Photo Jonathan Blair

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Venezuela on the war path?

This, from a friend of mine currently unable to publish on this blog: "I'm starting to wonder how long it will be until the Venezuelans have another 'accident' like the one that bombed a dredging unit in Guyanesse waters. The diversionary theory of war is looking more and more applicable."

Well, at the very least, Hugo Chavez seems to be looking for a way to divert Venezuelans' attention from inflation, corruption, shortages of basic goods, power outages and especially violent crime. His main theme is obviously Colombia, whom he accuses now of using unmanned drones to attack Venezuela. This accusation, moreover, is only a tiny bit of his big campaign against the military agreement between Colombia and the US that will enable American aircraft to use Colombian airbases as part of their support for that country's war against the FARC and narco-traffickers.

Now, the way in which the US has managed this file is worse than incompetent, like much of their policy towards the region under Obama -Honduras is the other prominent example. However, the idea that Colombia, which is just now --for the first time in its history-- getting close to controlling its own territory, would be looking for a war with Venezuela, is preposterous. What has to be on Uribe's mind, however, is the support that the FARC --which now has allied with the ELN, the other Colombian guerrilla movement-- is getting from its neighbours, Ecuador and Venezuela. That thesis was recently bolstered by a report from an unlikely source: the Commission named by Ecuador President Rafael Correa, to investigate the circumstances surrounding Colombia's attack on a FARC base on Ecuadorian soil. The report shows clearly that Ecuadorian officials and organizations linked to Venezuela were indeed collaborating with the FARC and meeting its representatives in Ecuador. No mention is made of weapons' provision or direct financial support, but there is enough in that report for Colombia to claim that its neighbours are supporting the guerrilla. Nobody in the region and few countries in the world would accept that as a legitimate excuse for Colombia's to engage in hit-and-run operations in either country, but this may not be enough for the Colombian government who, with massive public support, now appear to be moving for the kill. Such operations, however, could clearly be enough for Venezuela to take the confrontation to a higher level. This would be a high risk gamble, however, and one unlikely to get much support from Brazil and friends in the region (but that's another story).

Chavez, however, is not stopping there. He has also accused the Netherlands (yes!) of planning an aggression against his country. In his own words (though in my translation): "I am accusing the Netherlands, along with the Yankee Empire, of planning an attack against Venezuela." He has in mind the presence of 250 US naval personal in Dutch autonomous islands Aruba and Curação, from where they work on drug interdiction in the Caribbean. Both islands, by the way, are in Venezuela's territorial water.

The problem, in sum, is that if Chavez is looking for trouble, he won't have a hard time finding it: Colombia is indeed aggressively present in border areas, so is the US -both in Colombia and the Caribbean. Moreover, and in spite of the formal archiving of the country's claim over more than half of Guyana's territory, that old claim would be easy enough to resuscitate, for the greatest pleasure of Venezuela's ultra-nationalist circles.

The truly sad thing is that Venezuelans already have enough problems on their plate. It is not surprising in fact that most, according to recent polls [Globe and Mail, Dec. 22: A-13], are utterly uninterested in a war with Colombia, which is the most likely diversionary scenario. Still, would that stop a Chavez who is getting deeper in a hole of his own doing from "jumping"? It's not clear to me. Let's just hope my friend is wrong...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Venezuela in Mercosur: Insights from Copenhagen (out of all place)

Brazil's Senate has finally approved the entry of Venezuela in the Mercosur bloc. The only hurdle remaining now is a vote from the Paraguayan Congress.

Brazilian advocates of the move, like Celso Amorim, the country's foreign minister, point out that this will make the bloc significantly larger and more powerful. For Brazil and Argentina, it could also pay handsomely if Venezuela complies with Mercosur rules and fully eliminates tariffs on imports from bloc countries: both already have huge trade surpluses with Venezuela and the latter exports basically nothing but oil.

There will be a price to pay, however. Mercosur acts as a bloc in trade negociation, i.e. no member country can sign an agreement with anybody without the other bloc members agreeing to it. For the foreseeable future, this will mean making deals that Hugo Chavez approves of. And the problem is, Venezuela has very little at stake in trade negotiations, because markets are fully open to the only thing it exports, namely its thick oil. In other words, it is free to be as rigid as it likes. Clearly, moreover, Venezuela under Chavez appears keen on doing just that.

For a recent example, take Copenhagen. Everybody agrees that the agreement is at best a rough starting point. At least, arguably, everybody appears willing to start something. But wait a bit: not everybody. Out of 193 countries, five refused to sign the agreement: Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan and Venezuela. But for Sudan--which also enjoys a perverse kind of "freedom" thanks to its oil--, this little club is Chavez' club.

Dear Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay: unless the Paraguayan Congress holds out indefinitely, expect more of the same on everything that Mercosur gets involved with. One more nail on the bloc's coffin?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Lula and Ahmadinejad

Moisés Naím has published in El País a marvelous little piece about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent visit to Brazil . It is called "Lula's secret documents," and is purely fictional.

For those not in the know, Moisés Naím is the editor of Foreign Policy Magazine. He was one of the technocrats that Venezuela's then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez (CAP) had brought to him to un-paralyze the country's economy and government in the 1990s. As you may remember, that attempt collapsed in death, fire, and humiliation in 1992 when CAP's economic shock therapy met with massive public protests in Caracas --the Caracazo-- whose repression led to the death of more than 100 people. Shortly thereafter, CAP, his ideas, and his policies were further discredited when he was demoted by the Country's Supreme Court and condemned for corruption. Naím could be described as a modern social-democrat, in the mold of Felipe Gonzalez and perhaps Tony Blair. Perhaps more relevant, he is also a standing member of that transnational elite -almost an aristocracy- of Latin-American technocrats, academics and intellectuals, highly-cultivated, usually well-off, superbly educated (generally in the United States, Paris, or both), and as much at ease in the salons, offices and universities of Washington, Paris, New York or Madrid, as they are in the region's capitals themselves (think of Mario Vargas Llosa, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Jorge Castañeda, Ricardo Hausman, Andrés Rozental, and so on. But that's another story. The key thing is: able and well-connected, Naím was quickly back on his feet and he has led the transformation of Foreign Policy, a staid and somewhat boring quarterly, into the hypest, most lively and best-looking international affairs web-journal in existence today. For what I know, he is based in New York, but he also writes in El País.

His column tells of a briefing note written by Lula's advisers, selling him the idea of welcoming Ahmadinejad. At once, it argues, Lula could poke a finger in the eye of the US, thus affirming Brazil's independence, and remind the world that Brasilia, as the capital of a world power, must be involved in big multilateral endeavors like containing Iran's nuclear program, which is not the case at the moment. Naím has obviously never seen such a note, but given the track record of Lula advisers Marco Aurelio Garcia and Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães, it is very easy to imagine just such things being wispered in the President's ear.

Naím follows with a ficticious letter from a friend of Lula, a companion in the fight against the military regime, in the 1970s and 1980s, who has qualms about his getting too too close to people like Ahmadinejad. The trick is old, and could easily be cheap, but it is not. In fact, it borders on the poignant. The friend is understanding: yes, politics, domestic or foreign, calls for compromise, but there is a limit and, he feels, Lula has crossed it. Here is an excerpt, which I have translated from the Spanish original:

"I felt a great sadness when I saw you embrace the president of Iran. Did it cross you mind, old friend, that if you and I had been doing in Iran today what we did in Brazil when we were young -protest against the dictatorship- this president would have condemned us both to death? Iran's official TV announced death sentence for eight people. Their crime? To have protested against the government and against what they felt was the fraudulent election of the president that you received with all the honors. In other words, Lula, they will die in the hands of your guest for being what you were when you had their age and, just like them, could not stand in silence in the face of dictatorship. Moreover, in Iran, hundreds of students and political leaders are in prison and for sure many were being tortured while you were offering a banquet to the man responsible for it. I don't object to your inviting this tyran: I understand that these are "State" calculations. I hope that, in private, you told him that Brazilians don't like governments that kill their opponents. But I am saddened to see you holding his hand. There is blood on them, not on yours."

Case closed, no?

One more thing: this translation just cannot convey the palpable sadness of the original, so if you read Spanish, get the article itself, it almost feels like Jorge Luis Borges, still alive, delving in foreign policy commentary...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Let's be serious: Mercosur is over

Mercosur has become a bad joke. Continuous little crises belie the assurances of confidence and progress that are periodically uttered by the foreign ministries of Brazil, Argentina and their partners in grime. The latest source of tension, which has been termed "The Toy War," is one more example of the pathetic state of a process of regional economic integration in which much effort and resources has been invested, with little to show for it. So little in fact that closing the file would probably be of little real consequence for the countries involved: they would still have their little fights, their good days together, and regular meetings to discuss common problems. They would be freer to negotiate commercial agreements but, above all, they would stop having to patch up a cover for a process that, honestly, has never gone far institutionally, and that has made very little difference to dynamics of cooperation, integration and conflict that would have developed anyway.

Mercosur stands for Mercado Comun del Sur: the Common Market of the South. Made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, it is a common tariff zone, i.e. its member countries not only trade freely with one another, but also share external tariff barriers. As such it is more ambitious than a simple free trade zone like NAFTA, but less so than a full-fledged economic community, like the EU. It has been touted as the region's answer to ultra-liberal NAFTA, as a way for its members to build-up their export capacities behind some protection, and as a political springboard for its member countries, to gain influence in the world by acting collectively, particularly but not exclusively in trade negotiations, where the bloc stands as one.

Mercosur has a little secretariat, a Presidency that roves from one country to the next every six months, and even a Parliament, but every decision of import are taken by the Presidents of the countries. The president has no autonomy, the secretariat no capacity, and nobody cares about the Parliament or knows anything about who its members are or what they do. If you don't believe me, go check the website of any of the major journals of any of the four countries, seach for "Parlamento" and "Mercosur" --or "Mercosul" for Brazilian papers. If you find something, PLEASE do send it to me because my files are empty...

The history of commercial conflicts between Mercosur countries, particularly Argentina and Brazil, is long, lively, and pathetic. Fortunately for the student of trade issues in the region, the press in the region has long decided to treat those conflicts lightly. Among others, we have thus had the Cellulose War (between Argentina and Uruguay, still raging, by the way), the Chicken War, the Fridge War, the Shoe War, the Stove War and now, in step with the holiday season, the Toy War, all of them between Argentina and Brazil. The Toy War story is typical: the government of Argentina, to protect its toy industries, announced last week that it was imposing import license for Brazilian toys and would limit the quantities brought into the country. This week, Brazil announced that they would do the same to Argentinian toys. This is happening a few days after a meeting between President Lula and Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner, a meeting meant precisely to tackle the fast-growing list of little commercial skirmishes that is poisoning the relationship between the two countries.

The problem is much deeper than toys, or shoes, or fridges or even all this together. As The Economist was noting a few weeks back, Brazil is taking off, and Argentina remains stuck. The asymmetry between the two countries has been growing consistently since the mid-90s, with Brazil's relative weight in Mercosur, for trade, investment, GDP per capita, military power or almost any other metric, growing steadily. Argentina appears to be living on borrowed time, with a new economic crisis in the offing. Perhaps most damaging, Brazil's dependence on the bloc is also steadily diminishing. It is as if Germany were getting ever more powerful relative to all the other members of Europe, while becoming increasingly tied up politically, strategically and economically with China and the US. The exact opposite, by the way, is happening, with the European bonds getting stronger and the relative weight of its big players --Germany and France-- diminishing progressively, as new countries join in and as growth in smaller and more backward economies is typically stronger than in the larger ones.

To make things worse for Mercosur, a vote in the Brazilian senate is the last obstacle to Venezuela's joining the bloc as a full member. This would mean that the commercial policy of all of its members would suddenly become hostage to the whims of Hugo Chavez. A vote in time for Chrismas would make for great titles though: Santa Chavez gets involved in the Toy War.

No, really: Time to bury this one.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why Brazil is displacing Canada on the world stage

As you probably know, not much is expected of developing countries at the forthcoming Copenhagen conference on global warming. For that matter, not much is expected from developed countries either, and especially not from Canada. The rich have to pay is the South's standard line, and they certainly have a point as the West and Japan are responsible for much of the CO2 hanging in the sky. Why should they pay for our sins when they still have hundreds of millions of poor people who aspire to little more than the life expectancy and standard of living of Canadians in 1960? To which the wealthy reply: big Southern economies are now major producer of greenhouse gas, the consequences are bad for everybody, and especially the poor, so pick up your share of the burden, or suffer, because our societies are not ready to make alone the kind of sacrifice that is required.

Nice background for reaching an agreement, no?

Well, Brazil is about to break that mould. According to Nature the Brazilian government is about to announce a plan to "drastically" reduce emissions. In other words, they will do what both the rich and the poor want the other to do.

Brazil's energy situation is unique: essentially self-sufficient in oil and gaz -and about to become a significant exporter-, it currently relies mostly on hydro-electricity and bio-fuels for its transportation and industrial sector's needs (Ricardo Sennes and Thais Narciso have a great chapter on this in a recent book by the Brookings Institution). This does not make their task easier, however, because it means that they already produce less emissions per unit of GDP than most large industrial economies. Still, they apparently have found ways to cut significantly what is left.

Meanwhile, in Canada, we silently hope that oil sands royalties will get our public finances back in the black...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Conservative revolutionaries

It is striking how utterly NOT progressive Latin American leftist leaders can be on gender and drug issues, from Castro to Ortega and Chavez.

Castro's well-documented repression of homosexuals is probably the most extreme case, but there are others. A surprising one is the Sandinistas' opposition to abortion. There is a famous anecdote to that effect. In the mid-eighties, a global feminist gathering took place in Managua to express solidarity with the threatened revolution in the face of US support for the contras. Daniel Ortega was the guest of honour at a big gala held during the conference. He was accompanied by his wife, poet Rosario Murillo, then pregnant, and five of their children, including a few from previous marriages. During question period, one of the visitors asked when the government would legalize abortion, to which Daniel, after making a reference to the need to sustain the war effort, said "La mujer nicaraguense va a cumplir con su deber reproductivo," i.e. "Nicaraguan women will comply with their reproductive duty." The answer obviously met with dead silence from the feminist audience, but no doubt in the name of revolutionary solidarity, they kept quiet and the whole thing would subsequently be censored from newspaper accounts of the meeting. All but one account, that is, though a very cryptic for anyone not in the know. At the time, a group of young Sandinista artists and intellectuals were publishing a small weekly called La Semana Comica, very funny, liberal and iconoclastic. The edition that followed the meeting featured a huge centerfold black-and-white photo of a long line of naked pregnant women, seen in profile. Below it, was the slogan of the Sandinista's women mass organization, AMNLAE: "We are AMLAE". I don't know if that hastened the fall of La Semana Comica, which stopped publication a bit later. Given how popular it was with the intellectual rank and files of the Front, my hunch is the economic crisis killed it, not the government, but who knows. Very clearly, however, this one must have irked Daniel and his cronies.

The latest bout of leftist moralism is almost as pathetic: the satiric "Family Guy" program has been banned from Venezuelan TV. Chavez's Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said he was shocked by an episode's section called "A bag of weed" which is an hilarious plea for pot legalization that has gone viral on the web. The problem for Mr. El Aissami, obviously, is that most people watching the program can find it in cyberspace and probably do it already anyway. Good for them.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Afghanistan: Giving Too Much, Asking Too Much

With the huge amount of ink and conference time devoted by specialists to Afghanistan in this country, it is striking that the discussion is so weakly influenced by social sciences per se. What we have instead are -sometimes- well-informed guessing, well-meaning and deeply-felt moral arguments, and free-floating advice based on the "lessons" of history or the previous experience of the writer.

Yet, believe it or not, political scientists, economists, and sociologists have done theoretical and empirical work that is extremely relevant to what is happening in Afghanistan, and that has been quite systematically tested and confronted to evidence. Not that this means they speak the truth or that their conclusions should be given some kind of privileged status in the debate. But what they tell us should at least be part of the discussion: good science says little about what "ought" to be, but it tells us something about what "is," and this should matter.

I have three big contributions in mind: the first has to do with the side effects of aid dependence (Djankov et al., 2007; Easterly, 2007); the second with the side effects of democracy in unstable environments (Bates et al., 2008a; Bates, 2008b); and the third with the limits of state-building in poor states with "difficult geographies" (Herbst, 2000; Rubin, 2002). Their implications for the case of Afghanistan are clear: 1) far too much aid is being given to Afghanistan, twisting the incentives of government officials and local leaders; 2) elections like the one Afghans just went through make their current or potential rulers focus on short term gains, which is bad for long-term peace and economic development; and 3) no centralized rule is possible in Afghanistan, which means that stability cannot come from an hypothetical "victory" of the central government over regional challengers, but from deals with them. 

If these insights are valid, and I think they are, much is wrong about the West's current efforts in that country.  See below for the references.

Bates, Robert H. (2008a), When Things Fell Apart. State Failure in Late-Century Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Bates, Robert H.(2008b) "The Logic of State Failure: Learning from Late-Century Africa," Conflict Management and Peace Science,25:4: 297-314.

Djankov, Simeon, José García Montalvo, and Marta Reynal-Querol (2007), “The Curse of Aid,” Working Paper 45254 (Washington DC: The World Bank).

Easterly, William (2007), “Was Development Assistance a Mistake?” American Economic Review, 97(2): 328-332.

Rubin, Barnett (2002), The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and the Collapse of the International System (New Haven, London: Yale University Press).

Friday, September 25, 2009

Should Canada worry about Brazil?

Readers of Western media will have noticed a strange buzz about Brazil recently. President Lula still benefits from a huge capital of sympathy, from all sides, and most Western analysts see Brazil as a benevolent new global player, far less threatening than Iran, devoid of the dark sides of Russia and China, less messy than South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, or Pakistan, and much more accessible and easy to understand than far-away and complicated India and Indonesia. There is growing discomfort, however, with the perceived unreliability of Brazil as an ally of Western capitalist democracies. This has nothing to do with Lula's leftist background, which he has shown to be largely irrelevant to his domestic and international policies. In fact, the problem with Brazil, assuming there is one, does not appear to be ideology, but the fact that it pushes pragmatism and realism a tad too far.

Such discomfort was epitomized recently by The Economist magazine, which asked, in a cover story, editorial and special section, "[o]n which side is Brazil?" suggesting that the West should demand that Brazil show more principled stances on issues like democracy, human rights, and nuclear proliferation, that it adopt a less nationalistic tone in its dealings with the US, a more critical attitude towards Iran and Venezuela, and a tad less openness towards China. The self-appointed voice of the global establishment thus wants Brazil to demonstrate a clearer alignment with the positions of Western powers, in exchange, presumably, for better Brazilian access to the core clubs of global governance, the UN Security Council above all.

That position is preposterous on many counts, beginning with the idea that it is the West that holds the key to Security Council reform, when in fact, nobody can deliver a permanent seat to anyone today. As to the other clubs, Brazil is at the centre of WTO trade negotiations, and a weighty player in global warming and nuclear proliferation discussions; it was already a regular attendee to extended G8 meetings, and with the G20 all but taking over the coordination role traditionally held by the G8, Brazil's place at the centre of global economic governance is assured. The reason for that presence has nothing to do with Brazil's alignment with other capitalist democracies and does not result from Western generosity: Brazilians are invited because few if any global agreements can be reached without their being involved in the discussion and fully supportive. Arguably in fact, few clubs of which Brazil is not a member can claim much clout today. In other words, there is very little that can be offered by the West in exchange for Brazil's alignment: the West needs Brazil more than Brazil needs the West. This is what appears to rattle some analysts: little leverage on a state that does not always appear to behave as one wishes.

These concerns are not justified: there are no good reasons to worry about Brazil for the simple reason that the way in which the country deploys its growing power are consistent with Western democracies' interests. More importantly, the convergence between Brazil and the West is robust precisely because it is based on a pragmatic and realist reading by Brazilian elites, both in and out of government, of the country's hard-core interests, not on some fluffy ideological commitment.

Brazil is playing by the liberal cookbook both domestically and internationally, and winning. In addition to drastically lowering tariffs beginning in 1989, its economic discipline since the mid-1990s have made it an anchor of economic stability in Latin America. In fact, the country has suffered the least of any major capitalist country from the financial crisis. The Brazilian economy's resilience over the last eighteen months has convinced Moody's, on September 22, to join Fitch and Standard and Poor and give the country an investment grade credit rating. Growth prospects for 2010 --at 4.5-5%-- are excellent, inflation is under control, and the unemployment rate is lower than in Canada or the United States. Already an ethanol superpower, significant oil and gas discoveries have made the country essentially self-sufficient in energy and a soon-to-be significant oil exporter –and maybe OPEP member too. Brazilian politics has had its share of scandals in recent months, but the foundation of its democracy is extremely sound and the next presidential elections, in 2010, will likely be as clean as any in the Western world. Finally, public security, long a bane for tourists, investors, and above all Brazilians rich and poor, has bettered radically in the country's largest metropolitan areas.

The worriers challenge none of this. What bothers them are Brazil's international stands and the willingness of President Lula to talk and hold photo-ops with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; to refuse to openly confront Hugo Chavez on his weapons' buying spree, on his increasingly authoritarian rule, and on his ambitions to build within Latin America some kind of anti-liberal and anti-US coalition; to periodically, if indirecly, question the legitimacy of the global non-proliferation regime; to be assertive and vocal in questioning US military presence in Latin America; and to demand with increasing insistence reforms in global governance institutions that would give more power to India, China, and Brazil itself.

If we consider that the interests of capitalist democracies can only be served by regional stability in the Americas and by a functional set of global governance institutions, most of Brazil's current stands, far from worrying, should be seen as significant contributions to the defense and promotion of those interests. A confrontational stance towards Chavez and his band of small, poor, and mostly unstable allies, would contribute nothing to the management of current tensions in the region. Often in the face of US indifference or bungling, as in the case of American access to some of Colombia's military bases, Lula and his diplomats have been most adept at disarming the various international crises linked to what are hopefully the last stages of that country's continuing civil war.
Brazil's own weapons acquisition program prevents the balance of military power in South America from tilting towards Venezuela.

One can draw a similar picture on the global scene: the recent financial crisis has clearly shown the inadequacies of current mechanisms of global financial governance, from the IMF to the G-7; the UN Security Council, without Japan, Germany, India, or any African or Latin American country among its permanent member, clearly suffers from a tremendous deficit of legitimacy and political clout; nuclear powers, comfortable in their oligopoly, have until now proven unwilling to move decisively towards effective disarmament, which was supposed to be the counterpart to non-nuclear states' acquiescence to complete vulnerability. The issue of Iran --whose President will be visiting Brazil next month-- may look more ambiguous. Yet, there is nothing to suggest that Brazil would support the nuclear program of what is after all a competitor among emerging powers. Moreover, Brazil's maneuvers could very well be meant to gain a seat at one of the few global tables on which it does not sit: indeed, the P5+1, the world's "team" charged with negotiating with Iran (made up of the Security Council's permanent members and of Germany) excludes all emerging powers from the South, something once again that diminishes its legitimacy and clout. In the end, Brazil's building a bridge with Iran, as it has done with Venezuela, could be either helpful or at worse irrelevant to global efforts to contain Iranian ambitions.

What is most interesting and advantageous from the West's standpoint, however, is that Brazil is acting very much for its own sake. Instability and the military build up in South America threaten its interests much more than the US' or any other power's, and better balanced and more legitimate global governance institutions imply more space and more power for Brazil itself.
This basically means that those options are stable and hat the country's policy is largely predictable. Brazil is on its own side, but that side is also, from most standpoints, the West's side.

What about Canada?

This is a mixed bag for Canada. On one hand, and this is most important, an increasingly prosperous, reliable and stable Brazil that works to limit tensions and instability in the Americas clearly serves Canadian interests, however one defines them. Similarly, effective global governance is a true public good and to the extent that Brazil's growing involvement in global affairs enhances the world's ability to confront its problems, its growing influence also serves Canadian interests. The flip side of it all, however, is that what space Brazil occupies is largely lost to others, and Canada is one of those losers. As became clear at the Pittsburgh Summit, there are new players around and Canada's privileged access to the core clubs of global governance is threatened if not already significantly curtailed. There is something unjust about this: the country's sacrifice in the defense of Western democracies' interests and values, from WWII to the Balkans and Afghanistan, and its contribution to world governance over the last 50 years have been by any measure significantly greater than Brazil's. Yet this is not about justice but about power and effeciveness: most "minimum governing coalitions" today need Brazil, not Canada.

Beyond hurt feelings, there is also a real price to be paid: to lose access to core governance clubs implies a diminished ability to shape global politics in a way that is consistent with one's own interests.
Canada will need to fight harder and is very likely to lose more battles in coming years, on all fronts, from trade to environmental regimes.

The ultimate balance is not clear: I would venture that Canadians gain more from the contribution of a more assertive and influential Brazil to regional and global governance than it loses through diminished influence. Yet, I would not bet the farm on this. 

Friday, August 28, 2009

Soft Containment: Brazil and the strategic game in South America

The Economist is worried about Brazil: On whose side is it? The West or the South? Democracies or dictatorships? The US or China? Chavez or Uribe? Why doesn't it do more for democracy in the region? Isn't its diplomacy under Lula not too cozy with China and Tehran, too lenient towards Venezuela, too harsh towards Colombia and still too nationalistic and anti-American?

Such questions and the worries that underlie them, which presumably should be shared by most capitalist democracies, are legitimate but unwarranted. Brazil is doing its own thing, as should be expected of a country that at last has the means of its regional and global ambitions. That "thing" happens to be a tad cynical and self-interested, but it is also very much consistent with Western democracies' interests and values.

The latest bout of worry revolves around Brazil's critique of the installation of US military bases in Colombia. Lula, his foreign minister Celso Amorim, as well as some Brazilian generals, have expressed concerns about the need for and reach of heightened US military presence, and for its implications for the strategic balance in the Amazon. What else could have been expected? The Amazon represents 40% of Brazil's land mass and holds most of its bio-genetic and mineral reserves and much of it remains to be explored and developed. Brazil's Amazon neighbors are troubled countries, from politically effervescent Venezuela, to Bolivia, which goes back and forth from the brink of civil war, through Colombia, its drug traffickers and guerrillas in the, and Peru with its perpetual institutional fragility and resurgent Shining Path insurgency. For these reasons, which should be evident even from London, the Amazon is the Brazil's central security preoccupation and the sudden announcement that the US would expand its presence in Colombia, with surveillance technology and combat aircraft whose reach runs deep into the region, provoked understandable discomfort.

It is not Brazil but the US and Colombia that bungled this affair and it is Brazilian analysts that would be justified to ask "on whose side is the US"? Previous consultations would have gone a long way towards calming things down, with Brazil at least, if not with Venezuela. Even then, when the issue came up at the summit of the South American Nations' Union (UNASUL in Portuguese), Brazil joined Chile and Peru to prevent Chavez from getting a formal condemnation, however mild, of the US-Colombia accord.

What The Economist does not seem to get is Brazil's real game and how much it serves Western democracies' interests. Let's go over the problem, Brazil's way of dealing with it, and why Washington, London, Brussels and Ottawa should just say thanks.

Brazil sits in the middle of a region where almost everybody is going through difficult or at the very least uncertain times. The first group of preoccupations regard the domestic stability of its neighbors. Starting with countries not mentioned yet, Ecuador under president Correa is an unpredictable player whose political system remains extremely fragile. Argentina is getting ever deeper into troubles, with the Kirchner's family running out of options, either political or economic, and as the unsustainable nature of much of the policies they have implemented over the last years becomes clear. Uruguay is sound politically, but the financial crisis and the deepening problems of Argentina is hitting the small economy very hard. Even Chile is not quite the anchor of stability it once was, in spite of an economy that is picking up steam as the price of copper increases again, and as global interests for its massive lithium reserves is propped up by the global hybrid-electric craze. Discontent with Bachelet's administration is increasingly widespread and should lead to the breakdown of the Concertación alliance between the Social Party and the Christian Democracy, which has been in power since the fall of Pinochet. This would spell the end of stable majority government, as the Right is no more able than the Concertación's partners to stand alone in government. In Colombia, a military victory against the FARC does not appear likely in the short and medium term and drug production and export are increasing again, in spite of the government's effort and of US military and logistical aid. Bolivia remains not only fragile politically, but the most obvious object of nationalist mobilization remains Brazil, which has benefited immensely from early gaz contracts. Paraguay is in a similar situation, with a left-wing government Venezuela is most worrying, however, with a deepening political crisis in Venezuela and the continuing inability of the Chavez government to use the country's oil to build a sustainable economy and political system.

On top of those domestic issues lie a series of international tensions: between Chile and Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela, Peru and Chile and most recently Colombia and Ecuador. Some of them –especially around Chile's borders- go back half- or even a full century. Others are more recent and have to do with ideological affinities between the FARC and the Chavez (Venezuela) and Correa (Ecuador) regimes. Heated rhetoric, but also troop movements and especially weapons acquisition result. The countries of the region are buying submarines, planes, tanks, armored personal carriers and highly-accurate sniper rifles. The most aggressive buyers are Colombia, with a good reason, given the remaining strength of the FARC insurgency, and Venezuela, without one.

Add to all this the large nationally-based but transnational networks that produce and move billions of dollars worth of drugs and weapons, and you have one of the most complicated environment a country can have today, and Brazil is in the middle of it. Most worrying for Brazil, obviously, is Venezuela. Chavez' means, his unbounded global regional ambitions, his unpredictability, and the growing fragility of his domestic political base, make him a walking time bomb. Not as powerful as he would like, but large enough to justify much worry among its neighbors. What is more, from Brazil's standpoint, Venezuela's regional alliances (with Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, to a lesser extent Argentina, and possibly Peru in the near future), however laughable from a global standpoint, nonetheless represent a real strategic challenge to Brazil's own claims to regional supremacy, and –with Bolivia's gasz and Paraguay's hydro-electricity- an even more concrete –if not overwhelming- challenge to its energy security.

This is what Brazil has to deal with. And how does it do it? By having Lula outdo Chavez in global progressive legitimacy, by cajoling Venezuela and the Castros through with big accolades in public meetings, by mildly distancing itself from the US in global fora, for instance regarding Iran, by being hyperactive in regional diplomacy, and very indulgent in the renegotiation of asymmetric but perfectly legal energy contracts with small neighbors Bolivia and Paraguay. Working almost always through joint initiatives with Chile and Uruguay, Brazil intervenes in regional crises as they pop up, calming down the spirits when Colombia invades Ecuador in hot pursuit of FARC guerrillas, and preventing UNASUL from condemning the Colombia-US effort. Meanwhile however, it signs an agreement with Colombia allowing the latter military hot pursuit of guerrillas in Brazilian territory, and it gets on with its own very significant weapons acquisition program. Call this soft but extremely intelligent regional stability management and strategic threat containment.

The Economist would like Brazil to tone down its criticisms of Colombia and the US and to forcefully denounce Venezuela's not-so-slow closing of its political system and Cuba's human rights record. How this would help the magazine does not say. If even half of the previous diagnosis is right, how they it would severely weaken Brazil's legitimacy and moderating influence in the region. Moreover, they would not fly very well in Brazil itself, which does not make for a sound, long-term foreign policy.

The last part of The Economist argument has to do with Brazil's global initiatives, with its apparent preference for South-South linkages, its open courting of India and particularly China. This has to be the most ludicrous part of the magazine's analysis. What large resource producer in the world has not seen China's place among its trade partner go move from insignificance to prominence? Who is not courting, if warily, China's investments and organizing trade missions to Shanghai?

Should one conclude that Brazil is naive or that it is turning its back on the West? Well, again, not quite. Brazilian companies, like everybody else, are worried about China's manufacturing behemoth, but the country has outgrown its insecurity and the instinctive protectionist reflex that came with it. Brazilian multinationals and business people make their sums carefully, and their attitude, as a result, is very nuanced. Check the Brazil-China Chamber of commerce and compare what its produces every month to anything done in second-tier G8 countries (Canada, Spain, Italy, and even France). Naivete is the last word that will cross your mind, but you won't think of fear either. You will think of mature, careful, well-informed and long-term thinking.

China and India aside, South-South diplomacy, however insistent Brazil can sound about it, is also a second-best option for its diplomacy. It is because the North cannot deliver that Brazil seeks what in needs in the South. The US and EU cannot get Brazil a seat at the Security Council. Neither can they get it market access for its agricultural products. The US, in particular, is proving to be a tricky partner. Even leaving aside the little Colombia incident, and however fond Obama can be of Lula on a personal level, the US cannot deliver much. A case in point is Brazil's quest for fighter aircraft. Three countries are in the bidding: the US (with the F/A-18 Super Hornet), France (with the Rafale F3), and Sweden (with the Saab Gripen NG). Brazil wants the planes, but above all, it wants the technology and as large a part as possible of production process in the country. Sweden is offering to develop its as yet not-produced plane. France guarantees significant technology transfer and local production. The US, with a cheaper bid, is promising much but Brazil knows that at the last minute, Congress may say no because of the national security –and local jobs- implications of such technology and production transfers. Difficult to see how the Obama administration could resolve that one. Which means that the deep interconnection between the two countries' aircraft, armament and military establishment that would result from such a deal will most probably never develop.

In spite of all this, Brazil remains a remarkably steadfast ally of the US in the region, for the simple reason that the two countries' interests converge. Brazil has a vested interest in seeing Uribe win his war against the FARC and in the weakening of Colombia's drug cartels. Chavez is not real threat to the US, but a big problem for Brazil. If Venezuela and Tehran were ever to develop some kind of joint nuclear program, the US would be in a fit, but Brazil would be directly under threat. If Latin America's Andean region falls back into chaos and civil war, US interests, but above all Brazilian ones will be under threat. On all those files, the two countries interests converge and Brazil is closer to the action and has much more at stake. This is perhaps why its has been so much more clever, subtle, and effective, in its regional diplomacy, than the US or anybody else.

To sum up: On which side is Brazil? Well, on Brazil's side, which also happens to be the US and Western democracies' side too. You can calm down London.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A "Fragile States" Centre in Canada?

Roland Paris and Jim Ron have an op-ed in today's Globe and Mail calling for Canada's government to create a "G8 Centre On Fragile States."

I hope nobody in government or elsewhere listens to them.

Roland and Jim are well-meaning. They want Canada and the G8 to better help the Afghanistans, Congos, Sudans and Somalias of the world. The way to go would be to "bring together [in Canada] the world's leading experts on security, governance and development to find better ways of promoting peace, order and good governance in such countries. Experts would include not just researchers but government officials from G8 countries and the Global South, especially Africa, where most fragile states are located."

I can't see how this would help a iota. Fragile states experts have been brought together an awful lot in recent years, with not much to show for it. The Democratic Republic of Congo is still in disarray, as are Somalia and Afghanistan. It is not clear at all that the problem lies in the lack of funding or the absence of a meeting place. In fact, I know few fragile state experts who do not have a full agenda and thick frequent flyers accounts. If they are any good, research funding is no problem either. Moreover, Canada already has well-funded research programs on human security, around Andrew Mack at Simon Fraser University, and on state fragility, under David Carment, at Norman Paterson, in addition to specific initiatives at Ottawa U's Centre for International Policy Studies, led by Roland Paris himself. This, obviously, in addition to the work Paris and Ron mention in Scandinavian countries, as well as in the US, in the UK around Paul Collier, and so on.

The problem lies elsewhere and is especially acute in Canada. Fragile states research is based on very thin knowledge. Much of the work is based on datasets that are inherently flawed: failed states have failed statistics, which means that we should rely on thick, intimate knowledge of the societies we want to redress and this is precisely what we do not have.Most failed states experts have no deep understanding of the countries they talk about. Aside from Afghans themselves, the vast majority of participants to the typical Afghanistan conference speak neither Dari nor Pashto or Tadjik. Don't even think of DRC or Somalia fragile state "experts" speaking any of these countries' indigenous languages. A few Barnett Rubins aside -and there are no Barnett Rubin in Canada--, "field" experience is much closer to episodic adventure tourism, or longer-term "compound" life than to serious immersion in these countries.

What we need is not more money for generalist experts but resources to develop a thick knowledge of the countries we pretend to help. Not more conferences, but more language courses, in situ preferably, for researchers and grad students, more long-term field work for academics, and more scholarship for developing country students in our high schools, colleges and universities. Intimacy with these countries and their people is what we should be seeking, not more travelling around and nice meetings for the same old crowd.

One last note on the op-ed: Paris and Ron's pitch ends with the usual bromides about how "Canadians' belief in decent, effective government and the rule of law is bred in the bone" and our "long history of finding ways to govern our multiethnic society, and a proud tradition of contributing to international development, peace and security." Come on: "the rule of law bred in the bone" of Canadians? How about we stay problem-oriented?