What Brazil contributes to the international liberal order

Of the rising democracies Ted Piccone considers in his important new book, Brazil perhaps best exemplifies the gap between making progress on democracy, human rights, and social inclusion at home and contributing to their spread abroad. Brazil makes the principles of non-intervention and sovereign equality the cornerstones of its foreign policy, which makes it reluctant to advocate vigorously for the values and principles that undergird its domestic politics. But the findings of Piccone’s book also highlight an important question: If not a liberal international order that values democracy and human rights, then what order do emerging powers such as Brazil want?

On board with norms

Brazil has historically pursued twin ambitions vis-à-vis the international order: democratizing the existing international institutions and revising the system so as to constrain great power unilateralism. Like all rising powers, Brazil would like multilateral institutions to give greater voice to powers such as itself. But Brazil also wants an international order where the United States and other great powers do not resort to unilateral intervention or coercive tactics. Brazil is skeptical of the ability of external powers to promote humanitarian values, democracy, and human rights in troubled polities, pointing to the poor outcomes of interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria to underscore its point.

But it is important to remember that on a range of other principles that also undergird the international order—such as the ban on aggressive war, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and support for a global market-based economy—Brazil is largely supportive, and much more so than countries such as China and Russia. So there is room for a new consensus on the international order among rising and developed democracies.

[O]n a range of other principles that also undergird the international order…Brazil is largely supportive, and much more so than countries such as China and Russia.

What is not yet fully clear yet is the nature of the bargain that could be struck to strengthen the liberal international order. To accomplish this, as Piccone suggests, the developed democracies would have to rethink their approach to exercising power, and the rising democracies will have to come off the sidelines and pay more of the costs of supporting a new compact and providing global public goods. Two recent examples provide hope that reaching such a deal is possible: global Internet governance and global climate change. 

On global Internet governance, Brazil spent more than a decade backing Russian and Chinese critiques of the present U.S.-centric Internet governance regime. But more recently, President Dilma Rousseff reversed course and took advantage of the Snowden surveillance scandal to reposition Brazil as a champion of Internet freedom. And the United States and Brazil are now converging on a new approach that internationalizes the present multi-stakeholder governance model while at the same time strengthening the Internet freedom agenda. 

Similarly, at COP21 in Paris, Brazil repositioned itself to de-emphasize cooperation with the BASIC coalition (which includes China) and instead joined the High Ambition Coalition seeking more dramatic efforts to limit the rise in global temperatures. Brazil has been recognized for playing a key role in the success of the COP21 and has secured global support for contributions to mitigating climate change that are also acceptable to constituents at home.

The soft power game

There is more that Brazil could do to influence the debates that will shape the future of the liberal international order. Brazil, because of its largely peaceful history and its geostrategic isolation, has relied far more on soft power (the power of attraction) than on hard power (the power to compel) to advance its global interests. Because of this, Brazil will not be able (nor shows any desire) to compel the incumbent powers to accept the changes it wants in the present international order. 

This means Brazil needs to be smart about enhancing the effect of its soft power on the world’s great democracies. Here is where more vigorous support for democracy and human rights abroad can contribute to Brazil’s soft power, if only by signaling that Brazil recognizes and seeks different objectives in the international order from authoritarian powers such as China and Russia. It is this recent emphasis on collaboration with authoritarian powers that has raised suspicions in the world’s great democracies about Brazil’s intentions, and there is no advantage for Brazil in doing so. Brazil can perfectly well pursue sound commercial relations with China (for example) while at the same time supporting democracy and human rights abroad, as many other democracies already do.

Brazil, because of its largely peaceful history and its geostrategic isolation, has relied far more on soft power…than on hard power.

Brazil’s recent political and economic troubles also highlight the importance of protecting the achievements of democracy at home as a foundation for successful soft power abroad. Although it now faces an economic recession, Brazil made dramatic progress on reducing poverty and expanding the middle class. For a decade, it exemplified the democratic route to development in sharp contrast to China. This is highly attractive internationally for the democratic great powers, and protecting the gains that it has made while resolving its domestic crises will only enhance Brazil’s soft power and influence. And in fact, Brazil’s democracy remains fully consolidated, far more so than in some of the other countries discussed in “Five Rising Democracies.” Its economy will undoubtedly recover in due course. 

And there is a silver lining to the present political scandal surrounding the national oil company, Petrobras: Brazilian federal prosecutors and police are indicting and imprisoning dozens of the most powerful business and political leaders in their country on corruption charges. Although presently a source of much anguish and outrage, this scandal, properly and legally resolved, offers the prospect that Brazil may one day add a successful fight against corruption and impunity to the great political and social progress it has already made.

For a summary of the argument Ted Piccone makes in his new book, “Five Rising Democracies,” see his recent post here.