By Peter Cannon
Brazil is recognised as one of the emerging global powers and the leading power in Latin America. As a stable democracy in an unstable region, Brazil’s rise has been viewed as a largely benign and stabilising development. [i] Yet under president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s foreign policy took an increasingly anti-Western direction. Lula da Silva formed a close relationship with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, and played an obstructive role in the UN Security Council by opposing sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme. [ii]
As expected, Lula da Silva’s former chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, was elected as the new president when his term of office came to an end last November. Despite Rousseff being Lula da Silva’s chosen successor and the ‘continuity candidate’, there was speculation that she might take a different approach to foreign policy. It was noted, for example, that Rousseff had been critical of repression in Iran, had spoken up for human rights and had spoken positively of improving ties with the United States. [iii] A continuation of Lula da Silva’s friendship with Ahmadinejad was therefore deemed to be unlikely.
Brazil’s relations with Iran and Venezuela
After Lula da Silva’s attempt to broker a compromise deal over Iran’s nuclear programme with Iran and Turkey in the Tehran Declaration last year, new foreign minister Antonio Patriota told reporters in Brussels in January that there were no immediate plans for a repeat. “I think it would be a little bit too soon for us to undertake another attempt of the nature we took last year,” he said. But he added: “But we are keeping channels open.” He also expressed doubts about UN, EU and US sanctions, declaring: “”I am in favour of diplomacy, of dialogue. It is debatable whether sanctions are producing a desirable effect.” [iv] In February, Patriota explained Brazil’s position, saying: “We consider it in our interest to maintain a dialogue with the Iranian government, including as a way to reduce tensions, because isolation sometimes only exacerbates a worrying situation that could lead to a conflict.” He claimed that this relationship contributed to Brazil’s aim of “contributing to world peace.” [v]
Far from a change in approach to Iran, Patriota stated; “Rousseff will stay on the paths of her predecessor and mentor Lula da Silva,” and he praised Lula da Silva’s and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s building of bilateral relations. Meanwhile, the Brazilian ambassador to Iran, Antonio Luis Espinola Salgado, continued to hail the Tehran Declaration, roundly rejected by Western powers, as a way forward and offered further Brazilian cooperation to help Iran resolve its dispute. [vi]
Brazil has also maintained cordial relations with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. This week, Hugo Chavez became the first South American president to visit Brazil since Rousseff’s election. During his visit, Brazil and Venezuela signed ten cooperation agreements. Rousseff praised Venezuela’s lead in promoting regional integration and Chavez for conducting the process under which the Community of Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) will be consolidated as a new body in Caracas in July. ECLAC will replace the Rio Group and has been seen as a rival to the Organisation of American States (OAS), particularly as the United States and Canada will not be included. Rousseff promised: “Venezuela can be sure that Brazil will support this struggle of all Latin American and Caribbean countries for the integration and alignment of our nations to create a harmonious cooperation in this part of the world.” [vii] Chavez’s visit Brazil was preceded by a visit to Venezuela from Lula da Silva. According to Chavez they spoke about “they spoke about “imperial aggression against oil countries”. [viii]
Brazil and the United Kingdom
Relations with the United Kingdom, by contrast, have been growing more hostile. Shortly after Rousseff came to power, the Royal Navy’s Falkland Islands protection ship, HMS Clyde, was blocked from docking in Rio de Janeiro. HMS Clyde was forced to change its route and dock later in Chile instead. This was the first time that Brazil has refused permission for a British ship to dock. This was shortly before Rousseff’s first international trip, to Argentina. The Argentine government was reportedly “satisfied” by the action. [ix]
This unnecessarily hostile act occurred despite the British government’s attempts to reach out to Brazil as part of its strategy of building up relations with emerging new powers, and to promote defence co-operation between Britain and Brazil. Gerald Howarth, the defence minister for international security strategy, had hailed Brazil as a “stabilising influence” in the region. Brazil also joined with fellow Mercosur members Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay to formally protest against British military exercises on the Falklands. [x]
Brazil and Libya
Perhaps the greatest recent test of Brazilian foreign policy under Rousseff has been its response to the crisis in Libya, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.
When Security Council Resolution 1973, authorising military action against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, was discussed in March, Brazilian UN ambassador Maria Luiza Riberio Viotti voiced concern that military action in Libya would “exacerbate tensions on the ground and cause more harm than good to the same civilians we are committed to protect.” She warned that military action would undermine the “spontaneous home-grown nature’’ of popular uprisings spreading through the Arab world and threatened to “change that narrative in ways that would have serious repercussions” for Libya and the region. [xi] This was despite the support of African and Middle Eastern Security Council members, and even Libya’s own defecting ambassador to the UN, for the resolution. While ten members voted in favour of the resolution, Brazil sided with China, Germany, India and Russia in abstaining. [xii]
Shortly after the beginning of the NATO operation, the Brazilian government called for a ceasefire to allow ‘dialogue’ between Colonel Gaddafi and the Libyan opposition. [xiii] At a summit in China in April of the ‘BRICS’ (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the leaders issued a joint declaration against the NATO-led airstrikes in Libya, stating: “We share the principle that the use of force should be avoided.” [xiv] Brazil has therefore made its position clear.
While it is too early to offer a definitive judgment on Brazil’s foreign policy under Dilma Rousseff, it is also premature to say that Brazilian foreign policy is taking a new, more constructive direction. The early indications are that the hopes of a different foreign policy were misplaced. When it came to the test of Libya, Brazil chose to take a position hostile to the West, to the promotion of democracy and the defence of human rights – not noly by abstaining in the vote on Resolution 1973, but by speaking out against NATO’s action and calling for NATO to stop. The wisdom of the UK’s policy of supporting a permanent seat for Brazil on the UN Security Council must continue to be questioned, as this is potentially a recipe for more deadlock and less action from the UN.
While Dilma Rousseff may be unlikely to embrace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the manner of Lula da Silva, her approach to international affairs seems to offer more of a change of style than a change of policy. For now, Brazil is still aligning itself in opposition to the West, and the assumptions of Western policy-makers that Brazil is a benign influence remain unfounded.
Peter John Cannon is the Latin America Section Director of the Henry Jackson Society.
[i] ‘Brazilian voters reaffirm their role on the global stage’, Oliver Kamm, The Times, 2nd November 2010
[ii] ‘Brazil’s turn against the West’, Peter John Cannon, Henry Jackson Society, 2nd June 2010, http://www.henryjacksonsociety.org/stories.asp?pageid=49&id=1602
[iii] ‘A promising start: But will good administration be enough for Brazil’s new president?’, The Economist, 17th February 2001, http://www.economist.com/node/18178157
[iv] ‘Brazil has no plans for new mediation on Iran’, Justyna Pawlak, Reuters, 27th January 2011, http://in.reuters.com/article/2011/01/27/idINIndia-54446420110127
[v] Brazil keeps focus on China, Iran under new leader, Yana Marull, AFP, 18th February 2011, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jAcsIOwONJQKJcFEiouk1r60-hdQ?docId=CNG.caf89b431a9c66f3e75cf5c8f5b2c68e.bf1
[vi] ‘Brazil will maintain close ties with Iran’, Press TV, 19th February 2011, http://www.presstv.ir/detail/165916.html
[vii] Brazil, Venezuela Stress Common Role in Regional Integration, Radio Cadena Agramonte, 6th June 2011, http://www.cadenagramonte.cu/english/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=5906
[viii] ‘Venezuela: the Brazil connection’, Benedict Mander, Financial Times blog, 3rd June 2011,
[ix] ‘Royal Navy’s Falklands ship turned away by Brazil’, Robin Yapp, Daily Telegraph, 10th January 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/falklandislands/8251130/Royal-Navys-Falklands-ship-turned-away-by-Brazil.html
[x] ‘Britain’s isolation on Falklands grows with “anti-colonial” Brazil snub’, Robin Yapp, Daily Telegraph, 11th January 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/brazil/8251700/Britains-isolation-on-Falklands-grows-with-anti-colonial-Brazil-snub.html
[xi] ‘Obama demands pull-back of Libyan troops; Tripoli declares cease-fire’, Washington Post, 17th March 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/europeans-say-intervention-in-libya-possible-within-hours-of-un-vote/2011/03/17/ABSb9pl_story_4.html
[xii] ‘Libya no-fly resolution reveals global split in UN’, Julian Borger, The Guardian, 18th March 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/18/libya-no-fly-resolution-split
[xiii] ‘Brazil calls for ceasefire in Libya’, Reuters, 22nd March 2011, http://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFTRE72L0YY20110322
[xiv] ‘Leaders at BRICS Summit speak out against airstrikes in Libya’, Jo Ling Kent, CNN, 12th April, http://articles.cnn.com/2011-04-14/world/china.brics.summit_1_libya-india-and-china-chinese-president-hu-jinta