By Oliver Stuenkel
The current debate about Brazilian foreign policy is an odd one: Rather than exchanging competing ideas of how to best defend Brazil’s national interests abroad, the discussion among foreign policy analysts is marked by an increasingly universal perplexity and condemnation of the President’s remarkable disregard for the Foreign Ministry and foreign policy issues in general. Even those supportive of the recently reelected government privately admit that Brazil’s foreign policy is going through its most difficult moment in many years.
The Ministry’s budget today is less than half of what it used to be under President Lula — a time of activism and expansion many now refer to as the “golden age”. Next year, additional budget cuts will take effect, dramatically reducing Brazil’s scope of international engagement. Several Brazilian embassies around the world have cut back or canceled their activities altogether. Diplomats interested in participating in events or meetings now often have to ask other ministries or international organizations to pay for their tickets – a move that, naturally, limits their independence. The most recent cohort of incoming diplomats was the smallest in years. Somewhat emblematically, the Foreign Ministry has started keeping as many lights as possible switched off to reduce its electricity bill — even though, it must be said, Itamaraty had its electricity cut before due to late payments.
After eight years of unprecedented foreign policy activism under President Lula, why did things go awry?
There are four main factors that explain the current state of affairs.
First of all, seen from Brasília, today’s macro environment is far less benign than only a few years ago, when Brazil grew economically despite a profound economic crisis in Europe and the United States, providing a unique window of opportunity. Today, Brazil’s economy stagnates while the United States is recovering. China and India are the only BRICS countries that deserve to be called emerging powers. This situation temporarily limits the credibility and legitimacy of Brazil’s claim to a more prominent role in global order.
Secondly, unlike all her predecessors since the late 1980s, President Rousseff does not consider foreign policy to be an essential element or tool of her overall policy objectives. Rather than thinking about how to use international trends in her favor at the domestic front, Rousseff seems to regard international politics as a nuisance. Brazil’s international retreat and passivity over the past four years is thus not the result of a well-crafted argument or strategy, but largely due to a President both oblivious to foreign policy and intent on centralizing decision-making to the extreme, which leaves little space for an independent and globally visible Foreign Minister – or any other cabinet member except for her uninspiring chief of staff, for that matter. Traveling far less than President Lula, Rousseff has declined to assume leadership in the debates on both regional issues — e.g. Mercosur’s relation to the Pacific Alliance– and global challenges like Ebola, ISIS, or Ukraine.
The third complicating factor, tied to the second, is Itamaraty’s lack of political clout. Today’s reality stands in stark contrast to Lula’s reign, when the Foreign Ministry possessed a formidable political operator who knew how to work the system in Brasília like few others: Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães, Itamaraty’s shrewd former secretary general, excelled at increasing the Ministry’s budget and strengthening its role in the government with such success that Celso Amorim oversaw an unprecedented expansion of Itamaraty. That helped turn the Foreign Ministry into an indispensable element of President Lula’s overall vision — a notable feat considering that foreign policy does not generate many votes.
Despite that, the fourth and final reason for the current malaise is that the Foreign Ministry lacks the structure to build rapport with the public. To most citizens, it remains unclear how foreign policy affects their lives, or why reducing Itamaraty’s budget by more than 50% is a problem, particularly in times of austerity. That may matter little in good times, but under Dilma Rousseff it becomes evident that there are virtually no sections of society that cry out and pressure the president to stop dismantling Brazil’s foreign policy apparatus.
When the media (sometimes without justification) lashes out against the Foreign Ministry, Itamaraty’s capacity to strike back and defend itself is limited. While other ministries hire professional media advisors, the press secretaries of the Foreign Ministry are career diplomats, who, while intellectually prepared, tend to be less experienced in dealing with the media in times of crisis. Raising public conscience that there is a strong connection between foreign policy and policy — or, put differently, assuring that domestic groups realize that foreign policy can help them achieve domestic aims — could help convince the President that the cost of international disengagement is simply too high. Yet alas, the combination of factors described above — principally the second — gives little reason for optimism.
Next year, the number of foreign policy challenges Brazil faces is immense. Venezuela and Argentina — the two most important partners in the region — are undergoing internal difficulties, and victories of the opposition in both countries could fundamentally change regional dynamics. Global trade and climate negotiations may see an unprecedented number of deals, affecting the lives of billions — including Brazilians. Ties with the United States need fixing, and the 7th BRICS Summit in Russia will require a delicate balancing act as Moscow prepares for years of isolation from and confrontation with the West. Rarely has Brazil been more in need of a strong international presence.