Brazil’s Quest for Superpower Status

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Written by Peter Collecott, Guest Contributor

Brazil’s quest for superpower status has a long history. Initially, this was probably rooted in the Brazilian sense of size and uniqueness – a continental sized country, with immense natural resources and geographical and ethnic diversity; yet united by a common language, Portuguese – as opposed to Spanish in the rest of Latin America – and by a sense of a distinct history. Importantly, Brazil’s modern history, following 300 years of colonial neglect and exploitation, began in 1806 with the arrival of the Portuguese Court, escaping from Napoleonic Europe. The Portuguese Empire was ruled from Rio de Janeiro until 1821. Then in 1822 Dom Pedro famously decided not to follow his father back to Portugal, but to declare Brazilian independence, and himself the monarch of a Brazilian Empire! In no sense – except size – did Brazil deserve this title at that stage; certainly not in terms of being an economic or political power on the world stage, incorporated as it was in practice in the 19th century British Imperial system. However, the aspiration was there.


After 100 years of nation building – including a futile war against Paraguay, but, more importantly, the settling of the rest of Brazil’s many borders peacefully; the move from an Empire to a Republic; and the sucking in of huge numbers of European and Japanese immigrants to move from a slave economy to a wage economy – Brazil was confident enough to exert itself on the world stage. Although not involved in the First World War, Brazil was a founder member of the League of Nations in 1919, and was rapidly recognised as a serious player in multilateral discussions, even if not a central player. This is a diplomatic tradition which Brazil has continued to burnish, leading to influence far beyond its economic or political weight for much of the 20th century.

The year 1928 at the League of Nations saw Brazil’s first high profile bid for something approaching superpower status. Brazil was already a respected member of the League’s Council. The major European powers had just signed the Locarno Treaty, a central element of which was Germany’s admission to the League, and the provision of a new permanent seat for her on the League’s Council. This was naturally controversial amongst the second rank powers. However, only Spain and Brazil refused to accept the compromise hammered out, each insisting on permanent seats on the Council for themselves if Germany was to get one. Initially, Brazil claimed to be doing this on behalf of Latin America, but was rapidly disavowed by her neighbours. Brazil’s autocratic President Bernandes refused to back down, and in 1929 withdrew Brazil from the League, never to return.

At the end of the Second World War Brazil counted herself amongst the victorious Allies. Following vacillation early in the War, and then successful American economic and political pressure, Brazil entered the War on the Allied side in 1942, and became the only Latin American country to send troops to Europe. This formed the backdrop to the suggestion, it seems from President Roosevelt, during US discussions on the future UN organisation, that Brazil should have a Permanent seat on the Security Council of the embryonic body. The suggestion was apparently quickly quashed by US staff. However, the myth persists, not least in Brazil’s proud diplomatic tradition, that Brazil came within a whisker of being a founding Permanent Member. For some who like conspiracy theories, this was further evidence that Brazil was being denied its natural status by the then hegemonic powers.

For much of the post-war period, the Brazilian quest for greater status remained dormant. International organisations, and international relations, were dominated by the Cold War superpower rivalry, and Brazil was firmly on the anti-communist side. Brazil was also looking inwards, continuing to generate rapid economic growth, but on the basis of nationalistic and autarkic policies behind high protectionist barriers, and plagued by periodic currency or inflation crises. Politically the country was unstable, with various autocratic regimes punctured by democratic experiments, until the military took over in 1964. This was not the time for attempts to improve Brazil’s international status.

Most of this changed in the 1980s. The end of the Cold War coincided with the Brazilian military gradually giving up power, and a return to democratic politics, this time in a more institutionally stable manner. Economic stability took much longer to achieve, but was now based on at least partial liberalisation, as Brazil began to exploit its natural resources, agricultural productivity and industrial base in a globalising world. Brazil’s interest in exerting influence in multilateral negotiations – whether on trade policy or nuclear non-proliferation – therefore increased, and it used its diplomatic strengths to build a reputation as a moderate player, able to draw on G77 support and broker compromise, and hence to move itself into the inner circles of major organisations and multilateral negotiations.

This has been most obvious in trade policy. Based on highly expert trade diplomacy, Brazil has successfully challenged developed world protectionism; and also made herself indispensable to an ambitious outcome of the Doha Round. The clearest manifestation of this was Brazil’s formation in 2003 of the (trade) G20, and the subsequent inclusion of Brazil and India, nominally as leaders of the G20, along with the EU and the US as the informal core of the Doha negotiations.

A similar story is playing itself out in the international Climate Change negotiations under the UNFCCC. A combination of Brazilian activism – hosting the Rio Conference in 1992, and the Rio+20 event in 2012; diplomatic engagement, including chairing one of the main negotiating committees in the intervening years – and its natural endowment as an “ecological superpower”, have made Brazil a central player, at times to the consternation of Western powers, such as in Copenhagen with the tough stance of the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, China).

Such groupings of major Emerging Economies became a hallmark of Brazilian foreign policy under Lula, starting with IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa), then the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and BASIC. These groupings were attractive partly for economic reasons, as Brazil went with the trends of globalisation and successfully diversified its trade dependencies away from the US and Europe and more towards the South – a policy which contributed to the country being able to weather the recent Global Financial Crisis so well. However, the link-ups with other Emerging Powers also had political motives, as Brazil sought allies to tip multilateral negotiations in its direction, and to challenge Western dominance of international organisations. Such groupings had the advantage of weak or non-existent institutions, offering Brazil maximum flexibility. However, this was all done in a moderate and relatively quiet way. They used to tell me, as British Ambassador, that the language of the shifting of the tectonic plates of global power, and of the Emerging Powers, was not their language – but they were happy for others, like the UK, to be using it! This ambivalence came through when Goldman Sachs coined the BRIC sobriquet in 2001. Initially the Brazilians were not sure they liked it. However, as soon as it gained currency, they embraced it, and agree to give it rapid institutional form with meetings of Foreign Ministers and then Heads of State.

Their relationship with the OECD neatly demonstrates the balancing act the Brazilians were performing through this period. Over the years Brazil had become the non-member country with the closest engagement with the OECD, including participation in many technical committees. Despite this, they remained reluctant to adapt to OECD norms, for instance on the form of Double Taxation Agreements; and to join the OECD, except in “good company” – meaning, probably, other major Emerging Powers. Brazil was becoming a developed economy, but still wished to be seen as a leader of the developing countries.

With growing confidence in the sustainability of its economic performance, the stability of its institutions, and the international prestige of its President, Lula, Brazil resumed its quest for greater formal recognition of its size and influence. In particular, it resumed its overt quest for Permanent Membership of the UN Security Council, having been reluctant to push this under Cardoso, Lula’s predecessor. In a reflection of 1928, discussions of Security Council reform had started off being essentially about admission of the vanquished – this time round Germany and Japan – to the victors’ table. However, the dynamic was changed in 2005 with the formal emergence of the G4 (these two plus Brazil and India) as a more or less united alliance pushing for Permanent Membership for all four. This coherence owed a lot to the professionalism of Brazilian diplomacy. Early fruits were support for the G4 (plus a “representative of Africa”) from France and the UK. The US and China have proved harder nuts to crack. And regional rivalries surrounding each of the G4 continue to bog down the process. Nevertheless, for Brazil and others, this is the big prize – formal recognition that the global power balance has shifted since 1945, and of the political status of Emerging Powers in this new world. They will continue to work for what they see as the inevitable eventual recognition of their status. Yet even here lurks another paradox. Brazil wants the recognition afforded by the existing institutions, and so does not want to overturn or replace them; but does want to transform them into something different. When challenged to demonstrate their fitness for global leadership by standing up to threats to global peace and security, and taking a firmer line on human rights, the Brazilians say they want to be a “different kind” of Permanent Member – relying not on hard but soft power; on negotiation, not coercion; firmly multilateral, not threatening unilateral action, nor intruding on sovereignty.

While Brazil is having to be patient on the UN Security Council front, events have continued to give them confidence that the world is beginning to see things their way. A first taste of this was Tony Blair’s inclusion of the so called “+5” (Brazil, India, China, South Africa, Mexico) in part of the 2005 G8 Summit at Gleneagles – although the initial proposal to include only the first four was even more attractive to Brazil, not least because it would have played well into the Security Council debate. The subsequent G8+5 process was a first, imperfect, recognition of the need to integrate the Emerging Powers into the institutions of global governance. This was given a massive boost by the Global Financial Crisis, which gave such a shove to the tectonic plates that there was rapid recognition that the big Emerging Powers had to be involved in measures to resolve the crisis. The (finance) G20 was rapidly elevated to Head of Government level as the principal forum for the discussion of global economic issues. The central involvement of the Emerging Powers in global political governance cannot be far behind many, including the Emerging Powers themselves, believe.

So, after almost two hundred years, Brazil’s quest for the global status she instinctively feels is her due, is certainly part way to fulfilment. The country’s economic, and hence political, power is finally catching up with the Brazilians’ conception of themselves, and with the position that Brazil has built up in multilateral institutions by its active diplomacy. Recognition and status – even if not yet the final accolade of a Permanent UNSC seat – have come Brazil’s way rapidly in the past decade. Brazil will certainly play an increasingly influential role internationally. Not quite a superpower perhaps, but a major influence on many global issues. This may suit Brazil well. There are unresolved issues over Brazil’s relationship with its region; and over the degree of change of the international system Brazil wishes to see. The current position as an engaged Emerging Power is much more comfortable than the earlier balancing act between Developeds and Developings; and allows Brazil to play a role in shaping the future global order from within, rather than perceiving the world as constantly thwarting its legitimate aspirations.

Peter Collecott is a former career diplomat who was British Ambassador in Brazil from 2004 to 2008. He now advises private and public sector bodies on relations with Brazil, including as a founder member of ADRg Ambassadors LLP, a group of former Ambassadors engaged in offering corporate diplomacy, international mediation and training services.