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The permanence of the permanent seat

Brazil's 90 years of activity in the League of Nations help reflect on the current demand of the country for reform of the UN

reproduction: www.gutenberg.orgFor many, it may sound like the same old story. Just a few days ago, President Lula, in his visit to China, once again advocated a UN reform and the democratization of its Security Council, which would give Brazil the chance to gain a permanent seat on this forum that, in 1945, was structured around five, rather than six, permanent members, an arrangement that, in 1965, changed to the current format, comprising ten non-permanent members and five permanent ones: the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the Popular Republic of China (which, incidentally, is against any reform whatsoever, to avoid the entry of Japan). “The United Nations has been discussing this reform for 15 years and the institution’s structure has not evolved in six decades, so it is no longer appropriate for the challenges of today’s world. This is a serious obstacle for the multilateral world that we seek,” stated the president, who, after the emergence of the global financial crisis, was given the support of countries such as England and France regarding his aspirations.

“What is at play is the country’s international participation. In our recent survey among the foreign policy community, we found that, from 2001 to 2008, the Brazilian elite’s desire to transform Brazil into a player with a voice in world policy became stronger: this conviction rose from 74% in 2001 to 97% in 2008,” states the political scientist Amaury de Souza, a senior researcher at Idesp, the Institute of Economic, Social and Political Studies in Sao Paulo and the coordinator of the study A agenda internacional do Brasil: a política externa brasileira de FHC a Lula [Brazil’s international agenda: Brazilian foreign policy from FHC to Lula], which will reach the bookstores this month (Campus publishing house, 176 pages, R$49).

“This UN reform and the Security Council issue have been on our foreign policy agenda since the FHC administration, but in the Lula government, Itamaraty [the Brazilian Foreign Office] formed an alliance with the G-4 countries, with the same intention. This renewed engagement, praised by some, lacks the approval of most of the interviewees, according to whom the reform, in practice, faces several obstacles, even though it is desirable, and who feel that there are more important demands. One cannot argue against the validity of this objective, but only against the level of importance ascribed to it,” notes Souza.

According to the research data, 58% consider the issue important, whereas 42% think the opposite. “Support for the Brazilian claim has been slipping. In 2001, it stood at 76%, whereas now it is down to 54%. One must recognize, when talking about priorities or the content of foreign policy issues, that the divergences between the government and the organized sectors of society have risen.” The research also revealed that public opinion has a low level of interest and information regarding international issues and tends to react to their fluctuations emotionally. Congress mirrors this disinterest. “There is an interaction between the leaders and the public in the establishment of foreign policy, especially when it comes to external issues used to raise support in the domestic arena. Hence the increasing emphasis on bringing together the foreign and the domestic agendas,” analyzes Souza.

According to the researcher, the Lula government has repeatedly resorted to media coverage to strengthen the choices of its foreign trade area in public opinion. “This approach allows the government to resort to more extreme foreign policy positions, in order to offset more orthodox domestic measures.” This is not unprecedented. “What these studies show is that the aspiration to transform the country into a relevant player on the international scene is part of the national identity itself, as built by the Brazilian elite, with elements that concern the ‘idea of a country of continental dimensions engaged in consolidating its position of leadership’,” assesses the political scientist Maria Regina Soares Lima, from PUC-Rio and an assistant professor at Iuperj, the University Research Institute in Rio de Janeiro.

“Brazilian volunteering per se leads nowhere. The theme has been running through Brazilian history since the League of Nations,”  recalls the researcher. “The country’s first attempt to obtain recognition from the major powers and its right to participate on an equal footing first occurred when the League was established, precisely 90 years ago. Although at the end what prevailed was the oligarchic principle of exclusivity, Brazil tried hard to gain a permanent seat within the organization,” she adds. Oddly enough, this first attempt to gain space among the international community was equally invoked by foreign affairs minister Celso Amorim in order to justify, yet again, the current claim for a permanent seat, now on the UN Security Council, the UN being the organization that succeeded the League of Nations. “Great changes only take place during times of crisis. The First World War was necessary for the League of Nations to come into being, and the Second World War  to establish the UN. Thank God, let’s hope we don’t need a third war, but there is a major crisis that demands a change in the world’s decision-making structures.”

reproduction: Peace Conference: Epitácio Pessoa won points by becoming friendly with Wilsonreproduction:

Brazil was the only Latin American country to take part in World War I and thus ensured its presence at the Paris Peace Conference (that gave rise to the Versailles Treaty), plus an invitation to sit on the 10-member commission that drafted the League of Nations Pact, to which the country subscribed. With the aid of the USA, in particular of President Wilson, among the countries with “limited interests” at the conference it earned the chance to become one of the four temporary members of the League’s Council. “The Brazilian government interpreted this as a major victory, a sign that the country had been recognized as a partner of the major powers in the management of the world’s new post-war order,’ explains Eugênio Vargas Garcia, a senior professor at the Rio Branco Institute [Brazil’s school for the training of diplomats] and author of O Brasil e a Liga das Nações [Brazil and the League of Nations].

“When it qualified for the Paris Peace Conference and for a seat, albeit a rotating one, at the League of Nations Council, Brazil ascribed a transatlantic importance to its foreign policy that went beyond the limits of the Americas,” analyzes Leticia Pinheiro, a researcher and professor at the International Relations Institute of PUC-RJ (the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro). “This episode underscored one of the earliest manifestations of a distinctive trait in our international policy: the perception of the elite for an alleged right to the international community’s acknowledgement of the country’s special standing in the world hierarchy.” It was presumably as a result of this perception that Brazil obsessively undertook to secure a permanent seat on the League, adds the professor.

“When the USA left the league in 1920, because the American senate declined to ratify the Versailles Treaty, Brazil became the only country in the Americas to sit on the Council and implicitly took over the status of spokesman for the continent. The Epitacio Pessoa administration was exultant about the country’s achieved status, in the belief that it was directly influencing major international issues,” explains Garcia. What had been a hope became, as of 1923, the fundamental diplomatic objective of the Artur Bernardes administration. “Brazil wants this spot in the League so badly because it probably lacks the slightest understanding of the current European problems. What they want is merely to appoint noteworthy Brazilians to important positions on the Council and thereby to enhance national pride,” stated the Brazilian representative.

Indeed, Brazil had been “spoilt” by the treatment it was given at the Paris Conference, thanks largely to the unexpected diplomatic skills of Epitacio Pessoa, then a senator for the State of Paraiba, who was appointed head of the Brazilian delegation, rather than Rui Barbosa, the “Eagle of the Hague”, who was seen, at the time, as the obvious candidate for the post, precisely because of his stellar performance at the Hague in 1907, when he condemned the oligarchic nature of the hegemony of the major powers and inaugurated a new era for Brazilian diplomacy in the advocacy of multilateral relations of equality amongst countries. “Brazil’s historical performance on the multilateral front, whether at the League or the UN, is totally aligned with Barbosa’s thinking, whose aim was the democratization of access to major world decisions, which is preached to this day,” comments Garcia. “The questioning of the exclusive role of the major powers in the management of world order, first raised at The Hague in 1907, acquired conceptual clarity, from the Brazilian standpoint, at the Peace Conference,” notes professor and Ambassador Celso Lafer, in his study A identidade internacional do Brasil [The international identity of Brazil].

However, the foreign minister, Domicio Fama, refused to risk his position by giving so much power to Barbosa. “Pessoa proved to be of great value to Brazil at the conference for having cultivated good relations with President Wilson. It was a fine coup, as the American statesman was a major advocate of Brazilian interests,” relates historian Michael Streeter, from London University, author of the newly released profile of Pessoa’s participation in Paris and in the League’s early days, as part of the series Makers of the Modern World, in which the Brazilian politician appears side by side with the biography of major figures such as Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George, among others. Skillfully, the Brazilian delegation solved major economic impasses among the major powers, such as maintaining the ownership of 46 German ships confiscated in Brazil in 1917 and recognition, by Germany, of a debt from the sale of coffee. “The success of these negotiations at the Peace Conference allowed the Brazilian delegation, led by future president Epitacio Pessoa, to take care not only of specific Brazilian interests, but equally of ‘general interests’ inherent to the establishment of a new, post-World War I international order,” asserted Celso Lafer. This success led Pessoa to victory in the 1919 presidential elections, even though, as a candidate, he did not stop working in Paris. Having received the news by telegram, he thought it was a joke made by his friends. Nevertheless, Pessoa left Brazil as a delegate and returned as its president. And, to boot, he and the country gained an entry to take part in drafting the League’s constitution, which, it was then hoped, would become, as from 1920, the tool that would guarantee democracy in relations among nations. Despite Pessoa’s brilliance, one must not overlook the brilliant performance of João Pandiá Calógeras (1870-1934), an integral member of the Brazilian delegation and the first one to arrive in Paris. There, he articulated Brazilian diplomacy so that, when Pessoa returned to Brazil to be instated as President, it was Calogeras that took over the position of head of the mission. He still spent quite some time in Europe, representing Brazil in several international gatherings and heading the trade mission that went to England in 1919. Upon returning to Brazil, he was appointed Minister of War in the Epitacio Pessoa administration, becoming the only civilian to hold this position in the history of the country in the republican period.

“Brazilian diplomacy put all its chips on a supposed new world order. It believed that the League’s multilateralism was the demise of the traditional policy of power in international relations. However, for the major powers of the Old World, multilateralism was the continuation of the same geopolitics conducted by other means,” analyzes Braz Baracuhy, head professor of international relations theory at the Rio Branco Institute. It was the coexistence of the old and the new elements in international politics, observes the diplomat, that combined the idealism of the liberal values of the USDA with the pragmatic and excluding policies of the European powers, despite a line of discourse that announced the opposite. “Two game boards were set up, in parallel and superimposed: above the traditional one, on which powers of Europe had for centuries practiced their power politics, stood the new multilateral level.” Brazil believed that it was the top board that counted, whereas its League colleagues were still playing by the rules of the classical board of asymmetric power.

reproduction from the book Caricaturistas Brasileiros, by Pedro Correa do Lago, Editora Sextante Artes With the USA leaving the League, the Brazilian elite launched its candidacy for the permanent seat, in the belief that a new international order had come into being, based on a liberal view of the world. “The difficulties faced by the medium powers, such as Brazil, to obtain formal recognition of a special status on an international level, stems from the dilemma of the represented States accepting the legitimacy inherent in recognizing regional representativeness, a problem that Brazil faced in the 1920s in the League of Nations,” wrote Ambassador Celso Lafer. “And that it continues to face, along with other powers regarded as being of medium importance, in the discussions regarding the Security Council,” assesses Lafer. In 1926, the obsession of the Bernardes administration with the permanent seat caused Brazil to leave the League, when the candidacy lost to Germany, the former enemy power that had been “pardoned” by the major European powers, under the Locarno Pact.

“At that time, there was an impression that multilateralism would come to replace the old geopolitical power rationale that was then in effect. This is not what occurred; what actually ruled was a concern about European security and the order of things, which caused Germany to be prioritized,” evaluates Leticia. “However, if we think about the more recent period, in which Brazil bases its demand on  arguments of fairness and democracy, one cannot overlook that the claim for a permanent seat is actually aligned with the thesis of the legal equality of States,” she adds. What the country’s diplomacy argues, notes the researcher, is that, as the major powers have never given up their veto power, meaning that there is an imperfection in the system that will never be corrected, the expansion of the Security Council would, in part, correct this democratic deficit, helping to balance representation between the developed and the developing nations. It is necessary, however, to take care not to repeat old mistakes. “Curiously, the arguments that support the Brazilian claim are similar to those employed in 1920, in other words, ‘the permanent member condition would lend greater moral and political representation to the Council,'” notes Maria Regina.

“I believe that the international community is unlikely to formally acknowledge a priori the ‘services rendered’ by Brazil, by ascribing to the country the status of a permanent member of the Council. The very weight of Brazil, its specificity as a ‘medium power of continental dimensions’ capable of dealing with ‘general interests’ needs to be acquired and won over in each situation, this being a permanent challenge in conducting our foreign policy,” analyzes Celso Lafer. Nevertheless, notes Garcia, the current crisis and the new directions of international politics, contrary to what occurred in the past, may favor Brazil. “There is a trend toward the de-concentration of global power, whose problems call for a multilateral, collective treatment, and it is no longer possible to disregard the contribution of the major emerging countries. Brazil is being called upon to collaborate and  foreign leaders are requesting that the country play a more active role. There was nothing like this in the 1920’s.”

Letícia Pinheiro agrees, though with one reservation: “The Council is strongly symbolic and a permanent seat undoubtedly elevates the country to the level of member of a traditional group of major powers. But the fact that we are within the G-20, with the prominence we achieve there, among other reasons, as a result of the strategic needs of the USA and of the European powers, offsets, although not entirely, Brazil’s absence from the Council.” The researcher also warns us that it is necessary to “promote a greater debate about the theme, in order to get public support and legitimacy for the claim, if one does not want to face domestic opposition if the candidacy is approved.” Regarding this point, the figures do not lie, as Amaury de Souza’s recent research reveals. “Is the UN forum, in the form of the Security Council, the most appropriate one for Brazil to exercise its diplomatic competence in dealing with the ‘general interests’ of the international community?” asks Professor Lafer. “Brazil has revealed a capacity for bringing about consensus. The country behaves, thanks to its history and international experience, along the lines of a Grotian reading of international reality. This lends Brazil the soft power credibility required for the exercise of the Aristotelian virtue of middle-of-the-road justice. This mediation role is not a given, but a challenge of each diplomatic set of circumstances,” adds the researcher and diplomat. History may not repeat itself, but it invariably provides one with lessons.

Books and article mentioned
LAFER, C. A identidade internacional do Brasil and a política externa brasileira. Perspectiva, 151 pages.
LIMA, Maria Regina S. Aspiração internacional e política externaRevista Brasileira de Comércio Exterior, n. 82, Jan.-Mar. 2005. Rio de Janeiro, Funcex.
MAGNOLI, D. (org.). História da paz and história das guerras. Editora Contexto.