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Dilemmas of Brazilian Grand Strategy

Authored by Dr. Hal Brands. | August 2010

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Summary

This monograph analyzes Brazilian grand strategy under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. During Lula's nearly 8 years in office, he has pursued a multipronged grand strategy aimed at hastening the transition from unipolarity and Western economic hegemony to a multipolar order in which international rules, norms, and institutions are more favorable to Brazilian interests. Lula has done so by emphasizing three diplomatic strategies: soft balancing against the United States, building coalitions to magnify Brazilian negotiating power, and seeking to position Brazil as the leader of a more united South America.

This strategy has successfully raised Brazil's profile and increased its diplomatic flexibility, but it has also exposed the country to four potent strategic dilemmas that could complicate or undermine its ascent. First, issues like poor infrastructure, rampant crime, and excessive taxation and regulation of the economy may impede Brazil from attaining the strong economic growth and social cohesion necessary to sustain such an ambitious strategic project. Second, in dealing with South America, the Brazilian political class has not reconciled its desire for regional leadership with its unwillingness to share power or economic benefits with its neighbors. As a result, many of these countries perceive Brazil's diplomacy to be domineering and its trade policies to be narrowly self-interested, and they have thus refused to support Lula's bid for regional preeminence. Third, at the global level, the long-term cohesion and effectiveness of Lula's various diplomatic partnerships is open to question. Fourth, while Lula has maintained good relations with Washington, his grand strategy unavoidably entails a growing risk of conflict over issues like Iran, trade policy, and the U.S. diplomatic and military role in Latin America. Looking ahead, the efficacy of Brazilian grand strategy -- and its consequences for U.S. interests--will be contingent on how Lula's successors address these dilemmas.

Dilemmas of Brazilian Grand Strategy

Only a few years after America's post-September 11, 2001 (9/11) displays of military might led commentators like Charles Krauthammer to opine that the post-Cold War “unipolar moment” was on the verge of becoming a prolonged “unipolar era,” the international system seems to be moving toward a more diffuse distribution of power. The United States is widely (if perhaps debatably) assumed to be in relative decline; a range of second- and third-tier powers are jockeying for greater influence. It is now common to hear that the world is moving toward a “post-American” age, that we have reached the “end of American exceptionalism” or “the end of American hegemony”--the common themes in these assessments being the ebbing of U.S. supremacy and the rise of a new class of powers that will rival Washington for influence in the 21st century.1

Few countries have experienced as remarkable an improvement in their international stature over the past decade as Brazil. Brazil has long had a reputation as a country with a great future--if only it could get there. As late as 2002, Brazil was wrestling with chronic financial instability, and the election of a president with a distinguished leftist heritage raised fears of macroeconomic collapse and resurgent political strife. Since then, however, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has won widespread praise for his economic and social initiatives. Building on the initiatives of his predecessor, Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, President Lula has sought to channel the growing national confidence derived from democratic consolidation and macroeconomic stability into a more forceful diplomacy. Brazil has become more active in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions; it has energetically promoted the India, Brazil, and South Africa (IBSA), and Brazil, Russia, India, and China (BRIC) forums as alternative centers of global power; it has forged economic and technological partnerships with France, Russia, China, and other key countries; it has put forward a claim to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council; and it has promoted South American economic integration as well as new regional institutions like the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the South American Defense Council (CSD). Underlying all this is a sense among Brazilian policymakers that their country has finally arrived on the global scene, and that it is destined to reap the benefits of the ongoing changes in the international system. In this spirit, President Lula has announced that Brazil will become a great power in this century, and Brazilian official discourse is infused with a sense of national strength and purpose. “Brazil must think big,” said Defense Minister Nelson Jobim in 2009. “This is the moment in which it's necessary to be audacious in order to advance. . . . There is no longer any possibility of asking Brazil, on the international stage, to take positions that run contrary to its interests.”2

Purely by dint of its size and economic capacity, Brazil will exert a strong pull on regional and global politics in the coming decades. Even under the most optimistic projections, however, Brazil will not possess the economic or military capacity to compete with other major powers--namely the United States, China, and the European Union (EU) --for decades, if then. If Brazil is to achieve what political scientists call “systemic impact”--the ability to shape the global order in meaningful ways--it will have to do so not through the inexorable accumulation of geopolitical weight, but through the resourcefulness of its strategy and diplomacy. Accordingly, this monograph examines Brazilian grand strategy as it has developed under President Lula with an eye to illuminating its characteristics, prospects, and implications for the international system in general and the United States in particular. The present is a propitious time for such an undertaking; with President Lula set to leave office at the end of 2010, Brazilian grand strategy may be approaching an inflection point, making a proper understanding of the strategy pursued over the last 8 years all the more important for Brazilian and U.S. observers alike.3

This monograph makes two principal arguments, one pertaining to the nature of Brazilian grand strategy, the second regarding its ramifications and chances for success. Under President Lula, Brazil has followed a multi-layered grand strategy that emphasizes a gradual and peaceful--yet nonetheless significant-- revision of the international order. While Brazilian officials recognize the benefits that their nation has derived from the Pax Americana, they still view the current order--characterized by U.S. military and strategic hegemony and the economic hegemony of the West-- as prejudicial to the development, commercial interests, and diplomatic influence of emerging countries like Brazil. The fundamental goal of Brazilian grand strategy has thus been to hasten the transition from the dominance of the developed world to a multipolar order in which international power balances and institutions are more favorable to the assertion of Brazil's interests. Because Brazil still faces, and will continue to face, a relative deficit of economic and military might, President Lula has resorted to a strategy commonly used by “middle powers,” countries that rely on multilateralism, coalition-building, and other such methods to achieve systemic influence. At the global level, he has sought to strengthen international norms and organizations that can check American power, a classic soft-balancing technique. He has also forged overlapping webs of bilateral partnerships and multilateral coalitions designed to diversify Brazil's commerce, improve its strategic flexibility, and augment its leverage in international negotiations. This has entailed embracing players from the entire spectrum of international actors, including countries--Iran being one notable example--that are deeply hostile to the United States. At the regional level, President Lula has committed himself to establishing Brazil as the recognized leader of a more united South America, with the aim of expanding his country's power base and hitching its global ambitions to the aggregate geopolitical weight of its continent.

This grand strategy has clearly benefited Brazil in the short term, raising the country's international profile and creating an array of strategic, commercial, and diplomatic options that President Lula's successors may pursue.4 Yet Brazilian grand strategy also entails four key dilemmas that President Lula has not been able to resolve, which could obstruct or at the very least complicate the country's geopolitical ascent. First, issues like poor infrastructure, rampant crime, and excessive taxation and regulation of the economy may impede Brazil from attaining the strong economic growth and social cohesion necessary to sustain such an audacious strategic project. Second, in dealing with South America, the Brazilian political class has not reconciled its desire for regional leadership with its unwillingness to share power or economic benefits with its neighbors. As a result, many of these countries perceive Brazil's diplomacy to be domineering and its trade policies to be narrowly self-interested, and they have thus refused to support President Lula's bid for regional preeminence. Third, at the global level, the long-term usefulness of President Lula's various “strategic partnerships” and alliances is open to question. The IBSA and BRIC forums are much less cohesive--and thus less diplomatically effective-- than they appear at first glance, and pursuing close relationships with countries like Iran may ultimately hurt Brazil's democratic image and create more problems than opportunities. Fourth, while President Lula has maintained good relations with Washington, his grand strategy unavoidably entails a growing risk of conflict over issues like Iran, trade policy, and the U.S. diplomatic and military role in Latin America. If not managed carefully, these frictions could eventually push U.S.-Brazil relations in a tenser, less productive direction, impairing the interests of both countries. Looking ahead, the efficacy of Brazilian grand strategy -- and its consequences for U.S. interests--will be contingent on how President Lula's successors address these dilemmas.

The remainder of this monograph consists of four sections. The first discusses Brazil's strategic culture, the issues that have traditionally frustrated its desires for global influence, and the factors underlying the growing assertiveness of its foreign policy since the return to democratic rule in 1985. The second describes President Lula's worldview and details the military, diplomatic, and commercial components of his grand strategy. The third evaluates this grand strategy, noting its accomplishments but also emphasizing the four key dilemmas mentioned above. The fourth discusses implications for U.S. and Brazilian policymakers and offers some brief concluding remarks.

Conclusion

Grand strategy is the relation of means to ends, the process by which nations harness and allocate resources in the service of their international objectives. Over the past 8 years, President Lula's grand strategy has exploited Brazil's moral credibility, diplomatic capabilities, and growing economic power to raise his country's profile and diversify its strategic portfolio. Yet, as President Lula's presidency comes to a close, there is still much to be done to make Brazil's foreign policy equal to its lofty aspirations. Brazil must find the resources and political will to make its regional leadership bid more credible; it must become more discerning in its global partnerships and initiatives; it must work toward a sustainable modus vivendi with the United States; and, above all, it must marshal the resources, creativity, and commitment to attack tenacious internal problems.

These are the tasks that fall to President Lula's successors. Brazil is undoubtedly going to play a significant part in world politics over the next century; how significant--and how constructive--will hinge on how these policymakers address the key dilemmas of Brazilian grand strategy.

Endnotes

  1. Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment Revisited,” National Interest, No. 70, Winter 2002, p. 17; Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World, New York: Norton, 2008; Parag Khanna, The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order, New York: Random House, 2008; Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, New York: Macmillan, 2008; Paul Craig Roberts, “The End of American Hegemony,” Electric Politics, October 2008, available from www.electricpolitics. com/2008/10/the_end_of_american_hegemony.html.
  2. “Brazil Must Think Big, Says Jobim,” Latin American Regional Report: Brazil & Southern Cone, July 2009; “Lula Launches Preparations for Superpower Status,” Latin American Security & Strategic Review, September 2007.
  3. As stated previously, some of the initiatives that have figured in President Lula's grand strategy originated under his predecessors. Because President Lula has dominated Brazilian politics and foreign policy since 2003, however, and because he has pursued such an ambitious project to increase Brazilian power and influence, it makes sense to speak of “Lula's grand strategy.”
  4. For laudatory appraisals, see David Rothkopf, “The World's Best Foreign Minister,” Foreign Policy Online, October 7, 2009, available from www.foreignpolicy.com; Leticia Pinheiro, “Celso Amorim: Right Man, Right Place, Right Time,” World Politics Review, February 2, 2010, available from www.wpr.com; Kellie Meiman and David Rothkopf, The United States and Brazil: Two Perspectives on Dealing with Partnership and Rivalry, Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, March 2009.