As Brazil's Economy Grows, So Does Its Geopolitical Ambition
Senior Features Editor
China had the Olympic Games, South Africa had the World Cup.
Brazil will soon host both — within two years of each other.
Now that's ambition and recognition.
As far as economies go, the world's seventh largest has been one of the BRICS for a decade, but when it comes to its geopolitical role, Brazil wants to be seen as a rock.
"The symbolism is huge," says Shannon K. O'Neil, who follows Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations. "All of a sudden the world will see Brazil beyond pictures of carnival. For Brazilians, it means they will finally be at the center of the world stage."
And what a long, strange trip it's been.
After a century of a coffee economy, the 20th century brought revolution, protectionism, an economic miracle amid a series of military juntas, a debt crisis, a decade of hyperinflation and the impeachment of a civil president.
"In the past, Brazil's reach has always exceeded its grasp," says Eric Farnsworth, VP of the Council of the Americas, and a former Clinton administration official. "It always saw itself as a leader, but has been frustrated that the world saw it another way. The Brazilian economy is developing to the point where it does have the global heft that people have to take it seriously."
That development has already brought a quadrupling of GDP since 1993 to $2.09 trillion, right before the 1994 introduction of the now famous Real Plan, a group of measures meant to snuff out inflation and stabilize the economy.
"That was the turning point," says Carlos Pereira of the Brookings Institution and Michigan State University, who calls the Real Plan one of two catalysts for the the geopolitical ascent of Brazil.
The other — a 1988 constitutional change that delegated greater powers to the president —was exemplified in Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, aka Lula, who promoted and advanced Brazil's transformation into a global power until the end of his presidency in January.
"Brazil is definitely benefiting from the the right policies, and regaining international credibility and more recognition," says Pereira.
In recent years, Brazil has stepped up in a number of diverse areas, say analysts, from leading the UN peacekeeping force in Haiti following President Aristede's exit — a very tough assignment — to providing generous financial aid around the world, especially in Africa, something of a counterbalance to China's efforts, to shaping the debate on climate change.
That aid — also in the Middle East and Caribbean — has been matched by commercial endeavors, notably ethanol production, an area where Brazil has been a market leader.
"In some ways they're competing with China for influence and economic opportunity," says O'Neil.
More recently, Brazil — which survived the financial crisis better than most — played an important role in post-crisis G20 initiatives on banking regulation, currencies and other financial issues. It's also been more involved in World Bank and IMF initiatives and policies.
"This is a role the rest of the world would not have ceded to Brazil in the past," says Farnsworth.
"Whether it's in G20 and multi-lateral architecture or climate change, Brazil is now one of those in the room at the end," adds Shannon
Lula — though a committed Socialist, oddly enough had a very positive personal relationship with President George W. Bush — also played a role in mitigating friction between the U.S. and Venezuela's populist president Hugo Chavez.
"You've seen under Lula the vindication of democratic capitalism, when it was under fire by some, as it was in Venezuela," says Roger Noriega, a former Bush administration official who specialized in Latin America.
Role In The UN
Yet, for all of his domestic and foreign policy accomplishments, Lula, who was succeeded by his former chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, fell short in one key goal: securing a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Brazil has been seeking inclusion for years, but, unlike India, has yet to receive explicit U.S. support. President Obama's visit to Brazil in mid-April once again raised, and then dashed, those hopes.
Inclusion, more than anything, say analysts, is the fulcrum of Brazil's global status.
Brazil's handling of the recent UN vote on the Libya no-fly zone is an excellent example, say analysts. In keeping with its general opposition to military intervention, Brazil abstained.
"Leadership comes with obligations," says Farnsworth. "I think it [voting yes] would have been a positive signal."
Brazil's move was reminiscent of its abstention in the case of sanctions against Iran several years ago. Washington and Brazilia also differed on the Honduran coup of 2009.
Analysts also say Brazil has also not done enough in tackling cocaine trafficking. Though the country is not a producer, Bolivian cocaine is transported through its territory. (Brazil is second only to the U.S. in consumption of of the drug.)
"If they're going to stand up and be a leader they'll have to take some responsibility in these areas," says Noriega, who was Ambassador to the Organization of American States. "What is their role with drug trafficking, Chavez and Iran?"
China And Oil
Another complicated issue is Brazil's relationship with China, which President Russeff recently visited.
Beijing and Brazilia are cooperating in space exploration. What's more, although the two compete in many markets, China's hunger for commodities has pushed it past the U.S. as Brazil's biggest trade partner. (Some 12.5 percent of Brazil's exports go to China, vs. 10.5 percent for the U.S., according to the CIA World Factbook.)
Brazil is a major producer of soybeans, wheat, rice, corn, sugar cane, citrus and beef. It also boasts bauxite, gold, iron ore, platinum, rare earth elements, uranium, timber and petroleum among its ample natural resources.
Farnsworth sees a "strong vision of cooperation with China that is not necessarily in the U.S. interests."