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Brazil’s long-standing global aspirations: what is next?

Brazil has had a strong diplomatic tradition of being involved in international affairs, and has recently intensified its efforts to acquire more prominence and leverage in global issues. At the beginning of the 2000s, and under the leadership and popularity of former president ‘Lula’ da Silva, all eyes were on this country. Brazil was portrayed as a promising emerging market and rising power. The efforts to reduce poverty and inequality, as well as increasing democratic participation, were seen as the ideal complementary steps to set Brazil in the way to finally pass the threshold that separates developed from developing countries.

In the current decade, those high expectations have been questioned. The global economic crisis, shortcomings in the multilateral system, the falling of global commodity prices, slow national economic growth, corruption scandals, and social protests cast serious doubts on Brazil’s capacity to achieve its global ambitions, and even reconcile domestic and foreign policy goals. Since the controversial presidential impeachment of 2016, there is increasing contestation in domestic politics and uncertainty on foreign policy orientation. To what extent is Brazil able to effectively influence international negotiations and global governance mechanisms today? And how can we expect its influence to evolve in the future?

A tentative response has to consider these questions in a historical context. This will show that, as Brazil has attempted increase its presence in global affairs, its foreign policy agenda and policymaking process have become more diversified and complex; there have also been variations in the foreign policy discourse, not necessarily linked to changes in administration, and intense disagreements within Brazilian elites about foreign policy goals have become evident. Moreover, recognition of Brazil’s foreign policy ambitions and role by peers has increased but has also fluctuated. In addition, foreign policy engagements are being shaped by a highly unstable political context which tends to be neglected in most foreign policy analysis elsewhere. And the volatility of courses of actions is further exacerbated by the fact that foreign policymaking has to be negotiated with a number of actors outside of the Foreign Ministry on a regular basis.

As Brazil has attempted increase its presence in global affairs, its foreign policy agenda and policymaking process have become more diversified and complex.

Scholars have revisited assumptions and forecasts accordingly. In particular, the need to understand the unpredictability and open-ended transformations of these processes and scenarios has been acknowledged. Suggestions have been made to move beyond traditional accounts of rising powers and use the term “graduation dilemma” to understand Brazil’s long-standing search for a higher status in the international arena, and the contested nature of those ambitions and strategies today. The term represents a departure from existing studies as it conceptualises gaining global leverage as a process rather than an outcome, and observes the process in its fluidity and changing nature across policy areas and various faces of power. It takes into account material capacities and symbolic, interpretative elements too. Thus, rather than assuming a linear path to a higher status and the capacity to achieve goals, it seems helpful to  explore the tensions surrounding foreign policy issues, the meaning that policymakers assign to different scenarios and strategies, the actual implementation (or lack of) of foreign policy decisions, and the unexpected paths that the present juncture might open. In this way, academic and policy analysis may unveil how state bureaucratic politics and domestic contestation affect Brazil’s international ambitions and actions, and how this impinges on negotiations with others at the international level.

A warning is in order: there is lack of consensus about the path to ‘graduation,’ as well as a gap between stated policy goals and implementation. Moreover, generalizations are futile and analyses are better-served by empirical observation of specific policy areas within foreign policy, such as security and involvement in peacekeeping missions, trade, democracy and human rights promotion, regional integration, transnational migration, international cooperation on education, and more. In some areas, there is considerable adaptation of foreign policy techniques to new realities and still more room for projecting the country’s influence in international affairs despite the apparent slowdown of its global rise. Overall, there is a clear challenge: to produce a conceptual refinement of foreign policy analysis and provide practitioners with novel insights that allow them to better cope with the uncertainty that instability brings to foreign policy strategies and negotiations.

Featured image credit: Christ the Redeemer by Lima Andruška. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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