Imprimir Republish


When external issues increasingly become internal

Globalization has brought public opinion closer to international decisions, but its representation in the Legislative Power is still controversial

Catarina Bessell“The Brazilian Foreign Ministry (Itamaraty) only gives votes to (or takes votes away from) Burundi, in Africa,” Ulysses Guimarães used to say about the influence of foreign policy on the behavior of voters. Unfortunately, these words uttered by Doutor Ulysses still hold true. However, recent surveys (see further ahead) and media focus on discussions about international politics have revealed a growing tendency among the more educated portion of the Brazilian population, in the sense of acting “like a voter from Burundi.” Some people claim that this phenomenon is to a certain extent linked to the controversial yet unique mode of diplomacy exerted by former president Lula, which attracted both critics and sympathizers with the same intensity. However, the fact is that, since the 1990s, due to globalization and national democratization, a part of the population has begun to perceive that the diplomatic actions of Itamaraty overseas have had a major influence on domestic issues. “When foreign issues started to have a distributive impact, generating distinct gains and losses, foreign policy became more politicized, which led to the need of establishing controls typical of a democratic arrangement,” points out political scientist Simone Diniz, a professor at the Federal University of São Carlos (Ufscar). Professor Diniz coordinated the research project “Legislative Branch, decision-making process and foreign policy in Brazil,” supported by FAPESP. This research study mapped the power of the Legislative Power in deliberations on Brazil’s foreign policy (PEB), to identify the characteristics of the relationship between the Executive and Legislative Powers regarding foreign policy.

“In a democracy, Congress acts as the resonant voice of society, in spite of the imperfections of the current and actual model. This debate has gained momentum ever since the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. There have been different opinions on the ability and interest of Congress in regard to foreign policy actions that lack empirical studies,” Simone points out. Actually, this issue was contemplated in the 1988 Constitution, which establishes that the President of the Republic has the prerogative to enter into international treaties, conventions and acts subject to the approval of Congress, and confers upon the Legislative Power the exclusive authority to decide on international treaties, agreements, or acts that result in charges or burdensome commitments to the national heritage. In the case of deliberations on international acts, the Legislative Power acts in an ex post manner: the members of Congress manifest themselves on an act after negotiations by the Executive Power with foreign agents have been concluded. This manifestation is voiced in the form of legislative bills (PDLs), expressing acquiescence or disagreement with the terms and content of the international act. “More specifically, the Legislative Power’s hands are not tied, as Congress can exclude certain provisions in acts already forwarded by the Executive Power. This mechanism, however, is a very modest one. Space for disagreement exists, but it is very restricted,” says Simone.

“This means that the positions of the President, who initiates foreign policies, and of Congress, which merely ratifies such policies ex post facto, generate a balance under which the average legislator is obliged to accept the policies negotiated by the Executive Power at international forums, in spite of the fact that such policies are beyond their curve of indifference. This situation resembles abdication rather than a delegation of authority,” analyzes political scientist Maria Regina Soares de Lima, from the State University of Rio de Janeiro, and author of the paper “Congress and foreign trade policy” (2001). The researcher argues that foreign policy is the object of delegation by congressmen for three main reasons: it is an issue which is highly susceptible to distributive pressures, as it entails different sectors with conflicting interests; the complexity of the related issues require theoretical and technical expertise that congressmen do not have; and it ensures the stability of the decisions, as Congress, which represents interests, has a smaller chance of modifying foreign policies that could jeopardize the interests of their voters. Thus, the Constitution has a strong point. “But delegation does not mean abdication, which often occurs in the case of the Legislative Power ; this tends to isolate congressmen and benefit specific groups and sectors to the detriment of any control by society,” the researcher points out. She argues in favor of establishing a more efficient form of delegating authority to the Legislative Power and of weakening the authority of the Executive Power in this respect. “This situation has resulted in serious drawbacks not only to business sectors adversely affected in the short term, but also to Brazilian society as a whole,” she warns.

Catarina BessellThe current status of Brazilian diplomacy and its connection with civil society is the result of widely held consensus that Itamaraty was the appropriate venue for conducting foreign affairs. Most of the country’s presidents handed over the responsibility of conducting foreign affairs to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MRE). The unexpected exception was the administration of President Geisel, during the military regime. “The most important consequence of the changes implemented throughout all these years is that the Legislative Power’s delegation of authority to the Executive Power to promote an industrial policy based on substituting imported products no longer defined the objectives of governmental actions in the scope of foreign trade policies. The elite, the masses, governors and legislators all agreed with the decision of the country to substitute imports as a way of promoting development,” says Maria Regina. On the other hand, this resulted in the centralization of decisions in the hands of the Executive Power, the most visible effect of which was the lack of democratic control over foreign trade policies. The 1990s witnessed the onset of a new global economic model that totally changed the meaning of the former economic growth pattern, based on the substitution of imported products. Once again, this change affected the nature of the political game played by Congress and the President. “This new model was referred to as globalization, and its effects were reflected in the loss of autonomy of the governments of modern nations. The international order is increasingly structured on the basis of decisions made by international economic organizations over which national citizens have no control whatsoever, nor do they have any possibility of opposing such decisions,” says the researcher.

Congress became weaker when the military took power in 1964. “Surprisingly enough, the foreign policies of the military regime did not betray the spirit of congressional authority promoted in the 1950s, which was based on the import substitution model. The pedagogical policy of the authoritarian regime, however, remained even after democracy was reinstated, in the sense that foreign trade decisions started to systematically modify the status quo represented by the former economic model, and Congress was not allowed to voice any opinion in this respect,” Maria Regina points out. “The world which Brazil dealt with as external became an internal world, thus ending the efficacy of the repertoire of solutions built up from the time of the first Getulio Vargas administration, which shaped the country in the 20th century. This is the reason behind the reorganization of the domestic and foreign agendas that characterized the country’s political and economic life in the 1990s,” analyzes law professor Celso Lafer, of the University of São Paulo (USP), current president of FAPESP, and two-term (in 1992 and from 2001 to 2002) chancellor of the University. In the course of somewhat different times, the aftermath of this global renovation was the revival of democracy in Brazil and the enactment of the Constitution of 1988. “At the time, many discussions were held on the possibility of granting, in the constitution, more authority to Congress to conduct foreign affairs, in line with the democratic spirit of that time. However, the international debt issue was on the agenda and the Senate wanted to take upon itself the prerogative of dealing with this issue. However, other national issues predominated and this discussion was sidelined. The Constitution maintained the existing balance of power,” Simone points out.

“If we believe that democracy entails the active participation of previously uninvolved players, then it stands to reason that foreign affairs should be conducted in a more democratic fashion, which goes against the traditional centralization of power in the hands of Itamaraty. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should consult society prior to conducting negotiations; it should demand the collaboration of experts because the terms of foreign negotiations are becoming increasingly technical and diplomats are not always aware of this new reality,” says political scientist Janina Onuki, of the International Relations Institute at the University of São Paulo. Janina Onuki conducted the research project “Brazil, the Americas and the world: public opinion and foreign policy” (2010), under the coordination of professor Maria Hermínia Tavares de Almeida and with the support of FAPESP. “The Legislative Power has to be the instrument where social players can have access to international discussions. Businessmen, for example, complain loudly about their difficulty in having access to the Executive Power in regard to establishing international trade policies,” she says. According to the preliminary results of the survey, in the last few years foreign policy has gained significant space in the eyes of public opinion, even though it is not a core issue. “In the past, foreign policy was rarely given any attention,” she adds.

The issues closest to this public opinion category are regional integration and Mercosur; knowledge about issues related to Brazil’s foreign affairs is much deeper than expected. People know the meaning of the World Trade Organization (WTO), they know about the environment, and are familiar with the fact that domestic issues such as violence, trade, traffic, etc. have a place at international level discussions. “An interesting detail is that, unlike the results found in surveys conducted in the United States, the opinions of the elite and of the population are very similar, which indicates a high level of political awareness, contrary to what is described in traditional literature,” she says. The consensus that the President and Itamaraty are the natural leaders of foreign policy is outdated and the other ministries question the role of Itamaraty, which in turn has generated a demand for a more transparent Ministry of Foreign Relations (MRE). Businessmen complain that they have been sidelined in the discussions on Mercosur. The general perception is that Brazil has the conditions to be a global player, even though this does not always entail the support of neighboring countries, and is the result of Brazil’s insertion into the globalized world.

Catarina BessellThis recent study can be compared to the research study “The international agenda of Brazil: Brazilian foreign policy from FHC to Lula,” prepared in 2009 by political scientist Amaury de Souza, senior researcher at the Institute of Economic, Social, and Political Studies (Idesp). In the survey, when asked about the balance of power between the Legislative and the Executive Power, 46% of the respondents answered that policies are decided by the Executive Power and afterwards are ratified by Congress, while 54% of the respondents argued that diplomatic actions should be previously negotiated with Congress. “These powers counterbalance one another, revealing, on one hand, a view of Brazilian Foreign Policy as a policy of the State and portrays a reluctance to impose limits on how foreign policy is conducted by a closed group of experts. On the other hand, this policy is viewed as a government policy and as such should be more permeable to the influences of those segments of society directly affected by governmental decisions,” says Amaury. “Strengthening the collaboration between Itamaraty and Congress right from the start would provide more credibility and negotiating ability to the government; in addition, closer ties would legitimize the government’s foreign policy decisions in the eyes of public opinion. Increasing congressional activism does not imply conferring upon Congress the power to overrun the Executive Power in its role as arbiter of last resort as regards national interests,” he points out. In his opinion, the ideal situation would be to intensify open diplomacy, encouraging organized public opinion groups to participate in the debate and thus open up space for them to exert their influence on the process of shaping foreign policy.

“As befits any democracy, Congress echoes the concerns that exist in society and these concerns acquire – through the participation of the media, organized interests and NGOs – a configuration that I have described as a public opinion agenda for foreign affair policies. The scope of the Brazilian public opinion agenda’s is widening because of globalization, which has internalized the world into the life of the country . This is why it is smart to anticipate ways, verify sensitivities, and identify resistances with Congress when complex negotiations are initiated. This is why it is so important for the Ministry of Foreign Relations to develop interlocution mechanisms for affairs related to trade relationships, human rights, and the environment, which are unequivocal items on any public opinion agenda,” says Lafer. “The Constitution of 1988, which enhances participation, provides elbow room for the existence of articulation between the Executive and Legislative Powers and society on diplomatic issues. It is important to keep in mind the role of public hearings and the pluralism of information all parties desire within the scope of the special congressional committees; it is also important to keep in mind the authority granted to Congress to exercise control over foreign policies conducted by the Executive Power (for example: Congress has the power to summon a Minister and request information).” In our country, the professor points out, “the President of the Republic is responsible for the management of the country’s foreign policy. The President exerts this power according to his personality, point of view, and sensitivity. The government of President Lula was not one of consensus, and this was clearly seen in public debate and in Congress.”

Lafer adds that the ingredients of disagreement were the perception that the country’s foreign policy at that time was driven by components of exaggerated personalization and the connection between parties and foreign policy. This turned foreign policy into a government policy that did not take into consideration appropriately the desirable ingredients for the continuity of public policy; which has, it is clear, given the adjustments coming from the domestic agenda and the international scenario, the characteristics of a policy of the State.  Lafer adds that “the first year of President Dilma’s government mitigated – with the collaboration of foreign minister Patriota – disagreement to some extent, increased the margin of consensus in regard to Brazilian foreign policy among congressmen and in public debates out of Congress, because of the way the President has acted in terms of making adjustments to the handling of diplomatic affairs.” Professor Lafer concludes that “today, foreign policy issues are much closer to public opinion than they were in the past, because the changes – for better or for worse – in the paradigms of the functioning of the world, and globalization have narrowed distances that allowed us the hacia adentro of exclusive concern in regard to national development within the country’s frontiers.” Sociologist and Ambassador Luiz Felipe Lampreia, who was Brazil’s Foreign Minister in the period from 1995 to 2001, agrees with Lafer. “There is a clearer understanding by people in the sense that Brazil has become more globalized and that whatever happens outside its frontiers affects Brazilians on the domestic front. I am in favor of society’s stronger participation in the formulation of Brazilian foreign policy, because monopolies are not compatible with our times. When I was minister of foreign affairs, I held a number of meetings with several sectors of civil society, including the business community, labor unions, and NGOs. This is something mandatory. Itamaraty is no longer an ivory tower and is slowly opening up to society. Unfortunately, this opening up was conducted in an unequal and non-democratic form under former foreign minister Celso Amorim, a mistake which Patriota, the current foreign minister, is correcting,” he states. “But Brazilian foreign policy is a State policy and not a government policy. If the Lula Government had followed this guideline, we would not have been exposed to the public embarrassment of having supported Teheran, one of the most embarrassing actions of Brazil’s foreign policy, and which was conducted for purely personal marketing reasons, without taking into consideration that the whole country was being represented in this case. Better informed people understood this immediately,” says Lampreia.

“The actions of Congress are crucial and reflect society’s renewed interest in foreign relations. Brazil’s foreign policy can increasingly count on experts in the field, as attested to by the increase in the number of college-level international relations courses, which are nowadays the third most popular choice among students taking college entrance exams, coming right behind medicine. This will result in more interested and specialized professionals. This also reveals to what extent young people are interested in the directions being taken by Brazilian foreign policy, as seen by the fact that the number of international relations courses – previously restricted to two or three – has multiplied in the last 15 years. This is a positive sign,” says Ambassador Gelson Fonseca Jr., Brazil’s representative to the United Nations from 1999 to 2003.

“I believe that the existing mechanisms will be able to deal with the demands coming from Congress, but the coalition-like nature of our presidential regime checkmates this,” says Simone Diniz. “Congressional control loses its strength because of this system, as most of the members of the congressional committees are linked to the federal government in one way or another, a consequence of the efficient networking between the federal government and the political parties that support the government. The lack of ability to exert legislative control is directly related to the organizational format of our decision-making process,” she says.

The Project
Legislative Power, decision-making process and foreign policy in Brazil (nº 2008/57793); Modality Regular Support for Research; Coordinator Simone Diniz – UFSCar; Investment R$ 21,610.08