Brazil: Crises Hindering Foreign Policy

Dilma 2016

Photo Credit: Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil / Flickr / Creative Commons

by Tullo Vigevani*

The pace of Brazil’s rise in international affairs since 2000 is likely to be slowed by the multiple crises facing President Dilma Rousseff’s government and the private sector, but Brasilia will strive as best it can to maintain its global and regional priorities.  Political tensions are soaring amid corruption indictments and severe economic contraction – the nearly 4 percent decline in GDP in 2015 is expected to be repeated this year, with increasingly negative social consequences.  The government faces growing criticism that extends beyond the principal opposition parties: its own party base and supportive labor unions and social movements criticizing Rousseff’s administration.  The corruption investigations have spread far beyond the national oil company, Petrobras, and into corporate networks across economic sectors, exacerbating a climate of growing anxiety.  Major media are railing against the President and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose detention for questioning by a judge last week deepens the crisis and further dims the already faint prospects for a restoration of stability in 2016.

These developments have created an element of paralysis in foreign policy.  Foreign minister Mauro Vieira, like his two immediate predecessors – Luis Alberto Figueiredo (2013-2015) and Antonio Patriota (2011-2013) – has been unable to sustain the “active and proud” policy of Lula-era Foreign Minister Celso Amorim (2003-2010).  After basking not long ago in the fruits of its assertive foreign policies – including selection as host of the 2016 Olympics – Brazil’s government now is dealing with matters such as the Zika virus and microcephaly taking front stage.  Rousseff on one hand is barraged by criticism of a lack of macroeconomic rigor and the failure to better integrate Brazil’s economy into global production chains, and on the other she is criticized for slow investments and development policies.  Her ambition to promote South American trade and economic integration is being undermined by the recessionary pressures confronting Brazil and neighboring economies buffeted by the end of the commodities boom.

  • MERCOSUR remains a priority for the administration. Criticism by liberal economists will mount, however, that Mercosur, as a customs union, discourages potential agreements with developed economies, particularly the United States, thus exacerbating Brazil’s de-industrialization.  There is evidence that Mercosur helps companies that produce high value-added goods: whereas in 2014 manufacturing accounted for 77 percent of Brazilian exports within Mercosur, it accounted for only 4 percent of exports to China.  (The figures for the European Union and the U.S. were 37 and 55 percent, respectively).  Progress on trade agreements with the United States and other developed countries appears unlikely, but agreements on trade promotion seem likely.
  • Cooperation with UNASUR will remain a priority as well, but plans that rely on Brazil’s ability to provide resources face new political and economic restraints. The Ministries of Finance and Planning and the Central Bank reportedly are going to rein in contributions of the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), and funding for the South American Council of Infrastructure and Planning (COSIPLAN).  Initiatives such as the South American Defense Council will continue.  Clearly, state enterprises such as Petrobras and private-sector conglomerates will face limits on their foreign activities, reducing Brazil’s influence in the region.

The relationship between domestic and international affairs is inescapable, and Brazil is no exception.  But even as the domestic political and economic conditions deteriorate for a period, the country will not turn inward or abandon its interest in the international arena, particularly with China and the BRICS.  However rough the road ahead, President Rousseff’s government appears likely to remain steadfast in its approach to regional diplomatic and political organizations – including the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the OAS – even though resources will be tight.  It will remain active, within its diminished capacity, in an array of multilateral settings ranging from UN peacekeeping operations and the FAO, to the G-20, WTO and IMF.  Moreover, senior officials in Brasilia, including in the Foreign Ministry, appear committed to stronger bilateral ties with core partners, particularly the United States, and continued Brazilian support for democratic stability throughout Latin America, including in resolution of the Venezuelan crisis.  Even though resources and performance may suffer, a robust role in the hemisphere appears likely to remain a pillar of Brazil’s foreign policy.  The idea of Brazil’s autonomy in the international arena has deep roots, and whatever the domestic criticism leveled against the Rousseff administration, these will be matters of interpretation rather than a fundamental questioning of Brazil’s greater insertion into global processes and of political and economic interdependence.

March 7, 2016

*Tullo Vigevani is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the State University of São Paulo (UNESP) and a researcher at the Center for Studies on Contemporary Culture (Cedec) and the Brazilian National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies on the United States (INCT-INEU), in São Paulo.

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