When world leaders recently gathered in Switzerland to discuss the future of Syria last week, Brazil’s foreign minister, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, was in the northeastern city of Natal to participate in the inauguration ceremony of a soccer stadium. He had rejected an invitation to join the peace conference.
A day later, one of Brazil’s major newspapers asked Figueiredo for an extensive interview focusing exclusively on the crisis in Syria, which would have allowed the new foreign minister to lay out Brazil’s vision to the public. Once again, the minister declined the offer.
At the Munich Security Conference a week later, Brazil was the only large economy without a single participant. Figueiredo, who replaced the brilliant but hapless Antonio Patriota after a diplomatic crisis last year, has been strikingly invisible in the public debate.
President Dilma Rousseff is the main culprit. Obsessive in her drive to centralize decision-making, the president regards foreign policy as a minefield of little use in her bid for re-election. She has surrounded herself by uninspiring yes-men, at least one of whom—Education Minister Aloízio Mercadante—may actively undermine Itamaraty’s standing in Brasília.The unfailingly loyal Mercadante, who is set to become Rousseff’s chief of staff, successfully drove a wedge between the president and former Foreign Minister Patriota after becoming Rousseff’s most trusted travel companion and advisor. Nowadays, Mercadante is said to decide who participates in Rousseff’s meetings with foreign leaders. Under no other Brazilian leader in recent history has the Foreign Ministry—historically above the political fray—been so secondary.
Even those critical of Lula’s foreign policy are beginning to realize that Rousseff’s strategy is far worse: Brazil will simply cease to participate in many international debates. A former foreign minister recently commented that “at least Lula had an opinion. At least he stood for something.”
Indeed, even before Rousseff took office, many predicted that the golden period of Brazil’s active and innovative foreign policy would be over. The Lula-Amorim diplomacy was profoundly personalized and difficult to emulate for any successor.
In addition, the global scenario has changed. While the first ten years of the century saw the BRICS rise and the United States struggle, Rousseff inherited a far more difficult economic situation, which forces her to focus more on domestic issues.
Yet the current economic crisis cannot justify Brazil’s retreat. After all, what is the use of a country that is only ready to help address global challenges when its economy is going well?
In her second term, there is a real possibility that Rousseff will systematically undo many of former President Lula’s most important foreign policy achievements. While Lula engaged in the Middle East, Rousseff shied away from assuming leadership on either Iran or Syria. While Lula opened countless embassies on the African continent, rumors are now rife that Rousseff is considering closing several of them—a move that would send a disastrous signal to the global community. The last country to shut down embassies in Africa was Russia after the Soviet collapse.
An immediate effect is that Brazil’s embassy in Kabul, which Lula had envisioned—it would have been Brazil’s 140th—never opened. As a consequence, Brazil must rely on other countries’ briefings and cannot seriously participate in the discussion about Afghanistan’s future.
Furthermore, Brazil has thus far declined to accelerate its return to the UN Security Council by asking a regional neighbor to stand back—hardly a sign of unstoppable ambition to join the UNSC as a permanent member. Finally, after Rousseff’s great announcement about taking the lead on Internet governance last year, there is general confusion about what precisely Brazil seeks to achieve when it will host a major conference on the topic in São Paulo. In the same way, the government has remained silent about its ideas and goals for the 6th BRICS Summit, which it will host in July.
All that is bad news, both for Brazil and for the international community as a whole. In an ever more multipolar world, rich countries’ dominance in the global conversation is highly counterproductive and unlikely to produce sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing issues such as climate change, financial volatility, human rights and nuclear proliferation.
Over the past ten years, Brazil’s stronger voice—be it in the UN Security Council, during negotiations in Iran, as a peacekeeper in Haiti, in the neighborhood, or in a resurgent Africa—has contributed to a richer and more balanced global debate. In order to keep it that way, the Foreign Ministry, the public and civil society must convince the president that retreat is not an option.