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Brazil as a Regional Power: Views From the Hemisphere

Leslie Bethell, Brazil Institute; Achilles Zaluar, Embassy of Brazil; Andrew Hurrell, University of Oxford and New York University; Matias Spektor, Fundação Getúlio Vargas, Rio de Janeiro, and Council on Foreign Relations; Thomaz Guedes da Costa, Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, National Defense University; Dante Caputo, Former Foreign Minister of Argentina 1983/89; George Gray Molina, Princeton University; Arlene Tickner, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá; Michael Penfold, Corporación Andina de Fomento, Caracas; Olga Pellicer, Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México; Arturo Cruz, INCAE Business School, Managua; Johanna Mendelson Forman, Center for Strategic & International Studies; Christopher McMullen, Department of State; Peter Hakim, Inter-American Dialogue; Riordan Roett, SAIS, Johns Hopkins University

Date & Time

Mar. 12, 2010
8:00am – 3:30pm

Brazil as a Regional Power: Views From the Hemisphere

Brazil on Brazil

What is Brazil's view of itself, of its role, and of its relationship to other nations? Leslie Bethell, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, contextualized the question by tracing Brazil's historic policy of seeking a strong relationship with the United States while eschewing close ties with its South American neighbors. Bethell concluded that beginning with Cardoso (1995-2002), and increasing under Lula (2003-present), Brazil has not only expanded involvement within global affairs, but for the first time engaged substantially with its neighbors in South America—rather than the broader Latin America or the United States.

Minister Achilles Zaluar of the Brazilian Embassy in Washington detailed some of the many historical reasons behind Brazil's traditional distance from its Latin American neighbors and why Brazil's ties to the United States cooled after the "unwritten alliance" period in the first half of the 20th century. After WWII, the United States' almost exclusive focus on the reconstruction of Europe and Japan forced Brazil to rely more on itself and rediscover itself as a Latin American nation, and it began to forge closer relationships to its neighbors, as evidenced by recent political and economic integrationist projects.

Matias Spektor, professor of international relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas and visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, traced Brazil's hesitance to align with the United States and its reluctance to lead the region back to the Cold War period. Due to the cooperation of the various South American bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes to help combat leftists within the region, Brazilian leaders changed course from a balance-of-power strategy to a pursuit of regional leadership through bandwagoning that could increase Brazil's international stature.

Looking at recent history, Montague Burton, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University Andrew Hurrell, argued that beginning with Cardoso the perception has grown that Brazil has finally assumed its place as global and regional leader. This leadership, however, was neither historically inevitable nor is it unqualified. Brazil only consolidated its predominate role in the region through a rapprochement with Argentina in the 1980s, and today it lacks the resources to strengthen regional ties to the point that it would be the uncontested leader of Latin America.

Thomaz Guedes da Costa, professor of National Security Affairs at the National Defense University, argued that Brazil's foreign policy future course may be determined more by Brazil's position in the international system than by the winner of the upcoming presidential election. Having forged closer ties with many world powers and signed international agreements like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Brazil's decision-makers may have less leeway in the direction of Brazil's foreign policy.

Brazil within Latin America

Michael Penfold, associate professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Administration (IESA) in Caracas, argued that Venezuela has not challenged Brazil's increasing leadership, but rather has benefited from it, especially due to recent economic integration and as a manner of counter-balancing the U.S.'s influence. Because Venezuela relies more on Brazil than vice versa, however, if Brazilian and Venezuelan interests begin to diverge, Venezuela would suffer more.

South American integration rest upon a solid Argentine-Brazilian political alliance, insisted Dante Caputo, special advisor of the Secretary General of the Organization of American States and former foreign minister of Argentina. After relations between the two nations were severely strained during Menem's presidency (1989-1999), Caputo argues that political will, not more regional institutions, will be the key to rebuilding bilateral relations.

Brazilian-Bolivian relations center on the friendship between Lula and Morales, insisted Global Leaders Fellow at the University of Oxford George Gray Molina. This friendship helped soothe tensions between the two countries following Morales' nationalization of Petrobras-owned plants, and can be used to further exert Brazilian regional leadership through a multinational counter-narcotics strategy.

Arlene B. Tickner, professor of international relations at Colombia's Universidad de los Andes, argued that Brazil needs both to take on a more active role vis-à-vis Colombia's internal conflict and to stand up to Chávez's troublemaking. Despite a historical mutual invisibility, the two countries began to pursue closer relations in the early 2000s; this progress, however, now seems threatened by disagreements over guerilla movements in Colombia and the role of Chavez in the region.

Brazil's Relations with Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean

Olga Pellicer, professor of international studies at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, argued that Mexico is crucial to any efforts of Brazil to become the regional leader. Despite tension over NAFTA and restrictions of regional integration to just South America, Calderón and Lula have recently attempted to increase the low levels of trade between the two countries. Mexican support could give Brazil the influence it needs to lead the region more effectively, but this would require overcoming serious political disagreements.

Arturo Cruz, Jr of INCAE Business School argued that one must disaggregate Central America in order to truly understand the extent of Brazil's influence there. Lula's leadership is pronounced in El Salvador, where he has brought President Funes into the social-democratic left (rather than Chavez's radical left), than in Honduras or Nicaragua, where Brazilian influence is less pronounced and contested by Venezuela.

Brazil's regional leadership in the Caribbean is primarily economic, explained Johanna Mendelson Forman, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, but it has been politically involved as well. Cuba is also a useful political ally for Brazil, helping to increase its clout in Latin America and Brazil's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council. Furthermore, Haiti has given Brazil an opportunity to exercise its new leadership, as it has played a predominant role in the 2004 multinational intervention in Haiti.

Brazil as Viewed by the United States

The United States has always perceived Brazil as a regional power, insisted Christopher McMullen, deputy assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and has welcomed its recent assent on the global state; in fact, the U.S. would like Brazil to take even more leadership in helping to solve regional problems that the U.S. cannot tackle alone.

By contrast, Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere Studies at Johns Hopkins University School, argued that the U.S. has been slow to comprehend Brazil's transformation into an economic and political power. Due to Brazil's growing energy sector, the U.S. needs to adjust to this new autonomy or else risk losing its influence in Brasília.

President of the Inter-American Dialogue Peter Hakim pointed out that historically relations between the two nations have been marked by tensions rather than cooperation. He suggested that starting from an assumption of divergence on key issues, and then seeking rapprochement, would be a more productive approach for working together.

By Daniel Budny
Summarized by J.C. Hodges


Leslie Bethell

Leslie Bethell

Board Member;
Currently serves on the International Advisory Councils of a number of Brazilian institutions, including the Centro Brasileiro de Relacoes Internacionais (CEBRI), Rio de Janeiro, and on the Editorial Boards of several Brazilian journals, including the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional (IBRI, Universidade de Brasília).
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Brazil Institute

The Brazil Institute—the only country-specific policy institution focused on Brazil in Washington—works to foster understanding of Brazil’s complex reality and to support more consequential relations between Brazilian and U.S. institutions in all sectors.  Read more

Latin American Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin American Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more


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