Brazil Is Not As Selfless As It Wants You to Believe

Brazil's Roberto AzevedoThe selection of Ambassador Roberto Azevêdo as Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has once again put Brazilian diplomacy on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. While without a doubt superbly prepared and qualified for this new post, Azevêdo’s appointment also owes much to Brazil’s international reputation as a critical bridge between old and new powers. But is this really the case?

New research by the Australian National University’s Dr. Sean W. Burges published in the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs’ journal International Affairs suggests that Brazil is not quite the international good citizen and selfless consensus builder it seems.

As Burges notes: “Brazil is blessed with enormously clever and capable diplomats who consistently advance their own country’s national interest while making others think they are acting for the global good.”

The point the paper makes is that Brazil is able to do this partly because it is trying to gain a greater voice in international affairs, not tear the global governance system down:

“The current international system is quite a comfortable place for Brazil. What Brazil wants is to have more of a say about where the world is going and how it is going to be run in the future.”

Burges argues that Brazil has constructed a position for itself as a bridge between the developed and developing world. The result is a very cost-effective tactic for making Brazil a fixture at the major global governance decision-making tables such as the WTO and the G20.

“Although Brazilian diplomats are far from cheap to train and deploy, the overall budget of the foreign ministry remains a tiny proportion of Brazil’s federal budget, let alone its national GDP.”

To explain how this works, Burges looks at three distinct areas of Brazilian foreign policy. He first looks at how strengthened relations with South America and Africa are used to make Brazil a bridging point between the developing and developed world.

Brazilian strategies in the WTO are covered in the next section, which charts the rise of Brazil as the major actor in global trade talks, culminating in Azevêdo’s recent appointment. The final section looks at Brazil’s efforts to control events in the United Nations and the inter-American system to advance its leadership ambitions.

Burges concludes the study with some observations for policy makers seeking to understand how to deal with the emerging power Brazil: “Assumptions about how Brazil will react to invitations to participate in international policy discussions need to be rethought. Brazil comes to the table with impressive diplomatic capacity and carefully crafted policy proposals behind which a broad base of support has often been marshaled.”

The good news that Burges leaves for OECD-country diplomats is one of hope: “Brazil’s core interests and ambitions align remarkably well with those of other major powers. Pursuit of these interests has been undertaken in a manner that has yet to raise hackles in the South.”

This, Burges concludes, is probably a good thing and “makes Brazil a potentially valuable partner for the continued management of regional and global issues.”

Dr. Sean W Burges is a Senior Associate of the Australian National Center for Latin American Studies at the Australian National University. He is also a non-Resident Senior Research Fellow of the Washington, DC-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

His past publications include the book Brazilian Foreign Policy After the Cold War (University Press of Florida, 2009), over twenty academic journal articles and book chapters on inter-American affairs, and dozens of Op-Eds on Latin American foreign policy and development.

The paper is published as part of an issue of the journal focusing on rising powers in the world order. For an electronic copy of the paper, contact Dr Burges at


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