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Brazil’s Position in the World

Foreign policy under redemocratization pursued greater autonomy, but without giving up its essence

The Ministry of External Relations Building in Brasília

CLARA LACERDAThe Ministry of External Relations Building in BrasíliaCLARA LACERDA

“Diplomacy exists to defend the State, not just a government,” says Ambassador Fernando de Mello Barreto.  “Hence the perenniality of Brazilian foreign policy, with its consistently supra-partisan approach that is connected, as in most countries, to economic interests that are permanent.  In the case of Brazil, that characteristic extends even further: the determinants of our foreign policy are found in the Constitution,” he explains.  This is not merely an opinion.  Barreto “proves” the existence of that stability, in contrast to commonly-held views, in a meticulous analysis of actions taken by Brazil’s foreign ministers during the last 25 years.  The result was A política externa após a redemocratização (Foreign policy after redemocratization), published by the Alexandre de Gusmão Foundation.  What one observes in the almost 1,400 pages of the study is that although Brazil has had several presidents, Itamaraty has been a rock of stability.

“Of course there have been differences in the priorities set by the various administrations.  These have usually been subtle, despite their external appearance as breaks with the past.  In general, changes in course were made because of changes in the external picture that demanded adjustments.  But instances of a change in traditional policies have been rare, the diplomat finds.  Even the advent of redemocratization did not change the picture: Olavo Setúbal, minister of external relations under President José Sarney and the first to hold that post after the end of the dictatorship, said in a speech given upon his investiture that he would continue the military leaders’ foreign policy.  What Barreto demonstrates from the chronological trajectory of Brazil’s foreign ministers is the validity of the theory laid out in a research study by Tullo Vigevani, a full professor retired from Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp) and researcher at both the Center for the Study of Contemporary Culture (CEDEC) and the National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies of the United States (INCT-Ineu), supported by FAPESP.

“Even during the Lula (Luis Inácio Lula da Silva) administration, we did not see a significant break with historical paradigms of foreign policy, but rather a change in the emphases given to certain options that had opened up earlier with respect to our action on the world stage,” Vigevani observes.  “What we see are distinct diplomatic traditions with differences in actions, preferences and beliefs, targeting different specific results while trying not to depart from the unvarying objective of developing this country economically and preserving a certain degree of political autonomy,” he observes.  And so, to this researcher the central concept that explains the course of foreign policy from 1985 to the present is the pursuit of autonomy.

Vigevani’s hypothesis is outlined in his book entitled Brazilian foreign policy in changing times: the quest for autonomy from Sarney to Lula (Lexington Books) that recently went into its second printing in the U.S. Autonomy is understood as the ability of Latin Americans to protect themselves from the negative effects of the international system and the pressure exerted by more powerful countries.  It is said to be expressed in three forms: by distance from those countries (the Sarney administration’s option); by active participation in international institutions (as under the Cardoso administration); and by the diversification of partnerships and forums of action (during Lula’s administration and continuing under Dilma Rousseff).

And so, despite the absence of a rupture by the Sarney administration (1985-89), American pressures caused foreign ministers Setúbal and Sodré to adopt more liberal and less independent postures because of the negotiations surrounding external debt and the disputes concerning patents in the fields of pharmaceuticals and information technology.  The end of the Cold War placed the Collor government (1990-92) between two divergent postures in diplomacy: although Collor had departed from traditional practices in aligning this country with the values of the developed countries, Brazil grew closer to the Southern Cone.  Rezek and Celso Lafer (who returned to Itamaraty under Cardoso), Collor’s foreign ministers, were responsible for formulating a policy that led to the establishment of Mercosur under a treaty signed by Collor and adapted to the new era of open regionalism.

Ceremony in Paraguay at which the Treaty of Asunción was signed that laid the groundwork for Mercosur in March 1991.  From left to right: Collor de Mello; Andres Rodriguez, of Paraguay; Carlos Menem, of Argentina; and Luis Lacalle, of Uruguay.

PEDRO MENDEZ / AFPCeremony in Paraguay at which the Treaty of Asunción was signed that laid the groundwork for Mercosur in March 1991. From left to right: Collor de Mello; Andres Rodriguez, of Paraguay; Carlos Menem, of Argentina; and Luis Lacalle, of Uruguay.PEDRO MENDEZ / AFP

“Invariably, however, presidents and ministers of external relations placed high priority on relations with neighboring countries, especially the closest ones, such as Argentina, which still plays a central factor in achieving consensus in Mercosur,” Barreto agrees.  “That approach also came with redemocratization, which enabled Brazil to perceive that we have problems in common with the rest of Latin America,” he says.  When FHC (Fernando Henrique Cardoso) was Itamar Franco’s minister of external relations, and later, as president (1995-2002), traditional themes of Brazilian democracy were resurrected, such as the expansion of national autonomy, summed up in the Brazilian intention to occupy a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, an aspiration raised back in the days of Sarney.  “Once again, diplomacy benefited from democracy.  Since we were a redemocratized country, we could demand the same from the UN and the other nations, which explains the question of the permanent seat,” notes Barreto.  “Of course that issue could not even be mentioned during the military governments.”

“With the end of the dictatorship, policies were adopted with respect to human rights, rejection of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and support for the new ecological demands (under the Sarney, Collor, Franco, and FHC administrations).  Brazil was no longer committed to the denunciations made by the military governments, could expand its presence on the international scene, and seek greater autonomy, thus facilitating the work of its diplomats,” Barreto says.  According to Vigevani, that movement reached its zenith during the Cardoso administration, when attempts were made to internalize the liberal changes suggested by globalization, while at the same time maintaining support for state-owned economic instruments.  “It was a cooperative perspective, yet without failing to denounce international asymmetries and criticize the American policy of unilateralism,” Vigevani opines.

Consistency with the global agenda permitted the adoption of the “autonomy through participation” strategy in which Brazil did not isolate itself but worked with the rest of the world in the search for a position better suited to its new international influence.  “Even so relations with the United States were characterized by uninterrupted reiterations of longstanding issues.  The appearance of a bilateral change was due more to actual actions and circumstances than to changes in Brazilian foreign policy,” Barreto observes.  The Lula administration (2003-2011) did not alter that essence, although it had opted for what Vigevani calls “autonomy through diversification.”  The keystone was approximation among countries of the South to assume a larger role and increased bargaining power in international negotiations, instead of a unipolar world,” the professor explains.


In Lula’s second term, the directives were pursued more deeply, with special attention to relations with emerging nations such as China, India, Russia, and South Africa, yet without prejudicing the Brasília-Washington axis.  “Improved economic conditions in Brazil made it possible for the country to embark on a policy that would include Sub-Saharan Africa, from “vocal action” against apartheid during the Sarney government to the more recent approximation and cooperation,” says Barreto.  Brazilian positions in the Middle East also remained stable.  “During the Collor government there was support for repeal of the resolution that treated Zionism as a form of racism; in the Lula government, Palestine was recognized as a State.  In both cases, despite apparent differences, what occurred was simply an accentuation of clear tendencies that differed little from those of other members of the United Nations,” the diplomat says.

Vigevani emphasizes the contradiction between Brazil’s desire to be both a “global trader” and a “global player.”  The effort to achieve diversification in partnerships with developing countries like China and India is an obstacle to the expansion in the scope of agreements with Mercosur countries, because resources and efforts at cooperation are being concentrated on actors who are more important than Brazil’s neighbors,” the professor observes.  The relative insensitivity of certain groups to regional questions, allied with the priority placed by the Lula government on global issues such as intervention in Iran, makes it hard for Brazil to exercise its strategy of autonomy through diversification with countries in its immediate vicinity.

But Fernando de Mello Barreto rejects the criticism that Lula’s foreign policy was “politicized.”  “Diplomacy is politics, always.  Just take a look, and you’ll see that the great majority of ministers of external relations came from the world of politics.  There were only two career diplomats – Luiz Felipe Lampreia and Celso Amorim,” he recalls.  “Be that as it may, re-democratization was a road that took Brazil to a new international position.”