentially destabilizing issue.

This year, a task force from the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, concluded that, even though Brazil does not possess conventional military power and has a much smaller population than China or India, it is among "the world’s pivotal powers". According to the task force, one of Brazil’s key strategies for increasing its role abroad is the projection of domestic achievements, namely the reduction of inequality, expansion of the middle class and democracy.

But while conventional war has been absent from South America for quite some time, there are other points in the peace and security agenda that undermine the bid for permanent membership in the Security Council. After all, as the name suggests, the Council is the leading international forum for managing threats to the international order. It was established by the UN Charter with the responsibility for assuring and, when necessary, enforcing peace and security.

This is a problem for Brazil's bid. The country is indeed a leader in international trade, a rising economic power, a leader in environmental dialogues and Latin America's largest and richest nation. However, when it comes to security, and consequently to power in the global political sphere, Brazil has little to show.

President Roussef emphasized in her UN speech the country's contributions to peacekeeping missions, especially in Haiti. However, in its own neighbourhood, Brazil has proved unable to help with one of the region’s longest and most serious security crises: Colombia. Neither has Brazil taken on a leadership role in the efforts to curb violence related to transnational drug gangs.

Despite sharing 11,000 kilometres of frontier with the three largest producers of cocaine in the world (Colombia, Peru and Bolivia), a commission of the Brazilian Congress found that the government had spent only 10 per cent of the US$223 million allocated to the fight against drugs between 2010 and mid-2011. The US, on the other hand, spends approximately US$15 billion a year on counternarcotic measures in Latin America. Leadership in the fight against drug-trafficking is difficult when there are whole areas of Brazilian cities and jungles being infiltrated and controlled by drug gangs.

Brazil is proud of its record of peaceful interaction with its neighbours and its position as a soft – or "negotiating" – power. But let us not forget that the Security Council is specifically committed to enforcing international security. While soft power has strengthened Brazil’s standing in other areas, it has not been combined with strong accomplishments in international security to make a powerful bid for a permanent seat. With limited naval and air capacity for a country of continental dimensions, it also has little ability to project power when compared to other nations with Security Council ambitions, such as India, Japan and Germany. Leadership in a security council requires a stronger record of security power, or at least a more proactive posture. Although the country has not engaged in wars in its neighbourhood [or in Latin America] since the nineteenth century  – and is rightly proud of this – its record on actively enforcing security regionally and globally has proved insufficient for global-power status. 



Antonio Sampaio is a Brazilian national and holds a BA in Journalism from the Pontificia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro. He is currently pursuing an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society at King's College London. Before moving to London, Antonio worked as Editor of International Affairs at Globo TV. 


12 October 2011