Brazil After Rousseff: The Americas’ First Strategy

Condoleeza Rice, former Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, wrote in 2008 about the need to recognize what national interest meant in the conduct of US foreign relations. America has always been successful in combining realism and idealism, taking the values of American foreign policy and reconciling them the real decisions we have to make about protecting core values. Furthermore, Rice claimed “power” in foreign affairs is defined not just by military and economic strength, but by the technological and cultural capacity to influence those around you. For this reason, it is why Russia (and to a lesser degree, China) is both a strategic threat and strategic partner in Eurasia. Rice’s viewpoint applies also to the rising powers in areas of the globe like Africa and Latin America, including areas where American dominance and leadership have been assumed. These rising powers should warrant greater concern in the 21st century American foreign policy, for which Latin America should warrant special attention.

In the coming decades, Brazil may come to challenge that long taught narrative of assumed US leadership in the western hemisphere, promulgated through the Monroe Doctrine that rejected European colonialism. Petrogate, according to Moises Costa, provides a unique opportunity to audit the strength of the democratic government established in 1988, as the popular response is to begin cleaning Brasilia’s corrupt central government without the threat of military takeover or street violence. While Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and removal from office is not entirely guaranteed, the crisis demonstrates the country’s continued endurance as a rising democracy. It is also living proof the Latin American narrative taught in US schools and academic circles is changing. The continent is no longer necessarily the land of autocratic generals, nor the playground or sphere of influence of America. Yet, we are still teaching a rising generation of young Americans about a very dated and risky worldview that ignores simple truths; that US leadership in the region risks being eroded in the long-term as Brazilian democracy endures and grows to replace America’s presence in the Western Hemisphere.

Brazil’s Un-Crisis

The word Petrobras has become a word synonymous with corruption and scandal. Dilma Rousseff’s “Petrogate” has opened the floodgates of corruption that spilled into all levels of government, and stretched back to Lula de Silva and the business and political elite. The high courts have been busy prosecuting large numbers of legislators, executive staffers, and contractors who have profited from the illegal oil contracts set up by construction companies in exchange for funneling money back to Brasilia. De Silva, and now Eduardo Cunha, speaker of Brazilian lower house, are being prosecuted, demonstrating, as Costa points out, to the autonomy of the functioning judiciary. In spite of the economic downturns that have exposed Petrogate and the familiar corruption of Brazilian governance, the talk of reforms and anti-corruption has dominated the national debate. No such calls for a return to military rule have been issued. The Impeachment efforts against Rousseff for the Petrobras Scandal should be viewed less as a Brazilian decline but more as a test of its democratic institutions and stability of its politics.

The country has a long history of elites controlling the political system, from the early days of the Empire to the long period of dictatorial rule under Guitelio Vargas, and the military rulers of the 70s and 80s. The Brazilian political elite have always sought a larger role for the country in Latin America, and the country has since promoted itself as a Latin American power. Rousseff’s lack of interest in foreign policy has led to a Brazilian retreat from the spotlight, an event directly contradicting a long tradition of Brazilian ambitions for global leadership (ex. Permanent Seat on the Security Council, more say in nuclear proliferation). The demonstrations, while sparked by the impeachment process, are symptomatic of a larger rebellion by conservative elites and angry working class citizens feeling betrayed by Rousseff’s Worker’s Party. Broken promises on economic stability and Brazilian power maybe energizing a return of conservative political forces to Brasilia, whom former President Lula accused of manipulating the suffering of workers for political payback. But unlike 1964, the crisis presents no danger of overthrowing the democratic system which insulates decisionmaking in a delicate balance of mob-rule and oligarchy.

The Diplomatic Deficit

Today’s schools still teach students about the Monroe Doctrine and its “Roosevelt Corollary,” both describing a dark past of our country’s military adventurism into Latin America, and the covert coups and assassinations that were hallmarks of the Cold War paranoia of communist infiltration. Before President Obama’s open talks with Cuba, US policy was about sidelining the harshest Latin America critics of US foreign policy through cutting them off from US economic cooperation while cooperating with those who would stand with Washington. As noted by the Economist, American domestic politics reflects the Monroe Attitude of “having your cake and eating it too,” building big trade deals like NAFTA that benefit Latin American states, but waging a Trumpist assault on illegal immigrants fleeing poverty and war caused indirectly by US economic and security policies. No group of countries have we questioned our relationships more strongly, generating a major diplomatic deficit through which Cuba is a focal point of closing.

(See HARD CHOICES FOR US FOREIGN POLICY for more on US Smart Diplomacy)

The danger of such a deficit is that it can be filled with another rising Latin American power with a compelling national narrative and a focused diplomatic strategy that aims to rival American economic and cultural power. Because we emphasize military dimensions of foreign policy far more than diplomacy, we forget statecraft is truly multidimensional and multifaceted. Here, Brazil has traditionally succeeded through its commitment to regional diplomacy in MERCOSUR, alongside its international role in the BRICS bloc. The narrative of Brazilian democracy coming after a long history of being seat to an imperial family, experimented in Republicanism, and then rising from military dictatorship to the largest democracy in the world rivals the United States. The lack of effort to build cultural understandings between Americans and neighbors in the region threatens to widen this deficit, especially as Americans continue to think of Brazil as just part of the Monroe jigsaw puzzle. Sanford Ungar described the real decline in American students studying abroad, learning foreign languages, or building cross-cultural understandings as part of this problem. By not addressing it, we are contributing to the marxist narrative perpetuated by the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, the Castro regime in Cuba, and others who view America as the aloof imperialist.

The Southern NATO?

Economic and political crises come and go, and normalcy will return. What grand strategists need to think about now is what our position will look like when the crisis is over. Here is where Washington needs to be worried. Dilma Rousseff is not an foreign policy president. She has largely focused on Brazilian economic development, through which she is failing, and will likely be removed from office. But Rousseff is not indicative of the Brazilian elite, which has traditionally desired Brazil take a larger leadership role in the world. Brazil’s “South-South” leadership remains a cornerstone of Brasilia’s leadership, and the next series of Brazilian leaders will likely deflect the crisis fallout towards a more activist and Bismarckian foreign policy. Like Russia, Brazil is strong within Latin America, and the continued depression of the global economy, rise of the far right in the west, and uncertainty about American leadership after 2016 may leave Brazil to challenge US hegemony in a very meaningful way.

The Post-Obama years should not be limited to renewing the alliances with Europe and Asia, which have been pillars of lasting peace since World War II. As the trend of sharing responsibility for security with allies continues in the wake of American weakness, we need to reinvent the Monroe Doctrine by expanding on existing foundations for leadership in the region. By pursuing President Obama’s agenda of opening Cuba, we will improve our standing among Latin American states and show that Americans are willing to change with the times. Going further, we should work with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico to create the “Southern NATO.” A Latin American Atlantic Treaty Organization (LAATO) would place the United States in a partnership with our strongest allies in the Americas, transitioning from an “America First” stance on Latin America to an “Americas’ First” doctrine. The two largest democracies in the world joined together in the name of collective security and progress towards great economic diplomatic cooperation would be a strategic achievement in global diplomacy. It would also be a domestic achievement, showing progress in line with our foreign policy narrative and renew our partnerships with our Latin American allies.

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