Photo Jonathan Blair

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Brazil's rise and Canada's foreign policy

Brazil has now joined the very small club of global powers and is there to stay. Such a development is mostly good for Canada, though it coincides with our country's declining influence in global governance. While tensions may develop around a few narrow issues, there is much overlap between the two countries' strategic, political, and economic interests in the Americas and in the world. Moreover, space for active cooperation does exist, but it is not extensive enough for each country to see the other as a strategic or even a significant partner.

What is the place of Brazil in the world today?

In less than a decade, Brazil has become a key player in global governance and world politics: its opposition was the most important factor in the failure of the Free Trade Area of the Americas; it is one of the very few critical players (with the US, the EU, India and China) in global trade and environmental talks: Brazil was in the final four at Doha, and in the final five at Copenhagen; the G20 would have little legitimacy, and consequently little efficacy, if Brazil were not a member; and even on security issues, where its capabilities remain limited, it has shown, especially in the recent of case of Iran's nuclear program, that leaving it outside of a major diplomatic game can be very costly.

What are the main foundations of, and constraints on, Brazilian foreign policy:

Brazil's rising influence can be traced to three main factors:

Natural endowments: Brazil is a huge country with a large and relatively young population, it is also an energy, a mining and an agricultural superpower. Its energy matrix, in particular, places it in an extremely advantageous position, as it relies on local sources of hydroelectricity, biofuels, gas and oil, and to a lesser extent nuclear energy, with future potential already large and growing in all cases.

Effective development policy and credible commitment to macro-economic stability.

Relative insulation from the world's economic tribulations, linked to its natural endowments and relatively diversified industrial structure, but also, especially in recent years, to strong pro-poor domestic market growth: Brazil's development is not export-driven.
Strong diplomatic capabilities: exceptional leadership (Cardoso and Lula); very and effective diplomatic apparatus; broad consensus on foreign policy.

The main implication of these endowments for foreign policy, is that Brazil can play hard ball on most files because foreign players have little leverage on it. Their flip side is that Brazil can change its mind and be irresponsible and/or inconsistent, with little effect on its domestic economy, which potentially makes for unreliable policy.

The main limitation imposed on Brazil's foreign policy lies in its relative lack of hard power and strong economic leverage: its military is relatively weak by global standards, especially on the hardware side; although Brazil is a major player in global trade and finance talks, it is not a major trader, lender or investor.

What are the priorities of Brazilian foreign policy?

Brazil's foreign policy has two main priorities: regional but self-managed stability, and growing assertion of influence in the global arena

While South America has not seen major wars or military confrontations for years, it is regularly shaken by localized international tensions and domestic political instability. Sharing borders with all the countries of the region but Ecuador and Chile, Brazil has invested heavily in regional stability. Two main modalities have been used: quiet bilateral diplomacy and limited regional institution-building. The key such institution is UNASUR , the Union of South American Nations, which is a sloppily institutionalized organization that mostly works through meetings of the region's Presidents. Mercosur, long a central tenet of Brazils regional economic and political diplomacy, is receding in the background, as its economic, political, and strategic importance for Brazil becomes marginal. Much of Brazil's regional diplomacy focuses, albeit unofficially, on managing the regional implications of Hugo Chavez domestic tribulations and foreign activism. Finally, one crucial objective of its regional policy is to keep non-regional players, especially the United States, but also the OAS and the UN, out of South-America's security picture.

The second crucial dimension of Brazil's foreign policy is geared to gaining space, prestige and influence in global governance circles. In particular, it has been pushing strongly to get closer to a permanent seat at the UN Security Council but it is also pushing for reforms in international financial institutions, that would give it more leverage on their governance. Brazil's apparent enthusiasm for BRICS cooperation, its trilateral cooperation initiative with Indian and South Africa, its ambiguous behaviour towards Iran's nuclear program and global ambitions, its critical stand towards the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as well as its cynical treatment of human rights issues at the United Nations, can all be understood as means to expand its leverage on the Western powers that continue to dominate global governance institutions.

What will change with the new government?

The election of Dilma Rousseff does not change the equation very much. Two factors, however, could lead to minor reorientations of one or another dimensions of its foreign policy. The first one is the need for the new President to put her mark on the country's external image, essentially to assert an autonomy that she needs for the sake of managing the fractious coalition she currently heads. The second one is her lack of regional and global prestige and legitimacy, whose main consequences are likely to be felt in the region itself, especially for the managing of Hugo Chavez, which Lula had done extremely effectively, to some extent thanks to the tremendously positive image he enjoyed in the Americas.

Where does Canada fit?

Brazil's growing influence in Latin America and in the world should be seen as an asset and is generally consistent with the broad security and economic interests of Canada and of Canadians, as well as with the values that underlie the country's foreign policy.

Canada is not a priority for Brazil and it is extremely unlikely to become one in the future. In general terms, Canada looks from Brazil as a declining competitor in the global governance game, and certainly as an irritant in the hemispheric governance game. In particular, Brazil has been more or less openly trying to weaken the OAS and other hemispheric initiatives, favouring instead South American arrangements or inter-American ones that exclude, formally or not, Canada and the United States. By contrast, the OAS, with its large number of small and often aid-dependent states from Central America and the Caribbean, provides Canada with perhaps its best remaining multilateral platform. The problem, from Canada's standpoint, is that without Brazil's cooperation, not much can be done through the OAS outside of Central America and the Caribbean, which significantly reduces the scope of what Canada can do.

Three other issues around which disagreements could develop are worth noting:

While the G20 is possibly Canada's last chance to claim a voice in global governance, it is too big for Brazil, the gist of whose policy is precisely to look for the smaller possible club of which they can be a member. I would be very surprised to see Brazil support the institutional or political consolidation of the G20 into a major global player.

Nuclear issues are a key plank in Brazil's quest for a seat at the UN Security Council. While unwilling—for now?—to question its signature of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Brazilian leaders have been questioning ever loudly the legitimacy of the deal on which it was based, with the Big Power disarmament that was supposed to be the quid pro quo, not accompanying the commitment of the signatories to refrain from developing nuclear weapons on their own. In the background, obviously, is the fact that the P5 is, de facto, a nuclear club. Such a stand is clearly incompatible with Canada's traditional position on the issue of proliferation.

Canada, finally is the home of private sector competitors for Brazilian public and private corporations in the large infrastructure construction market and in the resource sector. This is particularly the case in the three major and most stable Andean economies: Colombia, Peru and Chile. To the extent that the linkages between Brazil's multinationals, State corporations and the government are extremely tight, such a competition could take a clearly political dimension.

The scope and severity of such potential disagreements should however not be exaggerated. Brazil is a liberal democracy whose citizenry value human rights and freedoms, a society very much Western in outlook. Both strategically and economically, Brazil's government shares a lot of preoccupations with Canada's. In strategic terms, Canada's interests in regional stability can be served at least as well by effective Brazilian policy as by OAS or UN interventions. Brazilian multinationals have global supply chains and already rely on bits and pieces produced by Canadian companies. Canada's resources (from copper and nickel to potash) are also of interest to Brazil's mining giants, and Canada can be a useful ally in the very many coalitions that Brazil uses to promote and defend its interests. The same holds for Canada: Brazil is a huge, if still highly protected market, that can hardly be bypassed by Canadian corporations. In practice, Brazilian businesses and diplomacy is anything if not pragmatic and Brazil's broad range of allies, as well as its sizable and growing global legitimacy could make it a useful ally on particular questions. In building such cooperation, however, it will be important to keep in mind that raw fact that Brazil is gaining ground globally, while Canada is not, something that Canadians may not yet be ready to accept: it is in Brazil, for instance, that a newspaper series called "Our time to lead" makes sense in Brazil, not in Canada...