Photo Jonathan Blair

Monday, March 14, 2011

Brazil's security policy today

What follows are notes that I have prepared for a discussion of Brazil's security policy organized by a Canadian government agency. It addresses in turn three questions: What are Brazil's regional and sub-regional security interests? What are Brazil's strategic interests in the Amazon region and what challenges and threats does it perceive there? What are the drives of Brazil's nuclear program and what are the implications for regional security?

1- Brazil's regional and sub-regional security interests

Brazil has two broad regional security preoccupations: the first is the risk that political instability and violent criminal activities in neighboring countries could affect its domestic economic, political and social dynamics; and the second the threats to regional stability stemming from tensions between some of its neighbours and the development of significant military capabilities by most of them.

Brazil shares borders with ten countries, several of which are plagued by political tensions and significant levels of violence, primarily but not exclusively drug related. Most problem countries lie in the Amazon basin: Colombia's civil war is under control but not over, and while drug violence has declined precipitously in recent years, its levels remain among the highest in South America. Venezuela is mired in a deepening economic, social and political crisis, and, along with its growing importance as a drug export platform, its homicide rate is now the highest in the region. Peru is riding the wave of higher prices for its mineral exports, but its political system remains fragile. Drug production is increasing again in regions that are poorly controlled by the government and where the Sendero Luminoso appears to be waging a come back. Bolivia is periodically shaken by large-scale social mobilizations, its political system remains unstable and coca cultivation and cocaine production appear to be increasing. Paraguay, finally, remains fragile politically, with high levels of corruption including in the police and the army.

While drug violence is slowly being brought down in the Southeast (SP and Rio), it is increasing in the rest of the country, particularly in the Northeast. Uncontrolled production and trafficking, and poor control of their hinterland by neighbouring states confronts Brazil with significant challenges. These problems complicate law enforcement and effective containment of drug violence in the country, and they threaten the level of order and stability that would optimize investments in resource extraction and avoid the establishment of the kidnapping, extortion and protection rackets that thrive in a law and order vacuum and that have plagued Colombia in particular.

In addition, many of Brazil's neighbours have complicated bilateral relationships. Colombia's relations with Ecuador and Venezuela are currently being patched up, but a significant degree of distrust remains and Peru and Bolivia still have territorial claims over Chilean territory. Chile's continuing arms build-up, which has not let up under civilian governments, is a source of preoccupation for its Andean neighbours. All the countries of the region except Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, are involved in significant arms procurement, involving major weapons systems, particularly combat aircraft, but also, in the case of Venezuela, submarines and very large amounts of easily-smuggled small arms. Brazil's own military budget dwarfs those of its neighbours, but the quality and sophistication of its major weapons system is not on a par with those of Chile, Venezuela and in some areas, Colombia and even Peru.

These threats are significant but not acute or at least they do not seem to be perceived as such. Indeed, Brazil's defense initiatives, particularly as outlined recently in its new Defense Policy, are clearly meant to address those problems but over a very long time frame. Its combat aircraft acquisition program is only to be completed by 2025, and its submarine fleet by 2043. Significantly however, a key plank of the Defense Policy involves a very significant reinforcement of the system of military outposts on the Amazon border.

In dealing with those problems leadership matters less than size here. While clearly dominant and recognized as such, Brazil cannot claim much effective leadership leadership in the region. Its growing activism in South America, which really started only under Cardoso and became significant under Lula, is strictly diplomatic with Brazil acting as a generally effective and respected honest broker.

Institutional security arrangements in the region are generally weak and most tensions and crises are managed and resolved through presidential diplomacy. Brazil has never really pushed for their institutional consolidation, but one must also acknowledge that such moves would have been resisted by neighbours that do not support and would likely oppose any serious Brazilian assertion of non-cooperative leadership in the region. That being said, the South American Defense Council of UNASUR is developing into an important discussion and confidence-building mechanism. In addition, Brazil has signed bilateral military cooperation with most of its neighbours.

Now, what could be the implications of Dilma Rousseff's elections for Brazi's regional security policy? While the regional strategic picture and Brazil's reading of its vulnerabilities is unlikely to change in the short, medium and even long term, Dilma Rousseff has sent a number of signals that suggest she may significantly alter the way in which they are to be tackled by the government.

Since she formally took power at the beginning of the year, two main things are striking: the first is a clear re-alignment towards the West and particularly the US in international positions, with unambiguous statements about human rights, most significantly in the case of Iran, and recently strong support for the denunciation of the Libyan regime while presiding the UN Security Council, a position that was unpopular with many Arab, African and the leftist South American states around Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. This reorientation may significantly affect Brazil's ability to continue to smooth tensions and conflict within South America as Hugo Chavez, in particular, but also Evo Morales and Rafael Correa, may be much more reluctant to seek and accept Brazil's regional brokerage in the region. This problem may be further aggravated by Dilma Rousseff's likely inability to muster the global popular legitimacy that played an important role in the effectiveness of Lula's diplomacy. The interesting paradox here is that this could well make Brazilian diplomacy less useful to the United States than the policy of the much more critical but also regionally more efficient Lula/Amorim tag team.

The second one are the deep defense cuts recently announced, representing more than 25% of the expenditures budgeted. While much of this may simply flow from the further postponement of Brazil's acquisition of advanced combat aircraft, it also means that most of the country's budget will continue to be devoted to personnel expenditures and pension payments. These cuts, while they fit the new government's commitment to fiscal discipline, nonetheless manifest a significant degree of comfort towards the country's security environment.

2) Brazil's strategic interests in the Amazon

The main locus of the country's security preoccupations is the Amazon, where resource security, risks of crime and political instability contagion, as well as international tensions and arms races are all significant issues.

Brazil's energy mix is the most diversified of any major economies. Now, significant part of its current electricity is produced jointly with Paraguay and most of its proven oil and gas reserves are offshore, mainly on the Rio state Atlantic littoral. However, the country's remaining hydroelectric potential is concentrated in the Amazon where much of its mineral wealth also lies. Moreover, the region is broadly considered one of the richest reservoirs of bio-diversity. The Amazon is huge (5.2m square km, i.e. roughly 60% of Canada's land mass…), it remains for the most part sparsely populated and has a poor communication and transportation infrastructure. Most importantly from a strategic standpoint, it remains poorly explored and its full potential unknown. In other words, one of the most important foundation of the country's current and future economic security—its huge energy and resource base—lies in areas whose effective control and protection is difficult and expensive.

In addition, the status of the Amazon as the foremost green symbol and the global implications of the preservation or destruction of its environmental riches, has turned it into a central plank of Brazil's international relations, particularly with regards to Western countries.

The strategic importance of the Amazon for Brazil and its prominence in the global environmental policy debates has led to the emergence of a strong nationalist discourse around the country's exclusive claim to the management of the region. The threat of "internationalization" of the region, notwithstanding old declarations of Mikhail Gorbatchev and François Mitterrand--when both still mattered--and continuing calls for outside pressure on Brazil from environmental circles, is hardly credible. Nonetheless, it remains a theme of discussion in the press and in nationalist policy circles.

In practice, threats to the region can be subsumed under the broad themes mentioned in section 1 above: penetration by drug trafficking or armed group networks from neighbouring countries, increasing the difficulties for the government to deal with drug trafficking and violence, and creating insecurity and thus lessening the appeal of the region for investments in natural resources extraction.

In that context, it is striking to see that little effort is made by Brazil to tackle regional challenges multilaterally, in spite of the fact that an ad-hoc mechanism, the Amazon Treaty Organization, does exist, having been established at Brazil's initiative in the 1970s. What action there is essentially unilateral, i.e. Amazon policy appears to be seen strictly as a national issue in which nobody else is to be involved.

An important mechanism to deal with threats to the region is the SIVAM/SIPAM initiatives, respectively the Amazon Vigilance and Protection systems. These programs involve an important system of land-based radars and surveillance aircrafts, with a broad mandate that ranges from narrowly military objectives and drug trafficking interdiction to environmental protection. In addition, as mentioned above, the government is committed to more than doubling the number of army bases along the Amazon border and to increasing the number of navy bases along its main rivers.

3- Drivers of Brazil's nuclear program

There is limited credible security rationale, regional or global, for Brazil's nuclear program. That program consists in a currently limited civilian electricity generation capacity, which the government plans to expand in coming years, in installations for nuclear enrichment, and in a project for the construction of several nuclear-powered submarines.

Brazil's nuclear program has four overlapping rationales: energy security including both electricity generation and the protection of its offshore fossil fuel reserves, acquisition of nuclear technology expertise, and symbolic challenges to P5 powers' prominence in global nuclear affairs. Only one of them, energy security, has regional determinants: offshore energy reserves protection may possibly be threatened by Venezuela, which is in the process of acquiring conventional nuclear submarines from Russia.

Brazil has ratified the Tlatelolco treaty banning nuclear weapons from Latin America in 1994, and the Nuclear Nonproliferation and Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban treaties in 1998. Brazil, however, has refused to sign the additional protocol that would enable the IAEA to realize more extensive inspections of the country's nuclear installations. The reason commonly alluded to is the need for Brazil to protect the technology it uses from potential disclosure by international inspectors. In addition, Brazilian politicians including President Lula, have been critical of the NPT, arguing that nuclear powers have not fulfilled their treaty engagement to move towards full nuclear disarmament. There is significant lobby, which includes military officers, civil servants and politicians, both retired and active, that favours the mastery by Brazil of the full nuclear cycle and would like the country to entertain the possibility of developing nuclear weapons.

As mentioned above, essentially self-sufficient in gas, oil and biomass, and with secure sources of hydroelectricity at home and in its immediate vicinity, as well as a huge potential thereof in the Amazon, Brazil has limited needs for civilian nuclear energy. In the broader framework of its claim to regional and global prominence, however, the full mastery of nuclear technology and the resulting ability to build nuclear weapons may be seen as advantageous. The fact remains that both nuclear technology and nuclear weapons production set a small group of nations apart from all others, particularly, from Brazil's standpoint, the permanent members of the Security Council, a small club its diplomacy has been aggressively seeking to join for years. The latter probably also best explains Brazil's dissidence, along with Turkey, in the recent debate about Iran's nuclear program. In addition, it is difficult to deny that the NPT "deal," which denied nuclear weapons to all but a handful of states, in exchange for the latter commitment do disarm, is not being flouted by most nuclear powers. In other words, it is primarily in the framework of Brazil's broad claims to "great powerdom" that its nuclear policy should be understood, not primarily as a security

The regional security implications of Brazil's development of nuclear submarines and especially nuclear weapons would be very significant, no doubt leading to attempts, individual or collective, by various countries to acquire a technology that, as India showed recently when it leased nuclear submarines from Russia, and as Pakistan, India and North Korea have shown, is not at all out of reach. Various Brazilian analysts have pointed to this eventuality and to its negative implications for Brazil's relations with its neighbours.

To sum up: in spite of the fact that its immediate neighbourhood includes a number of countries whose relations with one another is often troubled, whose political systems are fragile, and where political and drug violence abound, Brazil security is not threatened in South America—or in the world, for that matter—and that perception is broadly shared among its political establishment and the electorate. Regional insecurity was not an issue in the last election and it is not part of the every-day political debate in the country. The lack of salience of the security issue explains why Finance Minister Guido Mantega could announce to little outcry that the military budget would be slashed by 26% in 2012.

Brazil's vulnerabilities, however, especially in the Amazon region, cannot be dismissed easily and certainly point to the need for significant investment in the defense infrastructure of the country.