Brazil and the world: an invisible giant?
I'm just back from a quick flit to Rio, where I was invited to attend a conference on the subject of "Brazil and the World: opportunities, ambitions, and choices", organised by the London-based foreign policy think tank Chatham House and the Brazilian Centre of International Relations (CEBRI).
You may think this was an odd thing to do while Libya, Yemen and Syria continue to dominate the foreign news agenda - but the fact is that significant change is not limited to the Arab world, and we need to keep an eye on what is going on elsewhere as well.
So, how's Brazil doing? Brazil is doing fine, thank you - but there was a discernible under-current at the conference suggesting that some Brazilian policy-makers and analysts do wonder how much longer they can keep this up.
True, economic growth looks good, and Brazil escaped relatively unscathed from the financial turmoil of the past two years. The charismatic and larger-than-life President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has made way after eight years in office for the much less charismatic Dilma Rousseff, who is a close ally and protegée, but without, it seems, his global ambitions.
It has consolidated its position as an influential member of the four-nation group of emerging economic giants known as BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), but here you begin to sense a kernel of unease.
Of course it's nice to be taken seriously as an economic super-power of the future - but are there certain expectations of how a major player of the 21st century is meant to behave at a global level?
All four BRIC nations abstained in the UN Security Council vote on the use of military force to protect civilians in Libya. No one was surprised that Russia and China didn't vote Yes - they have long opposed any suggestion that the UN should authorise the use of force in member states against the wishes of their governments.
But why did Brazil abstain? At lunch yesterday, a retired Brazilian ambassador told me: "You know, we quite like being invisible on the world stage. It suits us very well." And there, for now, you have your answer. Brazil likes having its cake and eating it - it has seen how China, for example, has begun to use its economic muscle as a diplomatic tool on the world stage, and it has seen how much flak China has run into as result.
But none of this means that Brazil is not engaging on the world scene. It commands the UN peace-keeping force in Haiti; it contributes to many others, and is about to expand its naval role in the UN peace-keeping force in southern Lebanon.
So I asked the combative defence minister Nelson Jobim: "Why does Brazil not support UN action in Libya, but commands it in Haiti?" Simple, he said. We believe in peace-keeping, but not peace-making - and we remain to be convinced that the use of military force, even in Libya, can help resolve conflicts.
I'm not sure that Brazil's long-term ambition is to remain invisible. It is, for example, a significant aid and development donor in many African countries, specialising in know-how and what it calls capacity development. In other words, because Brazil has emerged from developing nation to mature economy, it has lessons it's happy to pass on to others.
There's much talk of an almost mystical "Brazilian way" on the world stage. We are, say Brazilians, a mult-ethnic, multi-cultural society, with a passionate belief in moderation, and we know how to inter-act with each other and with others of different ethnicities and different cultures.
(No one said so in terms, but it was pretty clear what the sub-text was. China is another economic super-power now extremely active in Africa, but it is often criticised for its alleged lack of sensitivity to different cultural traditions.)
Ambitions? Yes, Brazil has ambitions - it wants to continue to invest in infrastructure and poverty alleviation, and it wants to cement its good neighbour relations with the rest of Latin America. And of course, it wants to protect and make good use of its abundant natural resources, both on land and at sea, including the vast under-water oil reserves that are yet to come on stream.
Choices? Yes, it knows it'll have to make some, but maybe not just yet. As one, non-Brazilian speaker at the conference asked: "Is abstaining in a key security council vote the best way to press your case to be considered as a permanent member of the council?"
And opportunities? Maybe it's already missed a few; after all, it's India and China that are now the undoubted emerging power stars, thanks in part to education systems that can deliver substantially better results than Brazil's. And as new opportunities come along, more choices will have to be made. Invisibility may not be a long-term option.
But here's one statistic that tells you a lot about how the world is changing. Brazil now has more embassies in Africa than Britain does. And you don't open embassies unless you see opportunities.