Brazil’s New President to Rule a Country with Boundless Ambitions

Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff The last few decades have witnessed a variety of efforts to encourage the multilateral political and economic regional integration now being seen in South America, including Comunidad Andina, Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA,) and Mercosur, as well as various initiatives in the Organization of American States (OAS).

The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) is the most recent as well as the most formidable attempt at economic and military integration. UNASUR differs from its earlier counterparts in the scope of its goals, the broadness of its membership (it includes Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela), and its exclusion of Washington.

Relying exclusively upon resources and diplomatic initiatives of the involved South American nations, UNASUR’s stated goals include the creation of a single South American market by eliminating tariffs and promoting the increased development of the region’s international infrastructure, such as the Interoceanic Highway now under construction between Brazil and Peru.

Also, on UNASUR’s agenda is a common defense policy for “enhancing multilateral military cooperation, promoting confidence and security building measures and fostering defense industry exchange,” as well as the free movement of visitors and migrant workers among member nations.

To achieve these goals, UNASUR must be capable of coherently bridging wide political and ideological gulfs as the organization confronts the diverse problems facing it and the region.

Brazil, as the continent’s newfound economic success story, is the locus of much of UNASUR’s momentum. As Brazil’s middle class continues to expand in terms of numbers and political influence, the nation finds itself at a critical political juncture. As President-elect Dilma Rousseff prepares to lead the country, both Brazil’s national and international ambitions seem boundless.

Tasked with guiding the future evolution of UNASUR, which continues to hang in the balance, Rousseff will soon lead a continent in which nothing is for certain. She will have to balance Brazil’s regional and global ambitions with the country’s current limitations, keeping South American integration a priority even as Brazil surpasses its neighbors to become an integral part of the international system.

Brazil’s Power Conundrum

As Brazil enters the global stage as a bona fide economic and political power, it faces the opening stages of an intricate power struggle. On the one hand, Brazil’s leaders seek the authority to act on behalf of Brazil’s national interests on the international stage, free from the influence of both the United States – the hemisphere’s historic hegemon – and other South American nations, whose economic and political clout hardly rival its own.

Unlike its neighbors, Brazil is ready to leap into the global power mix. At the same time, however, it may not be sufficiently free to achieve its international potential unless it can maintain border security and achieve more widespread regional political stability.

According to this line of reasoning, Brazil’s leaders must be prepared to sacrifice some of Brazil’s policymaking clout and strategic economic leverage within the continent in the short term, in order to achieve the kind of lasting international political influence which it covets.

The challenge for Brazil, therefore, is to successfully pursue both regional and global policies that will yield the greatest benefit for itself and its neighbors. This may be a tough balancing act; though Lula, as president, seems to have mastered the task, it may be hard for a less experienced politico like Rousseff to emulate. Indeed, to focus too heavily on one concern, risks jeopardizing another.

For example, any sign of Brazilian under-investment in South American integration efforts may allow intra-continental confrontation to fester. On the other hand, regional integration efforts – which have historically fizzled before effecting much lasting transformation – may very well constitute a waste of resources that would be better spent on advancing the nation’s own global economic standing and improving the lives of Brazilians at home.

An indispensable equilibrium between regional and domestic priorities is of vital concern and will prove to be an important goal for the newly elected Rousseff.

Two conflicts from the summer of 2010 highlight both the importance of regional integration efforts for stability in South America, and how far UNASUR has yet to go. The first was the making of yet another diplomatic crisis between Colombia and Venezuela, which Lula was quick to offer to mediate.

Again offended by Colombian President Uribe’s accusations that the Venezuelan government was harboring illegal groups, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the ELN, President Chávez cut off diplomatic relations with Colombia. Only after UNASUR brought together Chávez and Santos, Colombia’s newly inaugurated president, were diplomatic relations allowed to resume.

The resolution of the conflict via UNASUR underlined the authority and efficacy of the still-nascent organization and represented an important diplomatic achievement. As demonstrated below, UNASUR’s supranational infrastructure provides a structure through which Brazil can project its leadership without having to divert more resources than necessary from the everyday functioning of its own government, military, and economic machinery.

Since Brazil shares a common border with every state on the continent, except Chile and Ecuador, any instability in the region is likely to manifest a direct impact on Brazil’s geopolitical border relations and industrial trade, among other things. The strong desire to avoid intra-regional diplomatic rifts is a compelling argument for Brazil to focus its resources on UNASUR’s pacification potential.

The second conflict – and one that highlights UNASUR’s current shortcomings – speaks to a related and even more intractable problem: the impact of non-state actors in the region, such as drug cartels and rebel groups, that threaten to destabilize and otherwise weaken democratic infrastructure.

Last summer’s controversy between UNASUR and the FARC brought these tensions to a head. In an open letter, the FARC called on UNASUR to mediate their protracted conflict with the Colombian authorities, which they claimed was “spurred on by the mirage of a military victory and Washington’s interference.”

The FARC painted themselves as the true patrons of UNASUR, with “unyielding determination to seek a political solution to the conflict.” Lula’s famed advisor for international affairs, Marco Aurélio Garcia, denounced the FARC’s attempt to address this domestic problem through the internationally oriented UNASUR.

Garcia’s position certainly reflected UNASUR’s commitment not to violate the sovereignty of any member nation, even if the forces threatening one state are arguably common enemies of several governments in the region.

Nonetheless, the issue of non-state actors is one that UNASUR cannot afford to ignore if it is to be a transformative vehicle for lasting regional stabilization. If UNASUR’s intentions are to ensure the integrity of border regions and protect the sovereignty of internationally recognized governments while upholding the rule of law throughout the continent, UNASUR must be willing and able to recognize and effectively respond to the threat of non-state actors, which typically have as little respect for national boundaries as they do for the laws and agreements that they are prone to flout.

As Francine Jacome, the director of the Venezuelan Institute of Social and Political Studies in Caracas, recently noted at a Washington conference, some of the governments involved in UNASUR’s investigative role are not fully functioning regimes that have their own domestic problems entirely under control. Some are embroiled in perpetual wars with increasingly powerful drug cartels, and border security is an issue that appears to be intractable.

The key question for members of UNASUR is, therefore, what is its fitting role? When is it appropriate for a regional body to intervene, as mediators or in any other capacity, in the domestic politics of a nation? Is the opportunity to apprehend criminals who are the avowed enemies of legitimate governments on the continent a sufficient motive for an international body to enter the fray?

Such questions could turn out to be explosive subjects in a continent often characterized by political polarization and unrelenting violence. Open dialogue, including cooperation to erect international security apparatuses, might be the only way to purge such questions of their partisan implications.

Indeed, such factors should be treated as serious issues that South American governments must address in order to improve regional stability. Under strong Brazilian leadership, UNASUR is more likely to become an efficient and effective tool for ensuring the security of national governments and their countries’ boundaries throughout South America.

To avoid the traditional failures of its predecessors, UNASUR will initially require a sizable Brazilian investment in terms of diplomatic, economic, and military capital, which could temporarily distract Brazil’s regional motivations from its larger global ambitions. However, the long-term payoffs for such an investment could quite possibly be invaluable.

Successful political and military cooperation across the continent, as facilitated by UNASUR, would allow Brazil to focus on other efforts abroad, as the specter of regional conflict perpetually looms ever larger in its purview. Much of Lula’s administration espoused this view, with Secretary Figueiredo de Souza affirming that “in the case of Brazil, the relationship with our South American neighbors is a necessary and absolute priority.”

De Souza admitted that “diversifying partnerships became an important part of the stabilization, both economically and politically, of our policy,” but he also emphasized that such global partnerships were “complementary” to a South American alliance, rather than a replacement for it. The Lula administration recognized that only by prioritizing regional relations could Brazil realistically hope to secure a lasting perch on the global stage.

Some are skeptical that investing in regional integration will deliver the stability Brazil needs to move forward in its quest for global leadership. According to this line of thought, South American integration, which has a shaky history at best, may ultimately drain time and resources that Brazil could better spend on either domestic issues or increasing its international influence on a broader scale.

According to Professor Alcides Costa Vaz, Deputy-Director and Professor at the International Relations Institute at the University of Brasília, this possible conflict of interests already describes the status of many Brazilians.

They contend that while Brazil “wishes to harmonize its global agenda, whenever possible, with its regional commitments and with the political and economic concerns of its neighbors,” it is ultimately “unwilling to let difficulties at the regional level set back its evolving profile as an emerging global actor.”

Such attempts at drawing clear lines between Brazil’s domestic, regional, and global priorities, however, do not necessarily provide a lasting solution. In fact, the summer’s FARC-UNASUR controversy more clearly demonstrates the inherent inadequacies of such an approach.

Surrounded by neighboring countries thick with dense jungle, the FARC personnel are able to transcend national borders and thus became a possible threat to the entire international community. Regional integration, if all partners are willing to commit to it, would enable Colombia and the South American allies – the strongest of these being Brazil – to form a coordinated response to the FARC and other non-state actors that threaten to undermine legitimate governments. Ultimately, it is this kind of security, reinforced by cooperative governments and easily maintained through sound political infrastructure, which would allow Brazil to pursue its global ambitions unhindered.

Looking to the Future: UNASUR and a Rousseff Presidency

It is a truism that Lula focused heavily on Latin American integration efforts during his presidency, championing the cause of developing states in the region. Recognizing that Brazil could not autonomously become a global power without peace and security along all of its borders, Lula devoted much of his tenure to improving regional relations, simultaneously ensuring Brazil’s role as a major player on the continent.

He established a close relationship with Bolivian President Evo Morales, helping to thaw their historically chilly bilateral relationship with a border policy designed to promote cooperation on issues of enduring international concern in South America, including the development of Brazil’s natural gas industry and the improvement of anti-narcotics efforts.

Despite his close ties with Hugo Chávez, Lula also was able to pursue closer relations with President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, overseeing the liberation of trade and military training exchanges between the two countries. Appearances aside, Lula’s tenure has never been an undisputed success story for regional integration, and he has faced a number of problems in his efforts notwithstanding Brazil’s status as an undisputed leader within contemporary Latin America.

Dilma Rousseff seems set at least to continue Lula’s legacy as an internationalist and a champion of Brazilian leadership in the region, though some speculate that she may fix her sights on domestic rather than international issues and may not expand upon her predecessor’s internationalist agenda.

Whatever she chooses to focus on, though, questions remain about how she will balance regional and global priorities. Within the BRIC block, which includes Brazil, Russia, India, and China, Brazil is becoming progressively more integrated; now that the BRIC countries seek to establish a permanent secretariat, Rousseff may have to choose which international cooperative organizations represent the best investment for Brazil’s geopolitical interests.

Johns Hopkins’s Riordan Roett recently observed that it will be crucial for the continued existence and further development of UNASUR that Rousseff leads Brazil in a direction that is beneficial for the entire continent.

Moreover, as Roett notes, political integration through regional bodies such as UNASUR can be done without seriously compromising Brazil’s political attractiveness to a broad array of international actors. Rousseff is certain to support Chávez’ role in UNASUR, as Lula did, without implying that she completely shares his ideology. Indeed, political differences within the region must not be used systematically to gauge the degree of strength or cohesiveness of UNASUR.

Brazil therefore should not single-mindedly fear alienating members of the international community by aligning with controversial administrations within a regional framework such as UNASUR, as was the case when Washington was the regional hegemon. Along with Brazil’s rising international presence comes the autonomy to count a diverse array of political persuasions in its camp without being perceived as radical, dangerous, or irrelevant, which Lula has been particularly adept at achieving.

Though Rousseff has secured the presidency, her victory was not the landslide-like referendum on Lula’s presidency that was initially projected. In terms of Brazil’s international policy, the unexpected surge of votes in the first round of voting for Marina Silva, the Green Party candidate, represents the addition of important environmental issues to the list of global concerns that Brazil is now likely to face in the near future.

According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, “fully 95% of Brazilians agree that global climate change is a serious problem, including 85% who say it is very serious.” Silva, who has long been an advocate of strong environmentally progressive policies, attracted the votes of many Brazilians who consider environmentally sound development to be an essential part of Brazil’s rise to international preeminence. The question of how best to pursue international environmental policy is truly a question of regional versus global integration.

One of the most pressing environmental issues to which Brazil will have to respond is Amazonian deforestation, a problem that an integrated South America would be best equipped to handle. As a rapidly developing nation and possessor of vast fossil energy resources, however, Brazil will have to participate in the global community’s green efforts if it is to assume the leadership it seeks.

Ultimately, Rousseff’s choice of how to treat the sustainability question – whether on a regional or global level – may serve as a microcosm of her broader international agenda and where such values lodge among her creedal beliefs.

Despite what some of her detractors may have to say, Rousseff’s purported motif is to forge ahead with the legacy that Lula will be leaving behind and to continue to lead UNASUR toward enhanced integration.

Although the process may encounter many challenges, such as mediating among political adversaries and overcoming bureaucratic hurdles, it is imperative for the best interests of Brazil and the entire continent that UNASUR serve as a means to achieve continental security and cooperation.

With UNASUR’s infrastructure firmly in place, Brazil will be better able to reach out to the rest of the global community in a prudential and secure manner. At that stage, Brazil will achieve its merited place as the predominant regional leader and be recognized as such on the global geopolitical stage.

McCall Breuer is a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – The organization is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email:


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