Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Breves narrativas diplomáticas by Celso Amorim

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Photo: Lars Klove

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Brazil featured early in the international crisis that erupted from Edward Snowden’s disclosures of U.S. access to telephone conversations of more than 30 foreign leaders over the past decade, when Rio de Janeiro-based journalist Glenn Greenwald provided information about U.S. spying in Brazil to O Globo’s television program, Fantástico. In response, President Dilma Rousseff took the unusual and unprecedented step of canceling her scheduled state visit to the United States. (That cancellation had some positive consequences for President Barack Obama; at least he did not have to worry about holding a state meeting during the Congress-imposed shutdown of U.S. government spending.)

The Snowden disclosures increase the relevance of Celso Amorim’s new book, Breves narrativas diplomáticas (Brief Diplomatic Narratives). Amorim, who served as Brazilian minister of foreign relations under two administrations of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and is now minister of defense in the Rousseff government, presents—as he had done in an earlier volume Conversas com jovens diplomatas (Conversations with Young Diplomats)—some highlights of his service as foreign minister.

The emphasis in this book is on his first years as foreign minister, and gives the reader a window into Brazil’s shift in foreign policy after 2003.

The period covered by the book starts with the Iraq invasion of 2003 and concludes with Brazil’s emerging policy of engagement with Africa, marked by Lula’s visits there. In between, there are chapters on the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’ re-emergence in Venezuela after the 2002 coup, on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and its eventual disappearance, on the limited advance of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Doha Round of trade liberalization talks, on the newfound alliance of India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) and Brazil’s relationships with the member governments, and on the rise of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUL). Indeed, the importance that the government places on UNASUL and its relations with Bolivia and Venezuela re-appeared recently when the Brazilian embassy in Bolivia gave safe passage to a Bolivian opposition leader holed up in the embassy, infuriating the Bolivian government. In a not-so-subtle sign of the Rousseff government’s desire to maintain good relations with the Bolivians, the president removed foreign minister Antonio Patriota, switching positions with him and the then-representative to the United Nations, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo.

Amorim’s observations and analysis are not based on a structured daily diary. Instead, they expand on immediate reflections noted down in the heat of events. The book reconstructs these notes and—in some cases—extends them to current events and policy.

In all these cases, not surprisingly, the emphasis is on Amorim’s diplomatic skills in redefining Brazilian foreign policy and trumping the opposition within Itamaraty, as the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is almost always called. Words of praise appear for various subordinates, but only when they concur with the strategy he defined. Thus, the defense of FTAA by Clodoaldo Hugueney—who was initially responsible for FTAA trade negotiations—gave an “impression of irrational behavior on my [Amorim’s] part.” Needless to say, Hugueney’s responsibilities there soon ended. This is not a detailed account of widening internal differences within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over Amorim’s eight years, but rather a pastiche of successful (in his view) initiatives that always enhanced Brazilian diplomatic presence in the world.

To give a better flavor of the content, as well as focus on substantive issues, four questions merit brief comment.

The first relates to trade negotiations, which take up a third of the book. The discussion covers the ill-fated initiatives of President Bill Clinton and later President George W. Bush to establish a hemispheric free trade agreement, as well as the no-more-successful—at least up to now—multilateral Doha Round that has accumulated more than 10 years of negotiation. What is exceptional about the Brazilian posture is the leadership insisted on by Itamaraty in the country’s trade talks, with other economic ministries in a much-subordinated role. Amorim puts it clearly: his intention “was to guarantee that Itamaraty would continue to direct the negotiations.”

Unlike the U.S., where that role is played by the Trade Representative’s Office, in Brazil, there is no separation. One must wonder if the diplomatic corps’ monopoly of foreign economic policy has resulted in the country failing to respond fully to trade opportunities. Brazil remains a country with few trade agreements, relatively high tariffs on industrial products and a recurrent concern with the internal market as the source of long-term economic growth, as opposed to an emphasis upon expanding foreign trade.

A second issue is Brazil’s perennial search for a permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations. The quest dates back to the origins of the United Nations. As Amorim himself said in 2006, “Rome wasn’t built in a day. The reform of the Security Council doesn’t take one day… but it will happen.”

The formation of the IBSA Dialogue Forum was one of the steps intended to press the case. What stands out is how little progress has been made in extending this threesome into the upper echelons of the world body of the United Nations. Even later, when Brazil formed a diplomatic partnership with China and Russia, along with its IBSA members, within the five countries it is the rapidly growing trade with China that dominates the diplomatic discussion.

Brazil clearly endorses the Grotian, or more idealistic, basis of foreign policy. That view emphasizes rules and universal cooperation as opposed to realists’ focus on raw power calculations and intervention serving national interests. Yet for Brazil, a consistently non-interventionist and normative idealistic policy has become increasingly difficult to implement.

Examples include: Brazilian support for the Libyan regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi until virtually the end; the failed efforts at negotiation with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to end the civil war; Afghanistan; Iraq (in 1991 and 2003); Iran; and Israel and Palestine. In each of these, the principles of non-intervention and support for international norms have clashed.

Even in its long-standing UN engagement in Haiti, Brazilian involvement has not led to a wonderful outcome. Widespread physical destruction hardly helped, but neither has it been possible to implement investment projects. Nor has its active engagement in the WTO, FAO, UNCTAD, and other agencies of the UN really fulfilled Brazilian hopes. And when matters shift to climate change, the law of the seas, and others, a greater dose of realism is no less necessary.

In the third instance, there is the continuing Brazilian search for positive engagement with its Latin American neighbors. This is no simple matter, as the extensive discussion of Mercosul (Mercado Comum do Sul) and Venezuelan relations make abundantly clear. The tone here is fully positive. But a more sober accounting, looking more toward Brazil’s longer -term economic interest, shows some problems: the likely limited economic integration of Venezuela in Mercosul as well as its looming economic and political problems; continuing difficulties with Argentina’s macroeconomic stability and its increasing protectionist focus; and the bloc’s limited commitment to economic integration with Europe.

Finally, we come to Brazil and its engagement with the United States. Over the Lula years, and again more recently under Rousseff, the gulf between the two powers has widened.

In part, this was caused by Brazil’s negative reaction to President George W. Bush’s world engagement based on unilateralism and his focus—to the extent Latin America even entered into his foreign policy considerations—on U.S.-Mexico relations. In part, as well, it was Brazil’s own search for global leadership with Iran and Palestine. In the case of the former, there was an attempt to broker a last-minute deal with the Iranian regime to head off UN sanctions and to welcome then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the case of the latter, there was Brazil’s recognition of the Palestinian state.

When President Barack Obama visited Brazil seeking to build a better bilateral relationship—after favorable resolution of the WTO cotton case—it seemed that matters were beginning to align more positively. There seemed a basis for starting over.

Then came Snowden and Fantastico, and the subsequent, rapid and still continuing, deterioration.

Celso Amorim has made a very good start on the discussion of Brazilian foreign affairs for a wider international public. As Brazil’s global ambitions expand, this subject will command growing interest. Brazil, despite some economic problems, has emerged as a global player, and the U.S. remains a very relevant participant. Hopefully, we can all look forward to a third volume in the next years, and one that will benefit from Amorim’s current position as minister of defense.

Tags: Brazil, Celso Amorim
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