Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Five Goals for Brazil’s New Foreign Policy

Reading Time: 5 minutesBrasília should embrace a more realistic, involved—but still ambitious—role in a changing world.
Reading Time: 5 minutes


Reading Time: 5 minutes

This article is adapted from AQ’s most recent issue, “Fixing Brazil.” To receive the print edition at home, subscribe here.

Not long ago, Brazil was at the forefront of the emerging-country movement to transform the global order. As a key member of the BRICS group, it was a vocal advocate for reforming the U.N. Security Council, the Bretton Woods institutions, and the international trading system. Many argued that Brazil was destined to be a major stakeholder in global governance.

That promise looks hollow now. Economic decay and political turmoil at home have produced retrenchment abroad. The notions of national greatness that were center stage under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva gave way in the Dilma Rousseff government to risk aversion and suspicion about the sustainability of major international initiatives.

Now, under President Michel Temer, there is an opportunity to update the country’s foreign policy. Here, I address five major strategic goals. There are certainly other areas of Brazilian behavior in the world that merit revision, but this list underscores the central challenge for policymakers: In the next decade, the foreign policy posture typical of the PT years (2003–2016) must be replaced with a modern strategy that takes into account the extent and depth of global change, and adapts Brazilian attitudes in foreign affairs to the evolving needs of its people.

Here’s what a Brazilian foreign policy for the next decade should do.

1. Engage the World Economy

Brazil remains the most inward-looking of all the G20 economies. While the country did open up its economy by a notch in the 1990s, it remains closed to global trade through nontariff barriers, national content rules, excessive red tape and bad regulation. This restrictive policy benefits big companies with easy access to the top echelons of government. It also benefits organized industrial labor in those sectors that enjoy special status in Brasília, such as the automobile industry.

But Brazil’s economic isolation comes at an enormous cost to the vast majority of Brazilians who work in services, agriculture, or in the informal economy. That cost comes in the form of low productivity, a lack of technological innovation, shrinking incomes, and absence from the most dynamic global value chains. As a result, most Brazilian companies and workers aren’t equipped to compete internationally.

Addressing this problem will require a serious rethink of federal regulations, but also of trade diplomacy. Brazil has yet to sign key international agreements on investment protection, copyright laws and services in trade. Double taxation remains a problem that can be resolved through bilateral agreements. Brazil should also utilize the existing fast-track mechanisms for patent prosecution procedures and sign the World Trade Organization’s government procurement agreement, which would boost its service exports worldwide.

2. Manage Porous Borders

Brazil’s most intractable international security problem today is the massive, porous borders it shares with ten contiguous neighbors. The challenge is complicated by the remoteness of the border areas and the difficulties inherent in patrolling the almost 17,000-kilometer (10,563-mile) perimeter.

Smuggling and trafficking of drugs, weapons, goods, and even people is affecting the quality of life in cities thousands of kilometers away from the border. The transformation of Brazil into a major commercial entrepôt for South America’s cocaine before it travels to Africa, Asia, Europe, and the U.S. is only one of many problems. To make matters worse, criminal gangs in the border areas have infiltrated politics, using their illicit earnings to finance campaigns.

Brazil’s current Strategic Plan for the Border is inadequate. It is neither strategic nor a plan. It is a set of propositions with no order or hierarchy, no division of labor among the various agencies responsible for making it work, and no provision of resources for implementation. Meanwhile, official attitudes toward the border areas reflect the outdated assumptions that at times of crisis authorities should “seal” the border. Police and judicial authorities of neighboring countries are not to be trusted, nor are local populations involved as key stakeholders in designing policy.

A fundamental rethink of border policy must begin with the recognition that security in the border areas will always be interdependent. Active cooperation with neighboring countries is not a choice but a necessity, and should be built into a comprehensive border strategy.

3. Redefine Regional Integration

For a decade after the end of dictatorial rule in South America, observers were optimistic about the prospects for regional integration. The astounding growth of intraregional trade, the emergence of confidence-building measures among countries that for generations were suspicious of one another, and the growing sense that war in the region was increasingly unlikely all contributed to the optimism. Brazil was at the heart of that attitude change, providing ideas, funds and political support for regional integration. The 2000s saw a renewed wave of interest in regional affairs. Mercosur expanded its membership and the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) was launched in 2008.

Today, however, pessimism reigns. Most analysts believe the region’s discord will be hard to reverse. Hardly anyone is confident that coordinating of economic policies is possible. Skirmishes that might spiral into more serious conflict are no longer seen as a thing of the past. Deep divisions today recur among regional states around core issues, from economic governance and global trade to the war on drugs and protecting democracy and human rights.

Given its unique weight in South America, and the unprecedented degree to which its own well-being is interdependent, Brazil should go back to the drawing board to reform the South American architecture that it helped build, finance and sustain.

This will demand an exercise in creativity to adapt existing institutions to make them more effective at tackling the wide range of issues affecting the region: beating corruption, smuggling and trafficking; securing energy integration; fostering the free circulation of people; fine-tuning the regional commitment to promoting democracy and human rights; and expanding military-to-military cooperation.

4. Clean Up Cyberspace

Brazilian cyber politics is evolving fast. When the government announced plans to extend broadband services across the country in 2010, big companies, small start-ups, and even the military started to compete for influence and budgets in Brasília. After all, by 2012 the country’s IT sector was worth $112 billion. Policy is evolving against a backdrop of growing cybercrime. Today Brazil is one of the world’s cybercrime hotbeds — a major source of hacking, data theft and illicit sales.

The government response has been to militarize cyberspace. In the lead-up to the 2013 antigovernment protests, for instance, intelligence agencies compiled a list of 700 topics they considered potential security threats. An operation codenamed Mosaico was tasked with actively trawling through social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram.

Militarizing cyberspace is not a wise policy. Brazil is not threatened by cyberwar or by foreign cyber-attacks. Rather, it is confronted with a domestic challenge that’s growing in tandem with unprecedented technological change: As Internet access spreads across the country, domestic cyber threats will multiply. There is a real danger that cyber policy will be increasingly hostage to special interests with privileged access to policymakers and resources.

Foreign policy has an important role to play in securing an intelligent cyber policy through active international cooperation. The government should bolster IT training and exchange, as well as police and military collaboration in the fields of cyber forensics and criminal investigation. It should also promote a cyber-conscious civil society through education and international exchange, in order to cultivate a new generation of cyber experts who can engage in the global cyber conversation.

5. Think Transnationally

Brazilian foreign policy doctrine holds that the diffusion of power from the U.S. and Europe toward the global South is both inevitable and desirable. Brazilian leaders argue that global order is best served by a growing diversity of values, and is reinforced when a larger range of voices participate. Within this, Brazil does not seek to rock the boat or revolutionize the international system, but to create a form of “benign multipolarity.” On Brazil’s part, this will be done through a power transition where major, traditional powers open up the global clubs to a set of emerging nations from the post-colonial world.

This is a worthwhile goal, but it needs to be further refined and specified. What’s missing from the existing doctrine is an understanding that the greatest challenges to Brazil are transnational in nature. They include global finance and value chains, piracy on the high seas, climate change, pandemics, smuggling, trafficking and cybercrime. Managing such challenges will require levels of international cooperation that go far beyond classic state-to-state diplomacy.

To address these new realities, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs needs a system to draw on the phenomenal stream of information gathered by other parts of the state in the fields of statistics and applied economics. It should also engage nonstate actors, who will help shape the context in which Brazilian foreign policy operates in the 21st century.

Spektor is an associate professor of international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Brazil. He has written several books and articles on foreign policy, and writes a weekly column for Folha de São Paulo.

Tags: BRICs, Fixing Brazil
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