Brazil’s Pragmatic, Anti-American Look at Beijing’s Olympics

Opening ceremonies of Beijing's Olympic Games Brazilian people’s feelings about the Olympic games in Beijing are as diverse as the nation itself – so much so that it would be ambitious (even impossible) even to try to summarize them. But in a broad sense, three clear and distinctive “positions” can be discerned.

The first is pragmatic: China is a new great power, and Brazilians should be friends of the Chinese more than they should be enemies or even rivals.

The second is anti-American: China represents an expression of power in the international arena different from the United States, and should be praised and respected for that.

The third is principled: this sporting spectacular needs to be viewed critically in light of the principles and values underlying political life.

The first view echoes Brasília’s management of the country’s foreign policy over the last few years. The core idea of this policy is indeed to be “pragmatic”, and this allows flexibility on a range of issues and relationships.

The results of this explicit pragmatism are varied: there is no concern (for example) about President Lula being photographed alongside Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya (notwithstanding the latter’s wayward and sometimes extreme statements), there is readiness to let Venezuela enter Mercosur (though this regional agreement specifies that members must obey democratic standards, and there are many questions over Hugo Chávez’s).

This “pragmatism” was also invoked by Brazilian diplomats in excusing the country’s stance at the decisive 21-26 July 2008 meeting in Geneva of the World Trade Organization’s Doha-round negotiations – when Brasília changed its position at the last minute to align with the majority proposal (backed also by China).

This reflects a broader and very popular view in Brazil: that China is now a major power, and there is no reason to cause problems for the Chinese. Moreover, their political system is their political system; and after all, this is a country of one billion people – would it work if it were a democracy?

There is nothing wrong with pragmatism – unless it itself is or becomes an ideology disguised as a non-ideological doctrine. The idea of living in a pragmatic world is itself a choice and an ideology. Brazilian nationalists try to sell it as a perspective that is both value-free and in the national interest. In this understanding, the Olympics in China are just another event, where the main attitude is one of “let’s see the athletes”.

True, Lula’s foreign policy does not declare itself value-free – since it undoubtedly carries the social-justice stamp. But it does not emphasize democracy so strongly, and its focus on commercial relationships is reflected in the huge entourage that accompanied Lula on his state visit to China in May 2004.

The second view is to see China as in opposition to United States hegemony. For Brazilians who fought the authoritarianism of the military regime that seized power in 1964, it can be frightening to see young Brazilians looking at China as an admired model for development and of a way to defend the nation’s international power.

“China is not a democracy? But what about the United States, is it a democracy either?.” one such person told me recently. A Brazilian columnist in Folha de S. Paulo wrote that the American cyclists who arrived in Beijing wearing masks had left an even more polluted city: New York. Even if it were true, can one example of pollution be used to “justify” the other?

These are the same people who laud the Olympics in China for Beijing’s new and wonderful high-tech buildings – from the Bird’s Nest stadium to the new CCTV building. But to move poor families away from their homes to build such a monuments of the new Chinese capitalism is a heavy price to pay for their country’s march to becoming a global power.

The third view in Brazil of the Olympics in China is a critical – and very much a minority – one. A more “traditional” columnist, Arthur Dapieve, writes in O Globo: “It is difficult to celebrate the union of the peoples of the world without some degree of hypocrisy, when the Chinese violently act against the Tibetans and the domestic opposition”. But there are only a few such voices; I wonder indeed if there are more than two of us.

A more general comment is this: more than two decades after the end of the military regime in Brazil in 1985, democracy is deeply established in Brazilian society but is also now a secondary idea behind the perceived need for social justice and economic egalitarianism. This trend is very influential in the way Brazilians are seeing the Olympics games in China.

It is clearly reflected in and strengthened by the Brazilian government’s “pragmatic” rhetoric and foreign policy behavior; and it is more and more reinforced too by the aggressively ideological foreign policy of successive conservative administrations in the United States.

Arthur Ituassu is professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. You can read more from him at his website: www.ituassu.com.br. This article appeared originally in Open Democracy – www.opendemocracy.net.

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