Brazil’s postponement of its White House state dinner–seen as a long-awaited wedding ceremony for the two countries after a very drawn out courtship–may signal more than just President Rousseff’s anger with revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had been spying on her personal life and Petrobrás, the state oil company. Since the postponement (which some have understood to mean cancellation), Rousseff has carved out a new niche for Brazil’s international identity, seizing the opportunity to make a bold and public statement about the direction of its foreign policy, away from the United States and its allies.
Brazil’s newfound enthusiasm for the issue of Internet privacy comes after a half-decade of an ambivalent foreign policy strategy. The predictions of a major shift in international political influence following the 2008 financial crisis, when the G-20 rose in importance to become the premier forum of global governance, signaled a potential new role for Brazil. However, this was problematic for Brazil since the G-20 represented everything that the country had long criticized: a private club of global power players.
Yet, predictions of a seismic change in global power did not come to fruition. Brazil has not made the transition to global player, and is instead juggling conflicting identities. It is a member of an elite club of global power players, but it’s also a committed proponent of global governance reform. Thus, Rousseff’s refusal to accept Obama’s explanation of spying and her recent championing of the right to privacy signal a turn away from the shaky middle ground and toward a more vocal role as a critic of the forums of global governance.Brazil is coming off a decade of strengthening ties with new allies, acting as a power broker at the South America-Africa Summits (ASA) and leading the creation of the Summit of South American-Arab Countries (ASPA). The country has been extraordinarily active in Africa–former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva alone made 11 trips to Africa, visiting 29 countries. Politicians granted him rockstar status on many of these trips, where his personal narrative and Brazil’s rise were greeted as evidence of a shift toward more inclusive global governance structures. Dilma has kept up the momentum, not only in Africa but also in South America, projecting an image of continental solidarity through the Mercado Común del Sur (Southern Common Market—Mercosur).
But nothing has gained more attention than Brazil’s public rebuke of the United States. In her speech at this year’s United Nations General Assembly, Rousseff invoked her country’s long rhetorical tradition as a defender of sovereignty, human rights and self-determination–three lightning rod terms for what is commonly known as the Global South. Hoping to back up her speech with policy, Rousseff proposed new Internet privacy legislation which would require local data to be stored on domestic servers, rather than those owned by technology companies based primarily in the United States. Brazil is also preparing a local delegation to Russia, where they hope to meet with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and discuss the specifics of U.S. surveillance programs in Brazil.
Yet, much of Rousseff’s new swagger may just be rhetorical–at the end of the day, big foreign and domestic business will be sure to object to any legislation (Internet-based or otherwise) that aggressively impedes their interests. And the Internet, for being what it is–big, open and dynamic–will not be easy to reign in. Housing data locally could even exacerbate the same lack of privacy that Rousseff is trying to fight against.
Five years ago, Brazil was betting on global governance structures as a jumping board for a new global identity. But today, the G-20’s inclusiveness has watered down policy and the UN reform process suffers from its own inertia. The BRICS themselves are slowing down and disparities among them are increasingly apparent. The NSA spying scandal, then, may be just the opportunity for Brazil to assert the strong foreign policy identity that it’s been waiting for.