Americas Quarterly

Brazil's Global Ambitions

The world's seventh-largest economy needs a foreign policy that matches rhetoric with capabilities.

When President Dilma Rousseff first took office in 2010, Brazil’s future looked exceptionally bright. For nearly a decade, the country had benefited from Asia’s enormous appetite for its commodities. This allowed Brazil to reduce poverty and expand the middle class while at the same time sustaining a remarkable growth rate, becoming the seventh largest economy in the world in 2014.

But by the time Rousseff was sworn in for a second term on January 1, 2015, she faced serious decisions about Brazil’s future. Brazil’s development model based on domestic consumption and commodity exports has reached its limits and the real is significantly overvalued, thus undercutting the competitiveness of its non-commodity-based export sectors. Moreover, the Southern Common Market, Mercosur, which had once showcased Brazil’s leadership in regional integration, now ties Brazil’s flagging economy to two of the most troubled economies in South America—Argentina and Venezuela. At the same time, the two most significant global trade negotiations in a decade, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, are nearing completion without Brazil.

Brazil has sought to play the role of a major power on the global stage since the beginning of the twentieth century, but it will not earn this status just by virtue of its size, burgeoning population and impressive economic achievements. Historically, rising powers acquired dreadnoughts or sizeable armies to achieve influence. Today, they also seek to become a permanent member on the United Nations Security Council or lead the World Trade Organization.[1] Brazil under Dilma stands at a crossroads: it can try to parlay its rising economic might and soft power into global influence, or it can remain a regional power, albeit a significant one, with limited influence on the course of world events.  To turn its aspirations into reality, Brazil will have to deploy its national capabilities more effectively to shape the rules governing the international order.

Hard and Soft Powers

Unlike other global powers, which employ economic and military hard power to play a role in shaping the international order, Brazil has primarily relied on its soft power and exhibited a notable reluctance to compel other states to follow its lead. Brazil’s largely peaceful history and secure geostrategic position meant that it never felt the need to project power abroad through military strength.

Unlike other rising powers, such as India and China, Brazil’s regional security environment is enviably peaceful, at least at the interstate level. This has not only allowed Brazil to escape the costs of creating a formidable military machine, but encouraged Brasília’s policymakers to believe that shrewd diplomacy was sufficient to propel them onto the world stage. In 2012, Brazil was 68th in the world in terms of military expenditure as a percentage of GDP, and 11th in the world in terms of total amount spent.[2] Although Brazil has steadily increased defense spending over the past two decades—and although its defense budget accounts for over half of Latin America’s total defense expenditures—this has not yet translated into concrete capabilities that would enable its armed forces to conduct significant combat operations beyond its borders.[3]

At the same time, Brazil has been reluctant to leverage its hard economic power, either in the form of rewards or sanctions, to make other countries follow its lead. Brazil has made large strides in reducing poverty and growing its middle class.[4] Its national development bank, BNDES, is a significant player in both internal and regional development, with a total lending volume three times that of the World Bank in 2011.[5] However, Brazil has shied away from committing economic resources beyond South America. And its official international development assistance remains quite modest.[6]

In contrast to these historical and self-imposed limits on the use of its hard power, Brazil wields significant soft power relative to many states. It ranks 17th in the world, according to the Monocle/Institute for Government’s 2012 ranking of soft power, ahead of developing countries and many of the rising powers.[7] The emphasis of its foreign policy on equity, inclusion and universal institutions appeals to many states, especially small and middle powers. Brazilian diplomats are widely respected for their professionalism and effectiveness, and Brazilians consider themselves to be particularly adroit at bringing together parties with opposing points of view.[8] Domestically, Brazil provides an attractive narrative of economic growth with a strong state and a growing degree of social inclusion. As Brazil has substantially consolidated its democracy over the past three decades, its political success story contributes to its prestige in international and regional forums.[9]

Constraints in Cooperation

Brazil’s renewed attempts to rise to major power status benefit from two unique opportunities. The first is Brazil’s ascendancy in South America. For most of the twentieth century, Argentina was a regional rival to Brazil in economic and military terms. The Argentine-Brazilian rivalry is now history, marked not only by diminished military competition, but also a mutual agreement on nuclear non-proliferation that consolidated Latin America’s status as a nuclear-free zone. The likelihood of interstate war in South America involving Brazil has become very low, further reducing Brazil’s need for military capabilities.

During the past decade, Brazil has also worked steadily to constrain challengers within South America, principally through regional integration and multilateral diplomacy.[10] The reduction in security tensions was complemented by the negotiation of Mercosur, a new common market arrangement initially formed with Argentina in 1988 and ratified by Paraguay and Uruguay in 1991. This set of negotiations and agreements transformed Brazil’s main rival in South America into a partner.[11] Brazil also laid the groundwork for securing its regional ascendancy through new multilateral institutions that excluded the United States. These institutions evolved under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to become the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in 2008. UNASUR excludes not only the U.S., but also Canada, Mexico and Central America, which are considered too politically and economically tied to Washington.[12] Most recently, Brazil has worked to create the Comunidad de Estados de Latinoamérica y el Caribe (CELAC), which includes South, Central American and Caribbean states—but pointedly, neither the U.S. nor Canada.

The second new opportunity arises from the fading of post-Cold War U.S. hegemony and the subsequent rise of global multipolarity. This geopolitical opening offers rising powers the opportunity to influence the international order more actively as their own capabilities improve relative to those of established powers. Moreover, the increasing number of powers critical in varying degrees of the existing liberal international order—Brazil is joined in this respect by Russia, China, India, South Africa, Turkey, and Iran—offers Brazilian policymakers a range of potential collaborators with common interests in revising the international system. Brazil hopes that the sum of the rising powers will have a greater impact than each acting alone.[13]

Since Brazil is not a regional rival to any of these nations, it can help facilitate multilateral networks among the rising powers. The BRICS summits, bringing together the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, formally launched in 2009, are one example of new initiatives that exclude the traditional major powers and provide opportunities to craft alternative global governance institutions. In August 2014, for instance, the BRICS nations announced they were forming an international development bank with over $50 billion in starting capital. Brazil shares with its new international partners an interest in defending their sovereignty and autonomy of action, as well as in opening room for their participation in global “rule shaping.”

Brazil also claims to represent the concerns of a growing number of small and middle powers in the international system about global inequality.[14] Why would smaller nations accept Brazil’s leadership? Brazil’s attraction for smaller states has an economic and cultural dimension, but it is based, more importantly, on its promised commitment to more democratic, equitable and universal international institutions once it becomes a major power.

Brazil has not been able to fully exploit these opportunities. It has had limited success in persuading other states in South America to adhere to the new order it purports to have created or to support it in global forums. For example, Brazil’s leadership was challenged by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who used oil diplomacy and relations with leftist and progressive movements around the globe in a bid for global influence. Brazil defused Venezuela’s aspirations for regional leadership, but only by incorporating some of Chávez’s ideological proposals into UNASUR and CELAC.[15]

While Venezuela’s regional challenge has faded, other sub-regional institutions have emerged as would-be alternatives to UNASUR and Mercosur, particularly the Pacific Alliance between Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Mexico. The free-market foundation of these new groupings undermines the more political logic for integration that Brazil has promoted within UNASUR. In addition, Mexico’s re-engagement with South America has undermined Brazil’s claim to uncontested regional leadership. Mexico and Argentina have also quietly networked neighboring states to undermine Brazil’s campaign to win a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC).[16]

Perhaps most tellingly, Brazil’s historical reluctance to place limits on its sovereignty through adherence to rules-based international regimes has diminished the utility of Mercosur, UNASUR and CELAC as platforms for its leadership. These institutions all have limited budgets, small cadres of personnel and inconsistent leadership. In the absence of capacity and commitment, these new multilateral institutions have essentially devolved into opportunities for presidential summitry in the region rather than institutions that can govern interstate relations or bind the actions of member states. Their weakness highlights a central problem in Brazil’s multilateralism: a willingness to evade the rules of the institutions it creates. For example, Venezuela’s domestic legislation did not meet many regulatory requirements for admission to Mercosur, nor did it fully adhere to the institution’s democracy standard. Nevertheless, with consistent backing from Brazil, Venezuela was admitted over the objection of other Mercosur member states, such as Paraguay.

Brazil has also been unable to attract support for its aspirations from the U.S. and other established powers, a major problem when Brazil’s strategy relies on soft power. Its frequent criticism of the present international order limits the chances that such powers will support Brazil’s efforts to play the role in world affairs that it believes it deserves. Consider Brazil’s quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, spearheaded by former President Lula da Silva. The lack of U.S. support for its campaign has been a particular source of tension between Brasília and Washington, even though Brazilian diplomats recognize that Russia and China also oppose Brazilian permanent membership. Here, the contrast with Washington’s support for India’s bid for a permanent seat has been particularly galling for Brazilians.

Changing the Rules or Just Criticizing Them?

Brazil’s ability to act as a major power will depend on its contributions to shaping and enforcing the rules that govern the international order. Two recent episodes highlight the dilemmas Brazil faces: the global financial crisis and international responses to imminent threats to human security. Brazil has consistently privileged the use of diplomacy over all other state capabilities, but its reluctance to assume economic and military costs to contribute to global order prevents it from participating effectively. Moreover, its desire to minimize the role of military power in settling major conflicts, such as those in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, sometimes leads it to propose solutions that are discarded as unrealistic by the established powers.

Brazil had an unprecedented opportunity to insert itself into the heart of international economic and financial governance during the 2008 global financial crisis. The rising powers, which by and large were much less affected by the crisis, garnered even more importance once reform and recapitalization of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) became necessary. The incumbent major powers turned to Brazil, India and China for support after experiencing great economic turmoil, and Brazil was able to negotiate a redistribution of IMF voting weights to better reflect the actual economic power of the member states. Brazil’s role as a key member in the G-20, the small group of states that coordinate international economic policy, indicates that it has joined an exclusive group of major powers at least in the financial domain. This is quite a contrast to Brazil’s stance during the 1980s Latin American debt crisis, when it went along—often grudgingly—with IMF-recommended austerity packages.[17] Brazil’s challenge will be to translate its new institutional weight in the IMF—which has been delayed because of U.S. congressional inaction on altering member country voting rights—into meaningful, positive changes in how the IMF views the developing world and conducts its business.

Since its reluctance to use hard power diminishes its influence over policy outcomes, Brazil has been less successful as a global actor in responding to international security crises. Brazil is frequently critical of the selectivity with which international law is applied by the major powers, especially in cases where the international community intervenes in the internal affairs of states. Brazil’s stance runs counter to the prevailing liberal international order, which is premised on the belief that violations of popular sovereignty and humanitarian crises can at times trump national sovereignty and permit the use of force to pursue humanitarian goals or contain rogue states—and was codified in the concept of Responsibility to Protect.

Brazil’s participation on the Security Council during the 2011–2012 term brought it into direct conflict with this prevailing order.[18] First, Brazil’s decision to caucus with BRICS in the UNSC was not viewed positively by the three other permanent members of the Council. The matter came to a head during the UN response to the conflict in Libya in 2011. Brazil opposed the UN’s authorization of the use of force by NATO to justify an expanded campaign against a broad range of government targets in Libya, leading to the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The expansion of the intervening powers’ objectives in Libya provoked criticism from the BRICS and developing countries that Responsibility to Protect was being used as a cover for regime change.

Brazil, instead, proposed the concept of Responsibility While Protecting (RWP), advocating that before states deploy military force to protect civilians in humanitarian and human rights crises, they carefully consider collateral damage. The U.S. and many European states rejected RWP as unrealistic, thus highlighting the ongoing disagreement between Brazil and the West over norms governing the use of force in response to humanitarian crises.[19] In the end, the initiative, while a major Brazilian diplomatic effort, received scant support among the UNSC powers, demonstrating Brazil’s inability to influence the core security debates among the major powers and shape the rules governing the use of force in the international system.

Reconciling the Rise with Ambition

President Rousseff has some difficult decisions ahead of her in 2015. Brazil needs to implement an economic adjustment plan to address its overvalued currency, persistent inflation, high levels of consumer debt, and slowing economic growth. Brazil’s prospects in the energy sector, particularly the offshore oil field known as the pré-sal, are not as bright as they once seemed. Finally, Rouseff’s thin margin of victory in the 2014 presidential elections indicates that she will preside over a divided country in which the Brazilian middle class will continue to demand improved government effectiveness, efficiency and accountability.

None of these issues present an insurmountable obstacle to Brazil’s rise. Nor do they represent a long-term threat to its success. Brazil has an unprecedented set of opportunities: a large economy, considerable soft power, a lack of regional rivals, and a network of partners among other rising powers and the developing world. But Brazil needs to do a better job of using the hard power it does have—military or economic—while still maintaining its commitment to the norms that have historically guided its foreign policy.

Given that Brazil’s regional security environment is likely to remain peaceful, its shortage of military hard power is likely to endure, and the government is right not to emphasize this dimension. Rather, Brazil should seek another avenue to shape the international order by extending the scope and size of its contributions to international peacekeeping, focusing in particular on developing the types of capabilities that are in short supply among peacekeeping-contributing nations: intelligence, logistics, aviation, communications, command, and control. By developing these capabilities, Brazil would acquire greater influence on the terms under which its peacekeepers deploy and the UN mandates under which they operate.

Brazil can also achieve greater influence by extending the global reach of its humanitarian and development assistance. Brazil currently ranks 23rd among international donors.20 Although Brazil’s overseas development assistance has risen in the past decade, as the seventh largest economy in the world, Brazil should be able to increase its humanitarian aid contributions above the 0.2 percent of gross national income it donated in 2011.[20] Brazil has extensive domestic experience in developing social programs to reduce poverty and foster social inclusion. Through its Agência Brasileira de Cooperaçaõ, it is already using this knowledge in its international assistance programs in the Americas and parts of Africa. It could also expand the reach of its national development bank, BNDES, to fund a broader range of projects overseas and work with the new BRICS bank to ensure that its lending portfolio benefits from Brazil’s domestic experience.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Americas Quarterly.


[1] Andrew F. Hart and Bruce D. Jones, “How Do Rising Powers Rise?,” Survival 52, no. 6 (December 2010): 63–88, doi:10.1080/00396338.2010.540783.

[2] Data for 2012 are drawn from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) statistics http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex/milex_database/copy_of_sources_methods

[3] Hart and Jones, “How Do Rising Powers Rise?,” 68.

[4] S. Tamer Cavusgil and Ilke Kardes, “Brazil: Rapid Development, Internationalization, and Middle Class Formation,” Revista Eletrônica de Negócios Internacionais 8, no. 1 (2013): 1–16.

[5] Seth Colby, Explaining the BNDES: What It Is, What It Does and How It Works, CEBRI Artigos (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Centro Brasileiro de Relações Internacionais, 2012).

[6] Peter Dauvergne and Déborah BL Farias, “The Rise of Brazil as a Global Development Power,” Third World Quarterly 33, no. 5 (June 2012): 903–917, doi:10.1080/01436597.2012.674704.

[7] Jonathan McClory, The New Persuaders III: A 2012 Ranking of Soft Power (London: Institute for Government, 2012). According to the study, it is based on “a broad set of statistical metrics and subjective data (50 metrics in total), comparing countries according to the quality of their government; diplomatic infrastructure; cultural output; capacity for education; and their appeal to business. The data is normalised, grouped into sub-indices, and calculated using our composite index formula to arrive at a single score for each country included in the study.”

[8] Andrew Hurrell, “Brazil and the New Global Order,” Current History 109, no. 724 (February 2010): 60–66.

[9] Lourdes Casanova and Julian Kassum, From Soft to Hard Power: In Search of Brazil’s Winning Blend, Faculty & Research Working Paper (INSEAD, 2013); Andreia Soares e Castro, “2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games: Brazil’s Strategy ‘To Win Hearts and Minds’ Through Sports and Football,” Public Diplomacy, Winter 2013, 28–35.

[10] Celso Lafer, “Brazilian International Identity and Foreign Policy: Past, Present, and Future,” Daedalus 129, no. 2 (2000): 207–38.

[11] Luigi Manzetti, “The Political Economy of MERCOSUR,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 35, no. 4 (1993): 101–141; Arturo C. Sotomayor Velázquez, “Civil-Military Affairs and Security Institutions in the Southern Cone: The Sources of Argentine-Brazilian Nuclear Cooperation,” Latin American Politics and Society 46, no. 4 (Winter 2004): 29–60.

[12] José Antonio Sanahuja, “Multilateralismo Y Regionalismo En Clave Suramericana: El Caso de UNASUR,” Pensamiento Propio 33, Los Desafíos Del Multilateralismo En América Latina (June 2011): 115–158.

[13] Hart and Jones, “How Do Rising Powers Rise?”

[14] Sean W. Burges, “Strategies and Tactics for Global Change: Democratic Brazil in Comparative Perspective,” Global Society 26, no. 3 (July 2012): 351–368, doi:10.1080/13600826.2012.682272.

[15] Daniel Flemes and Thorsten Wojczewski, “Contested Leadership in Comparative Perspective: Power Strategies in South Asia and South America,” Asian Journal of Latin American Studies 24, no. 1 (2011): 1–27.

[16] Andrés Malamud, “A Leader without Followers? The Growing Divergence between the Regional and Global Performance of Brazilian Foreign Policy,” Latin American Politics and Society 53, no. 3 (2011): 1–24; Amaury de Souza, Brazil’s International Agenda Revisited: Perceptions of the Brazilian Foreign Policy Community (Centro Brasileiro de Relações Internacionais, 2008).

[17] Andrew F. Cooper, “The G20 as an Improvised Crisis Committee And/or a Contested ‘steering Committee’ for the World,” International Affairs 86, no. 3 (2010): 741–757; Ngaire Woods, “Global Governance after the Financial Crisis: A New Multilateralism or the Last Gasp of the Great Powers?” Global Policy 1, no. 1 (2010): 51–63.

[18] Amado Luiz Cervo, “Brazil’s Rise on the International Scene: Brazil and the World,” Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional 53, no. SPE (2010): 7–32.

[19] Alcides Costa Vaz, Brazilian Perspectives on the Changing Global Order and Security Challenges, CEPS Working Document (Brussels: Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), February 2013).

[20] “Speak Softly and Carry a Blank Check,” The Economist, July 15, 2010, http://www.economist.com/node/16592455; Global Humanitarian Assistance, Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2013 (Bristol, UK: Development Initiatives, 2013).