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Brazil and the world: an invisible giant?

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Robin Lustig | 23:21 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    For a people who have suffered from Colonialism and slavery with us -- I also see no reason why they should jump on our band-wagon.

  • Comment number 2.

    "Brazil now has more embassies in Africa than Britain does. And you don't open embassies unless you see opportunities."

    You open embassies in minor African nations if you want to win influence with these minor voting African nations at the UN when your ex-president wants to be on the UN SC, or if you want to be a leader of the numerically large UN block of minor 'Southern' nations.
    Nothing to much to do with trade.

    The heirarchy amongst the BRICS is pretty self-evident and the distance from the top to the bottom of the BRICS listing is huge on virtually all criteria; no need to ask where Brasil is located on these rankings:

    just try:
    (i) Education,
    (ii) Infrastructure,
    (iii) Advanced Manufacture

    . . . . and then decide if any of these are important in the creation of a First World Nation.

    No, there is precious little evidence of internalising into indigenous industries the high technology implanted in Brasil by overseas muti-national companies - the paradigm just ain't being fixed in Brasil's SME mind-set.

    Brasil COULD BE, but it ain't going to happen. Why? Because of China and because of itself.

    Brasil has the food & raw materials to survive, but will it become first world by selling low value and importing high? - No Way!

    And will China allow high value imports from Brasil to outcompete its own home industries? - No Way!

    And will Brasil compete within a major Trading Bloc on a equal footing with the other great trading blocs/nations of the world? - No Way!
    Why? Because South American nations prefer to fight like ferrets in a sack, rather than working together for the real good of the continent and its constituent countries.

    Even so, it's a great place to live, even though it's the *most frustrating place on earth*!

  • Comment number 3.

    A brick bubble is an oxymoron.
    A BRIC bubble is possible. Where will they really be in three or four years?

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi GeoffWard, let's get serious and talk numbers:
    These are some Human Development Indicators by UNDP (United Nations Development Program)
    Prevalence of undernourishment:
    Brasil -

  • Comment number 5.

    Prevalence of undernourishment=Brasil -

  • Comment number 6.

    prevalence of undernourishment-

  • Comment number 7.

    Isa, I believe your point has been touched upon ?

    "Brazil has ambitions - it wants to continue to invest in infrastructure and poverty alleviation,---"

  • Comment number 8.

    another reason Brasil abstains in these votes is that it likes being liked by everyone, it revels in the fact that it has no real enemies. Brasil sees itself as everyones friend ...as a state it acts exactly as its individual citizens do....everyone is a friend even though you only met them half hour ago.

  • Comment number 9.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Geoff Ward, apart from your last line Geoff ! As a Brit living over 5 months in Sao Paulo, raising my half-Brazilian son here and not being part of the expat or Brazilian elite who live in their own economic bubble, I have seen a very dispiriting side of Brazil.

    As for UN resolutions, I think it's important to remember that Brazil has never had to fight any wars, apart from one not very tough war against Paraguay, and even then it was in the so-called "Triple Alliance" with Argentina and Uruguay ! Just as lack of education blights so much in this country, similarly there is a lack of education on war and why it is sometimes a necessary evil.

    All these high level "conferences" in Brazil, discussing economics, politics, the environment - it must be a nice life to whiz in and out on your magic carpets, chewing the fat and slapping each other on the back. This nonsense about booming Brazil has failed to address the structural problems that are not going away and the fact that there is no hope until endemic corruption is tackled at the top level of leadership. No sign of that happening at all.

    Why are so many Brazilian politicians related by blood - today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century ?! Why is that considered acceptable ?

    More from me on my blog, http://digitalmarketingbrasil.blogspot.com/, or Google "aBritinBrazil".

  • Comment number 10.

    I disagree of post #2 (from GeoffWard). It says that Brazil will not develop due to absence of education, infrastructure and advanced manufacture. Indeed Brazil is an invisible giant to you!!! And (wow) your last sentence indicates that you have been here. Shame on you.

    There is a great difference between absence and not having the necessary. Brazil really needs to improve its access to education, infrastructure and wealth.

    Just giving two examples of advanced manufacture that GeoffWard seems to be unaware of:
    i) ALL THE TECHNOLOGY for deep water oil drilling used in Brazil is national. Petrobras is a world reference on that, unlike BP. In fact, oil companies have come to Brazil to buy this technology;
    ii) Embraer is the third biggest manufacturer of airplanes in the world; just behind Boing and Airbus. This is an extremely high tech industry. How could we have this industry (and its suppliers) if we had no education at all?

    The fact that Brazil is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society does not mean that everybody has the same access to education and infrastructure. The truth is that different regions of the country have VERY different levels of development (and education, infrastructure and wealth); JUST LIKE CHINA and India if you don’t know!

    If you visit southern states of Brazil, you will see many industrialized and wealthy places. But northern and central Brazil is very poor.

    You seem to think that Brazil only produces commodities but our economy is much more diversified then that. I am puzzled about your references on Brazilian economy.

    The reason why we are not a developed country is quite well presented by #9 (aBritinBrazil). In that we need to improve a lot!

    The GREATEST CHALLENGE for a foreigner in Brazil is to understand and ACCEPT our culture. It is very tricky and varies at different places.

    I’m adapted to southern Brazil (I live in Curitiba) and it would be hard for me to live in Rio or to the north. It is not because they are bad people. No way; it is just because their approach to life is different from mine. What is wrong about that?

  • Comment number 11.

    I just disagree of aBritinBrazil (post #9) in his first sentence.

  • Comment number 12.

    Luiz from Curitiba some of what you are saying is equally misleading.

    You said, "ALL THE TECHNOLOGY for deep water oil drilling used in Brazil is national. Petrobras is a world reference on that, unlike BP. In fact, oil companies have come to Brazil to buy this technology;"

    This is false. Most of the equipment used by Petrobras is American, British or French. Petrobras are very good drivers of the vehicles (the rigs) but quite frankly your comment shows a complete disregard for the partnerships Petrobras has formed with other companies. Petrobras are junior partners from a technological perspective. Petrobras didn't discover the "pre-sal" ... BG Group did .. A British company.

    Your second remark, "Embraer is the third biggest manufacturer of airplanes in the world; just behind Boing and Airbus. This is an extremely high tech industry. How could we have this industry (and its suppliers) if we had no education at all?"

    Embraer does not manufacturer the entire aircraft... it assembles them. The engines for example used in the commercial and private jet aircraft are a mix of Rolls Royce and General Electric Engines. And your remark shows a complete disregard for the populations lack of access to education as a whole.

    The discussion is not about the frankly isolated occurence of highly skilled professionals from the political and economic elite in Brazil. Those who can afford to pay for an education can indeed progress a limited number of companies to greatness.

    One of the major problems is that investment in young people is low. The total transfers to the wealthiest individuals and public sector employees continues to rise. The government gives a little to the poor and takes away with the other hand. People are borrowing more money in Brazil.. 20% annual credit expansion.. The investment in young people (part of what economists to as the enabling environment) is still very low. And bolsa familia has clearly distracted the Brazilians as a population (who are largely uneducated) from the conclusions of successive world bank/imf etc reports. And that is that total transfers to young people (despite bolsa familia etc) have still been falling relative to total transfers to the older and richer parts of society. That means if you are not increasing the investment in education but you are systematically increasing the pensions and pay of the rich.. you will leave a legacy even worse.

    The Brazilian government are one of the worst for government wastefulness and unfortunately whilst the rich continue to buy homes in Miami, the poor face an uncertain future because when revenues fall away from government (when the resources they are increasingly relying on for government spending do not earn so much - and that always occurs eventually) the government will be forced like others to print or borrow money. To inflate the currency (a tax against the poor) or to condemn Brazil once again to even higher interest rates. Servicing debt will mean even more fortune is squandered.

    Brazil - the country of accumulative tax of 70% - and african levels of service.

  • Comment number 13.


    On another matter, I do agree with you that Brazil is a country of many countries in many respects. It is important for foreigners to understand that life varies across different regions quite dramatically for many reasons - culturally rather than solely on an economic basis.

  • Comment number 14.

    Re # 10 Luiz_from_Curtiba's post and partly backing post # 12 Mr Ripley, the assertion that Embraer is the third largest manufacturer of aircraft in the world is wrong. After the acknowledged two largest manufacturers, ranking is as follows: (3) Bombardier of Canada (and no I am not a Canadian nor do I work for Bombardier), (4) Cessna, (5) Gulfstream, (6) Embraer, (7) Hawker Beechcraft, (8) Dassault, (9) ATR

  • Comment number 15.

    Thus far I find Brazil's international behavior to be exemplary. I disagree with comments on this page that Brazil must take sides (other than in Latin America) and support for example the NATO countries in their attack on the Gaddafi regime. Just this morning I saw a Navy officer on Fox News complain that he believes the US decision by President Obama to give credibility to the imperial ambitions of France and Britain by joining them in the no-fly zone over Libya was a mistake. Of course he did not refer to it as an imperialist action though this will become clear later on in my opinion.

  • Comment number 16.

    The rising BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, plus South Africa) held their third summit meeting on April 14 on Hainan island in the South China Sea. The Sanya summit reiterated opposition to the Western bombing campaign on Libya, "we share the principle that the use of force should be avoided." They backed the African Union proposal for a "political" solution to the Libyan conflict. After meeting with AU president Jacob Zuma they called for an immediate ceasefire to prevent further violence against civilians. The BRIC countries voted with Germany to abstain from voting against the UN resolution authorizing the no-fly zone against Muammar Ghadaffi's forces. Russia and China were criticized for not exercising their veto power in opposition to the UN resolution. They did this to prevent direct confrontation with the NATO powers. The BRICS summit called for expansion of the UN Security Council to include Brazil, India, and other rising powers and called for an end to Western domination of world affairs. This is unlikely to be taken seriously by the West partly because of tensions within the BRICS grouping itself.


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