Rousseff’s Foreign Policy Follows in Lula’s Footsteps

The new president is likely to soldier on in the pragmatic fashion of her predecessor.

When President Dilma Rousseff addressed the United Nations General Assembly this month, she confirmed what many analysts of Brazilian foreign policy had expected since she assumed office in January of this year — that she would soldier on in the pragmatic fashion of her predecessor to see to it that Brazil is recognized as a world power.

Although recent actions on the part of her government, including UN votes regarding Iran and Libya, may suggest that Rousseff is more assertive abroad than Lula da Silva was, in fact, Brazil’s foreign policy is likely to remain the same.

Like Lula, the extremely popular Workers’ Party president who propelled Rousseff to national prominence, the incumbent Brazilian leader stresses the need for the international community to change the way in which it runs its affairs.

As the world becomes more globalized the need for international organizations will continue to grow. This is the most effective and secure way for governments to manage their relationships, express their concerns and manifest their interests. Lula recognized this and so does Rousseff. The problem is that the institutional structure does not reflect today’s reality. In the same way as governments have demonstrated to be unable to keep in pace with the developments in the free market, changes in states’ power relations have outpaced the evolution of international institutions.

Rousseff’s personal experience of fighting Brazil’s right-wing dictatorship in the 1980s could impact some of her policy choices. The best example may be her harsh criticism of Brazil’s abstentions on human rights resolutions at the UN during Lula’s tenure. Rousseff could emerge as a champion of human rights, at least whenever there is an opportunity for her to assert herself on the international stage without undermining Brazil’s number one foreign policy objective which is to be recognized as a legitimate global power as soon as possible.

It is critical to understand the meaning of “legitimate” and “as soon as possible” in this context. The former implies that Brazil will have to have the support of several countries which recognize its leadership. The latter implies that, in looking for this support, the Itamaraty will not be particularly demanding regarding the quality of the governments it has relationships with.

In a world that is ruled by norms and organizations that were based on Western principles, the way to gain attractiveness vis-à-vis a great part of the international community is to be different. Brazil’s legitimacy will come from strengthening its relationships with as many nations as possible, notwithstanding what the United States think of them. This way, Brazil will be able to legitimately behave like a world power.

Problem is, the rules that were made by Western nations have become the rules of the game. Many countries may criticize them and demand a change but even China and Russia recognize the benefit of having them to structure the interactions between states. Hence Brazil demands an expansion, not the disappearance of the Security Council.

Last year’s controversial nuclear fuel exchange agreement with Iran and Turkey should be understood in this light. By providing a parallel international forum to solve the Iranian nuclear issue, Brazil sent the unmistakable message that it still aspires to be an agenda setter in the world. Rousseff’s decisions to oppose the bombing of Libya and support the creation of a Palestinian state were inspired by a similar motive.

Along with Brazil, India and South Africa, two other major emerging economies and large, multiethnic democracies, voted the same way. China and Russia, the more conservative parts of the “BRICS,” are already part of the international system. Nations like Brazil, which demand not only economic but political reform as well, could increasingly shape the world’s decisionmaking process.