Brazilian foreign policy after the recent presidential elections was the theme of a seminar with three former Brazilian diplomats and the opinion page editor of a leading daily newspaper. They offered their views on Brazil's expanding international role and ambition in a fast changing global balance of power under President Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff. All four presented papers, available in English, at a seminar on the topic held in São Paulo in 2009 by Fundação Liberdade e Cidadania, of the opposition Democratas party.

Antônio Carlos Pereira, editor of the opinion page of O Estado de S. Paulo, began by noting the marked anti-Americanism in the foreign policy of the Lula administration rooted in the left wing of the PT, which has had considerable influence over foreign policy during the Lula administration. Since Rousseff has a less charismatic personality than Lula, in addition to a well-known focus on domestic policy, there is a theoretical possibility that she would delegate significant aspects of Brazil's foreign relations to the PT. However, it is difficult to predict what direction Rousseff's government will take on foreign affairs, Pereira said. He heralded her recent comments on defending human rights, and although he doesn't believe that all anti-American elements will be purged under her leadership, he noted that she seems to have a great deal of respect for the United States. He ended by doubting that Rousseff would change substantially the less savory aspects of Lula's foreign policy, including his troubling stances towards Chavez and nuclear policy.

For Marcos Azambuja, former deputy foreign minister and ambassador, one of the most important aspects of Lula's administration was the push to give Brazilian diplomacy a universal presence, a presence in every country. The number of Brazilian foreign policy actors has also expanded greatly, to the point that the foreign minister has much less hegemony over policy than he did before. At the same time, Brazil has gained legitimacy on the international stage, being completely democratic and bringing its stances on human rights and the environment in line with international norms. However, in its effort to expand, Brazil "knocked on many doors that were previously closed," so rather than having the intention to create new models, it simply found itself shut out of old structures, like the Security Council. In response, Brazil has focused more on South America and on several new groupings, such as the BRICs and IBSA. Azambuja pointed out two potential dangers for Brazilian foreign policy, that of a needless drive for nuclear weapons as a symbol of power and an essentially ego-driven diplomacy, as exemplified by Lula's overtures to Iran.

Sergio Amaral, former minister of development, industry, and commerce, focused on a much narrower topic - the Union of South American Nations (UNASUL). Never has the Brazilian government invested so much effort in its neighbors, and had so little to show for it, he said. This can be explained partially by the divergences in the Brazilian and Argentine economic policies, as Brazil followed a financially orthodox path and received large amounts of investment, while Argentina followed more protectionist policies. Furthermore, Brazil acted on mistaken notions, thinking that an alliance with Argentina would help create a counterbalance to U.S. influence in the region and that there is no value to a trade agreement between asymmetric economies. These beliefs meant Brazil tolerated restrictions and state intervention in trade with its neighbors that it should not have. This asymmetry has increased in recent years, in favor of Brazil, but the Mercosul countries must work together for shared prosperity, Amaral noted. In order for this to happen, however, the rules of the organization cannot be disregarded, but rather strengthened. The lack of a regional market or a legal-institutional regional framework has hampered Brazil's efforts to access the European and Asian markets. Amaral suggested that Brazil will have to think of new options rather than just rely on old ideas of free trade areas to remain competitive.

Brazil has had an active and creative foreign policy for several decades, reminded Roberto Abdenur, former deputy foreign minister and ambassador. Decades before the Lula administration, Brazil was not only active in attempting to create a new international order, but also broke new ground with South American relations. The difference with Lula's administration has been a much higher level of credibility, due to a history of democratic governance and economic success. Lula's forceful personality aided this emergence, but did not start it; it began with far-reaching structural reforms that took place long before. Lula took advantage of a propitious domestic situation, and his charisma allowed Brazil to punch above its weight. While this was overall beneficial, the new model of aggressive presidential diplomacy is potentially problematic, according to Abdenur, who cited Iran as the best example of this gone too far. Under Rousseff, the possibility of Lula remaining a major player unafraid of contradicting official policy--with the PT ideologically dominating foreign policy--could potentially prevent Brazil from pursuing its national interests.

Peter Hakim, of the Inter-American Dialogue, downplayed both the idea of Brazil being anti-American and the criticisms of Brazilian foreign policy. In his opinion, Brazil-U.S. relations will be driving by issues of nuclear non-proliferation, agricultural exports, climate change, and competing roles within the region, rather than the personalities of its leaders. However, James Ferrer of the George Washington University Center for Latin American Issues added that he sees impatience in Brazil to be included in the world order, rather than focusing on its role in South America first.

By J.C. Hodges
Paulo Sotero, Brazil Institute


  • Antônio Carlos Pereira

    Editor, Opinion Page, O Estado de S. Paulo
  • Paulo Sotero

    Director, Brazil Institute
  • Peter Hakim

    President Emeritus, Inter-American Dialogue
  • Roberto Abdenur

    Former Deputy Foreign Minister and former Ambassador to China and the United States
  • Marcos Azambuja

    Former Deputy Foreign Minister and former Ambassador to Argentina and France
  • Sergio Amaral

    President, China-Brazil Business Council, former Deputy Foreign Minister and former Ambassador to England and France
  • James Ferrer

    Director, the GWU Center for Latin American Studies