Remarkable Opportunities and Uneasy Choices

Cover Story

Fortaleza 2014 was an extremely important landmark for Brazil, especially due to the event’s political context and implications. Dr Adriana Erthal Abdenur highlights the potential advantages generated by the sixth BRICS summit that Brazil can exploit in future

In July 2014, the sixth BRICS Summit brought together the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa in Fortaleza to discuss topics ranging from global governance reform to energy security. This was not the first time that Brazil hosted a BRICS Summit; the group’s second meeting was held in Brasilia in 2010. However, the Fortaleza meeting was a far more important landmark for Brazil, especially due to the event’s political context and implications. The sixth Summit generated three potential advantages that Brazil might be able to exploit in coming years: serving as a bridge between the BRICS and South America; expanding Brazilian influence in international development cooperation; and magnifying Brazil’s contestation of key global norms in the field of security. However, these opportunities must be understood in the light of important contextual changes over the past year, which might also present new risks for Brazilian foreign policy.

Bridge Between BRICS and South America

Apart from the symbolic value for Brazil, hosting the latest Summit is significant in various ways. In addition to allowing President Dilma Rousseff to announce the launch of the coalition’s two biggest initiatives so far – the new development bank and the contingency reserve arrangement – hosting the meeting permitted Brazil to function as a bridge between the coalition and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which Brazil helped launch in 2008. This bridging strategy is not novel; it had been pioneered a year earlier by South Africa, when President Jacob Zuma invited the leaders of African Union, African regional economic communities, and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) to a BRICS-Africa dialogue held at the margins of the March 2013 Durban summit. The move allowed South Africa not only to ensure that Africa would feature prominently on the BRICS agenda, but also to reinforce the perception (nurtured not only by South Africa itself, but also by China) of South Africa as a gateway to the continent. Zuma’s gambit paid off not only in that year’s eThekwini declaration, in which African development was prioritised, but also in Fortaleza, as reflected by the decision to establish the bank’s first regional representation in South Africa.

The opportunity to establish links between the BRICS and a regional organisation was not lost on the Brazilian leadership, even though Brazil – eager for the Summit to produce a deal by the meeting’s end – emerged from the negotiations over the bank’s design with the consolation prize of presiding the institution’s board. The presidents of the UNASUR states, plus those of Cuba, Costa Rica, and Mexico, flew to Brasilia, where they met with BRICS leaders to discuss development issues, including Argentina’s debt crisis and potential opportunities offered by the new development bank. It is noteworthy that Brazil invited not the heads of state of MERCOSUR alone, whose membership is far narrower and geographically constrained, nor the broader hemispheric leadership of the Organisation of American States (OAS), which includes the United States, but rather those of UNASUR (Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela) — a primarily political organisation that Brazil has championed in recent years. If Brazil is able to consolidate its bridging role between the BRICS and UNASUR, for instance by leading the coordination of the bank’s initiatives in the region, it might be able to boost UNASUR despite competition from other regional organisations, such as the Alliance of Bolivarian States (ALBA) and the Alliance of the Pacific.

Expanding Brazilian Influence

The launch of the new development bank offers a unique opportunity for Brazil to increase its influence in the field of development cooperation. Over the past ten years, Brazil has vastly expanded its South-South development cooperation, both through multilateral channels and (increasingly) via bilateral ties. Brazilian initiatives include technical cooperation in niche areas such as agriculture and public health, social policy areas, as well as investments by major Brazil-based companies such as Vale, Petrobras, and Odebrecht in infrastructure, including hydroelectric dams and other large scale infrastructure projects. Geographically, these initiatives focus on priority areas of Brazilian foreign policy: Latin America and the Caribbean, and Africa, and they often help Brazil to muster support among other developing countries for its ambitions and positions within established multilateral settings, including its bid for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council and its efforts to elect Brazilian candidates to key positions of leadership at international organisations.

However, as a developing country with persistent challenges within the domestic sphere, including high levels of poverty, sharp social inequalities, and inadequate infrastructure – Brazil faces considerable constraints upon its capacity to project influence through the provision of South-South development cooperation. There are already some signs that the administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), in particular, overreached in its efforts to expand South-South cooperation. Financial constraints, along with the lack of a legal framework for regulating its provision of development cooperation, thus mean that the reach and scope of Brazilian South-South cooperation provision is far more limited than that of China, for instance, and that it is more susceptible to oscillations in economic growth. In addition, as a democratic country, Brazilian initiatives abroad are subject to scrutiny and contestation, not only by political opposition groups but also by civil society organisations. The BRICS development bank, as long as it remains a legitimately multilateral institution rather than a China-dominated vehicle for infrastructure and industrialisation cooperation, may extend the reach of Brazilian cooperation by allowing Brazil to pool resources with other rising powers.

In addition, at the normative level, the bank initiative – clearly meant not only to address the significant gap in financing for these areas, both long neglected by Northern aid and established organisations – magnifies the contestation that Brazil has long voiced with respect to Northern-led efforts to set norms and principles of aid and cooperation, notably through the aid effectiveness agenda and Global Partnership initiative led by the Organisation for Economic and Development Cooperation (OECD)’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC). Like other BRICS, Brazil has distanced itself from these efforts, arguing that – as a rich country club – the OECD lacks the legitimacy to establish what is deemed as acceptable behaviour by cooperation providers, and that the political conditions favoured by Northern donors are incompatible with the principle of respect for national sovereignty.

Contesting Key Global Norms

Brazil’s contestation of global governance structures and norms is not limited to the field of international development, and the latest BRICS Summit took place within a highly contested ambience, with Moscow in particular exhorting its fellow coalition members to adopt a stronger anti-Western stance. Brazilian foreign policy has long argued in favour of exhausting dialogue and negotiations in situations of conflict and instability, as well as the need to balance security measures with development initiatives. In the post-cold war era, with the expansion of NATO’s self-appointed mandate and the beginning of the US-led war on terror, Brazilian leaders have been highly critical of what they perceive to be a trigger-happy, heavy handed approach to military interventionism by the US and its allies. Over the past five years, Brazilian leaders have reinforced the official discourse of non-intervention, and on key cases — including those of Libya and Syria — Brazil has distanced itself from the Western position and joined the other BRICS in resisting intervention through UN mechanisms. Brazil has put forward the concept of Responsibility while Protecting (RwP) as a way to temper the principles of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), although without backing the proposal with a strong advocacy drive. The recurring instability in post-intervention Libya and the on-going attacks by Israel on Gaza may reinforce the belief held by many Brazilian policymakers that it made the correct decision in opposing both intervention in Libya and, more recently, in recalling its ambassador to Israel in protest of the attacks on Palestine, which Brazil recognises as an independent state. In such issues, Brazil increasingly kindred spirits in the other BRICS, all of which have adopted some form of sovereignty discourse.

However, these positions are not without risk, especially since the start of the crisis over Crimea. As tensions between Russia and the West sharpen over Ukraine, Moscow has made strong overtures to the developing world, including the BRICS, in an attempt to deepen its ties, to diversify its partnerships, and to muster support for its increasingly oppositional stance vis-à-vis the United States and the European Union. Before arriving in Fortaleza for the BRICS Summit, President Vladimir Putin visited Cuba, Nicaragua, and Argentina, in order to boost general trade ties and energy agreements, including atomic energy.

Perhaps less visible than these dynamics, but appearing as a strong undercurrent around the time of the Summit, were the rapidly warming ties between Moscow and Beijing – links which, if consolidated, could create the biggest Eurasian power alliance since the Sino-Soviet friendship of the 1950s. Since these are two large authoritarian states, Brazil — like India and South Africa — must carefully consider their alignments with countries that, despite sharing some of the same interests in global governance reforms, feature regimes that are fundamentally different from their own internal governance systems. Strengthening the India Brazil South Africa Dialogue Forum (IBSA) — an initiative which has unfortunately lost steam precisely as BRICS has gained strength — could be one way to better coordinate among the democratic BRICS on certain issues, and thereby avoid a default alignment with Russia and China on themes in which the democratic identities of the IBSA states remain relevant, including in areas such as development and security. The 2014 Summit in Fortaleza has given Brazil a peek into both remarkable opportunities, and some very uneasy choices ahead.

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