In the last decade, the priority of Brazilian foreign policy has been to become an influential and respected global player. The Lula government (2003-10) came to office dedicated to the goal of ending Brazilian shyness in the relationships with neighboring countries and making Brazil a leader of what is sometimes called the Global South, a group of developing and emerging countries of the world.

Under his administration, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva opened dozens of embassies in countries where Brazilian presence and interests are negligible, especially in Africa and started a talking shop with South Africa and India. He also tried to mediate a nuclear agreement with Iran and have a stake in the Israel-Palestinian conflict and strengthened the BRICS summit, along with Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Former President Lula undertook this project with skill, managing to reinforce the relationship with the hard left governments of Venezuela and Cuba without alienating the United States. In the process, he was criticized for becoming too close to dictators in Africa and in Arab countries, something he dismissed based on the tradition of non-interference in Brazilian diplomacy.

His chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, has not been nearly as active in the field of diplomacy partly due to a lack of personal interest, and partly because of economic stagnation that has diminished the lure of Brazil as an emerging power. Still, President Rousseff has kept most of her mentor’s foreign policies.

It can be puzzling, then, that after years of frantic activity, diplomacy occupies such a peripheral part of the presidential campaign which in October will put Rousseff up for re-election for the leftist Workers’ Party (PT) against Social-Democrat Aécio Neves (PSDB), Socialist Marina Silva (PSB), and smaller rivals.

In a way, Brazil is an oddity among big economies. Foreign issues rarely take center stage in the United States or European countries, but are always an important part of the political discourse. The rise of China, terrorism, the Middle East, and more recently new tensions with Russia due to the Ukranie crisis are examples.

In East Asia, China, Japan, and South Korea define their existence in terms of the space each of them will have in the rising Pacific and in how territorial tensions will be managed. India is a nuclear power with rising confidence and democratic credentials. Even South Africa exports its (still imperfect) reconciliation model to other parts of the continent.

One could say Brazil has no enemies or existential threats and that South America is much less troublesome than the Middle East or South Asia. However, Venezuela has the potential to destabilize the whole region, Argentina is melting economically, and Bolivia and Peru are experiencing permanent social unrest—not to mention terrorism, which continues to be a reality in Colombia.

Why, then, does Brazil still behave at times like a “diplomatic dwarf,” as an Israeli spokesperson said recently, in reacting to criticism of attacks on the Gaza Strip?

“Brazil doesn’t have big problems in diplomacy or defense, but not having big problems doesn’t mean not having any problems,” says Rubens Ricupero, a respected career diplomat who has served as Brazilian ambassador in Washington, Finance Minister to Brazil and Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). He mentions that Argentina, Venezuela, and Mercosur, the regional bloc led by Brazil, have "lost credibility” and are nowadays no more than an imperfect trade area.

“Without pending border questions and external threats, the problems of diplomatic and military strategy are of almost exclusive interest to specialists, professionals, journalists, and those that study the field. The larger public could not care less,”says Ricupero.

Ricupero points to another problem: the lack of qualifications of Brazilian authorities. “Diplomatic themes require levels of education above average. It is necessary to know a bit of geography and foreign languages. Who, for example, within Brazilian political life has enough knowledge of English or French to speak directly and without an interpreter with foreign statesmen?”

Sérgio Amaral, another diplomat, who served as a Brazilian ambassador in London and Paris, among other postings abroad, adds the geographical factor. “Our exposition to the outside world is small. The closest border to São Paulo is 2,000 kilometers away. When I lived in Geneva, it was a few minutes bike ride to another country,”says Amaral, who is an adviser to Aécio Neves, a leader of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), twice governor of Minas Gerais and grandson of Tancredo Neves, the first civilian to be elected president after the military dictatorship in 1985.

“We have always been inward-looking. Foreign issues have never been perceived as relevant. This has been changing slowly because of globalization and the advance in communications, but in an electoral campaign, the space for that is still small. It is not in the agenda of the population,” says Amaral.

Say Something Positive

When foreign issues do show up in a political campaign, they are nearly always presented in a negative way. That is, foreign policy is something to be used against one’s opponent and not as an asset for a candidate or as something that can show a potential benefit for the country.

In the 2002 presidential election, José Serra, one of the candidates, memorably created a campaign tune saying that, if elected, he wouldn’t let Brazil “become another Argentina.” Argentina had just defaulted on its external debts, and the implication was that the then opposition candidate, Lula, would lead Brazil to the same path. Lula won the election, and Brazil has not defaulted since.

Today, ironically, Argentina is again a headache after having once again defaulted on sovereign bonds. The Dilma government is accused by the opposition of not standing firm against Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on the issue of trade barriers that have been imposed against Brazilian products.

When foreign issues do show up in a political campaign, they are nearly always presented in a negative way.

Other controversial issues that are regarded negatively by the opposition include support for the Socialist Venezuelan government and the lack of adequate response to the takeover of Crimea by Russia, a partner of Brazil in the BRICS group.

“Foreign policy has some space in the current campaign, but I would say it happens in a distorted way. Both opposition candidates use the subject for ideological reasons. They say, for example, that we have lost influence in the Mercosur, but that is erroneous. We have had great advances in the Mercosur,” says Marco Aurélio Garcia, main foreign-policy advisor for both presidents Lula and Rousseff.

“Foreign policy does not occupy the center of the debate, but it is the pretext for criticizing the government for being dominated by exotic ideologies such as Bolivarianism,” says Garcia, referring to the political philosophy created by former Venezeulan president Hugo Chávez which mixes socialism and nationalism and has been replicated in countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

To that charge, Garcia responds drily, “I don’t even know what exactly Bolivarianism is.”

Foreign policy as a tool of negative campaigning has a long history in Brazilian politics—much older than presidential candidate Jose Serra’s jibe about “not becoming another Argentina.”

Ricupero, whose diplomatic career started in the 1960s, remembers the impact the restoration of relations with the Soviet Union had in 1961, 15 years after they were broken.

“It really had an effect on the anti-communist public. Some themes can sensibilize selected sectors of the electorate,” he says. The re-approximation of Brazil with the Soviet Union and Cuba in the early 1960s was an important part of the political narrative that associated then president João Goulart with the perils of communism. In 1964, with the Cold War as the background, Goulart was deposed in a military coup, and 20 years of right-wing military regime followed.

During World War II, Brazilian President Getulio Vargas also used the influence of the Soviet Union over left wing movements to strengthen his regime and become a dictator. Ironically, he started the war drawing inspiration from fascist Italy, but then switched sides and supported the Allies after being promised investment in Brazil’s nascent heavy industry.

Nothing of this sort happens nowadays, of course, with fascism and the Cold War turned into relics. But the power of the negative discourse in foreign policy over Brazilian politics can never be underestimated.

“Foreign themes work very well when one is interested in the ideologization of politics. They are more general themes that are less directly related to the lives of people than domestic issues and can be explored more easily without getting too much into the details,” affirms Garcia.

Hard to Ignore

Dilma Rousseff’s campaign manifesto reserves less than two of its 42 pages to foreign policy. Her main competitors, Aécio Neves and Marina Silva, have barely mentioned the subject on the campaign trail.

Still, in a continental country such as Brazil, with so many interests in different levels abroad and with growing weight in the international arena, foreign policy proposals cannot be simply ignored.

The candidates do offer some visions of how Brazil would behave in the international arena in the next four years, even if many of them are superficial.

In one aspect, all candidates can agree: the main battlefield is relations toward neighbors.

The president’s message is consistent with her overall political strategy: stay the course, deepen the changes already made, and prevent the opposition from putting in place a “retrocession.”

In one aspect, all candidates can agree: the main battlefield is relations toward neighbors.

“We insist on the issue of South American integration as a factor of economic development. Brazil and other countries face the same production constraints. Commercial and energetic infrastructure are important factors of integration,” says Garcia, who in past campaigns was both chairman of the Workers’ Party and responsible for its presidential manifesto.

Amaral, advisor to Aécio Neves, defends the “de-ideologization” of foreign policy—that is, a move away from the governments of Venezuela and Cuba, for example, who see Dilma and the Worker’s Party as natural allies. “Aécio Neves proposes changes in Brazil’s current trade policies, focusing, for example, on the conclusion of an agreement between Mercosur and the European Union,”says Amaral.

Neves would also have, says his advisor, a “more constructive approach toward the Pacific Alliance,” a rival Latin American trade bloc that comprises Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico and is seen by many as more liberal than Mercosur. Amaral compares the competing blocs to a new version of the Treaty of Tordesillas which divided the new colonies of the Americas between Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century.

As Amaral says, many of the principles defended by Neves would be similar to those put in practice by former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) from the same party.

One can predict a change in priorities from a Neves presidency, but smaller than could be expected. Free from the leftist solidarity that Rousseff must keep towards her colleagues, Neves would probably be less patient toward Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, or Bolivia’s Evo Morales. He could be more vocal, for example, when denouncing the violent repression of opponents in Venezuela. But his hands would be tied by the immense economic interests Brazil has in all of these countries which prevent a complete severing of relations.

Under a Neves presidency, the relationship with the United States would probably improve, if only because it cannot get any worse. True, much of the blame lies with the Americans, who spied on Rousseff and other governmental authorities and interests, as was revealed by former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden.

However, some sort of greater focus on the rich world developed countries (United States, European Union and Japan), still Brazil’s largest trading partner, could be expected. Consequently, a move away from the South-South rhetoric is likely. “The South-South strategy has not brought any results. Despite all that has been said and done by this government, trade with Africa is still five percent of everything we trade as has always been the case,”says Amaral.

Neves would travel a lot less to African and Asian countries than Lula did (as, incidentally Rousseff has done as well). Foreign policy would likely be more modest. There would be no more trying to mediate a nuclear agreement with Iran, for example.

Marina Silva, who has tried to present herself as a “third way” between the campaigns of Rousseff and Neves, proposes “corrections on the current foreign policy path,” but does not offer anything radical. A former member of the inner cicle and cabinet of Lula,and a dissident of the Workers’Party, Silva seeks to be an alternative to the current government without scaring away the popular base of President Rousseff.

“Brazil must be more assertive on foreign policy,” says Maurício Rands, a former congressman who is responsible for writing her election platform. “It is not conceivable that Brazil, one of the ten largest economies in the world, has such a small share of global trade. We want to put Brazil as an inductor of global sustainable development,” declares Rands.

For the Silva campaign, “sustainable development” is an important concept. She is, after all, a former Environmental Minister who ran a strong presidential campaign four years ago, garnering 20% of the vote in the first round. As a consequence, environmental issues figure prominently in the campaign.

In her campaign manifesto, Silva also promises to be firm on the defense of human rights around the world, on multilateralism, and on the reform of global institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations Security Council of which a permanent seat on the council is the most desired foreign policy prize for Brazilian diplomats.

She is critical of “parallel diplomacy,” that is, the outsourcing of foreign policy to presidential advisers (including Garcia) and politicians. Silva promises, thus, to strengthen the power of Itamaraty, as the Foreign Ministry is known, long seen as home of the brightest and most capable minds of the public administration, but recently demoralized by budget cuts.

She also attacks the lack of meaningful participation of the government in free trade talks, stating in the manifesto that “there is no justification for the reluctance of the current government to open new fronts for trading goods and services.” Under Lula and Rousseff, Brazil has abandoned negotiation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas and is slowly trying to reopen one with the European Union. She indicates that she could abandon Argentina and the main partners of Mercosur should they slow down the process and pursue a direct negotiation between Brazil and the EU.

As for BRICS, Silva promises to include issues such as respect for human rights as a condition for dealing with China and Russia, something that has drawn criticism from the Rousseff camp, since it could risk Brazil’s exports to these countries.

No to the American Decline

Throughout her term, President Dilma Rousseff has defended a new, multi-polar world which has often been attacked for being as a sort of anti-Americanism in disguise. As a Latin American country, Brazil has a strong tradition of resentment toward the perceived imperialism of the United States, even if it is a less pronounced feeling than exists, for example, in Mexico and Central America.

When Rousseff canceled a state visit to the United States after the spying scandal in 2013, many accused her of ignoring the huge mutual interests between the two countries—ranging from scientific cooperation to business opportunities and the fight against drug trafficking—in the name of atavic feelings against the “yankees.”

In fact, it would be difficult for any president, left or right, to have kept the state visit after such shocking revelations. It was one of the rare occasions when virtually the whole country was solidly behind a foreign policy decision.

Garcia, Rousseff’s advisor, claims that the current government has no anti-American feelings. “We do not believe in the narrative of the inevitable American decline,” he says.

According to Garcia, during the campaign, the spying scandal is not being mentioned even though no Brazilian politician has ever lost political points by looking tough on the Americans. “We may only mention it in a more general context, such as the defense of internet security,” he says.

In a government that has been substantially less willing to engage in new diplomatic initiatives than Lula’s or even Cardoso’s, President Rousseff has one undeniable trophy. Under her management, the BRICS group has taken off from being a mere forum to a meaningful institution. The last summit, in Fortaleza, in Brazil’s northeastern region, ended with the creation of a bank with US$100 billion in assets and a mechanism to rescue countries with balance of payment problems that is intended as an alternative to the IMF.

This is something that Rousseff can boast about in a campaign even though she was mildly attacked by the opposition for appearing in Fortaleza side-by-side, all smiles with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, just fresh from his annexation of Crimea (an issue which Brazil has abstained from condemning). Still, it is a tiny triumph to hold in a Brazilian electoral campaign for a country with such grand foreign policy ambitions.

For those who despair of the lack of a meaningful debate about foreign policy in the current electoral cycle, there might be consolation in the fact that it foreign policy discourse is being embedded in other, more political, aspects of the campaign. One of the government’s flagship programs, Mais Médicos (More Doctors) is a partnership with other countries with the purpose of attracting professionals to tiny locations and peripheries in Brazil, were recruiting doctors is difficult.

By far, the largest number of foreign doctors that took part are Cuban, who receive only a fraction of the salary paid by the Brazilian government (the rest goes to the Cuban Treasury). Roussefs’s supporters are eager to point to a practical benefit of decades of friendship with the communist island, but the opposition has pointed to the immoral financial supporting of the Cuban dictatorship via a well-intentioned health program. It is, however, more of a debate on internal policy than one of pure diplomacy.

Another recent example is the tough line taken by the government against Israel in the offensive on the Gaza Strip, a stance that led to the charge of Brazil as a “diplomatic dwarf.” It has been interpreted as a necessary gesture to placate Rousseff’s left-wing base, always disappointed by her pro-market economic policies. “This decision indicates that the president judges that it probably helps her campaign with the electorate that she must mobilize: Workers’ Party militants and the left in general,” points Ricupero.


Debate in the field of foreign policy in Brazil is still incipient despite the new clout the country has acquired on the international stage in the last decade or so. In contrast with other global and regional powers, foreign policy is largely ignored in electoral campaigns such as the current presidential race.

This may be in part because of the non-existence of immediate threats or challenges to Brazil even though there is no lack of problems in the country’s natural sphere of influence.

Historically, whenever foreign policy issues have surfaced in the political debate, they have tended to be used negatively, rarely as positive accomplishments. Still, it is possible to see a few themes having a role in the current presidential debate. The future of Mercosur, the relationship with the United States, the support of Venezuela and Cuba, and the BRICS forum are just a few of these contentious themes.

It will take time, however, for foreign policy to take its natural place in a presidential campaign in Brazil.