Photo Jonathan Blair

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.