Brazil will experience a presidential transition in the coming months. As president Lula steps down, along with his unequivocal charisma and popularity, many ponder if its increasingly more assertive foreign policy will change. The perception of political stability combined with sustainable economic growth has seemed to unleash Brazil's desire—and potential—to become a more influential player on the international stage. Foreign policy, in that sense, has unequivocally acquired a more salient role in Brazil’s political life.
According to the September 2010 Pew Research poll, 77% of Brazilians believe that the country already is (24%) or will eventually become (53%) a superpower. Another opinion poll conducted earlier this year (Ibope, March 2010) shows that five of the six most remembered news by Brazilians in that period were somehow related to foreign policy: Lula's trip to Haiti (mentioned by 12%), Lula's trips abroad (12%), Lula's trip to Cuba (7%), secretary Hillary Clinton's visit to Brasilia (6%), and Lula's comments on the Iranian nuclear program (5%).
Interestingly, foreign policy issues have been pushed to the electoral arena. José Serra, the main presidential candidate from the opposition, has heightened the tone of his attacks towards president Lula and his administration for not confronting Evo Morales, despite the increasing flow of illegal drugs from Bolivia, and denouncing an alleged link between the president's Workers' Party (PT) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Dealings between Lula’s government and authoritarian regimes such as Cuba and Iran have also been questioned.
These issues resonate with the electorate because they have a domestic dimension as well. Voters are concerned with illegal drugs, crime and social conflict. The known ties between criminal gangs in major Brazilian cities (mainly in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro) and drug cartels in the region and the increasing inflow of illegal immigrants to the country (mostly from Bolivia) raise the question of border control by the federal government. Also, as Brazilian investments abroad grow, political instability in neighboring countries becomes an increasing source of concern for businesses.
But the issue has a deeper side. Although it is unquestionable that Lula's charisma and leadership played an important part in boosting Brazil's international visibility, there is more to Brazil's rise than Lula's popularity bubble and his frequent use of presidential diplomacy. Brazil is in a long-term process of asserting itself internationally, translating economic power into political clout. Lula's hyperactive presidential diplomacy, which fuels most of the foreign policy rhetoric and some of its actions, sometimes obfuscates this fundamental aspect.
Brazil's recent stance on the Iranian nuclear program, for example, deviated from the traditional approach and was motivated by Lula's interest to exploit the situation and gain more visibility to Brazil. Similar arguments can be made to explain the somewhat lenient stance on human rights when dealing with authoritarian or repressive regimes in several African and Arab countries, as well as in Cuba and Venezuela. Oftentimes there is also the commercial interest that clearly outweighs any concern about democratic malpractices. In all these instances, Lula's presidential diplomacy played a crucial role in steering a traditionally risk-averse and professional diplomacy to uncharted territory.
So what will all this mean after President Lula steps down? Initially, without the drive of Lula's international popularity, it is reasonable to expect some deflation of the assertive rhetoric and its repercussions, a behavior that will probably result in some return of the country's foreign policy to more institutional grounds, led by the foreign ministry. However, the main challenge for Lula's successor would be to find the balance between a less flamboyant and ideologically-drive foreign policy, without seeming to be less ambitious. Brazil will likely play a stronger and even more controversial role at the G-20 and U.N., but it is likely to be more cautious on issues on which President Lula was criticized abroad. How will the electorate respond to this new mix is uncertain. But if public opinion supports the new strategy, Brazil will likely move forward in the direction of relevance and superpower status.