Photo Jonathan Blair

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.