Notes on the evolution of Brazilian multilateral diplomacy.

Author:Fonseca, Gelson, Jr.
Position:Essay
 
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The article describes the evolution of Brazilian multilateralism since the First Pan American Conference in 1889. The impact of the domestic and international spheres are examined to understand the continuities and changes in Brazil multilateral attitudes. In our days, the increasing influence of Brazil international presence, especially in multilateral forums, is evident. The open question is how the emerging countries will influence the new international order. KEYWORDS: Brazil, foreign policy, United Nations, multilateralism.

IT IS EVIDENT THAT, AS A RESULT OF THEIR ECONOMIC GROWTH AND POLITICAL maturation, a number of countries once cast as merely "developing" have emerged over the past two decades as consequential international actors. Among the most prominent are Brazil, India, China, Turkey, South Africa, and Indonesia. A restored Russia, emerging from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, is generally seen and sees itself as a member of this cohort. Collectively, they promise to play a progressively more important role in determining the shape of global governance.

It is equally evident that effective and sustainable responses to the great transnational challenges of our time, including climate change, armed conflict, terrorism, gross violations of human rights, and uneven and unstable economic globalization, have to be universal in breadth and broadly perceived as legitimate. Multilateralism in some form is the natural and necessary means for confronting these challenges.

The difficulties and precariousness of extant multilateral institutions are well known. With their newly acquired influence, will the emerging powers move the world order in a better direction? Can we reasonably hope for stronger multilateral institutions? These questions require long and necessarily speculative answers. To the end of throwing some light on present problems and prospects for addressing them, this essay focuses on only one of the moving parts that is shaping the future; namely, Brazil. Specifically, I inquire how the Brazilian attitude toward multilateralism has evolved in the face of its own internal challenges and those that engage the entire world.

To cope with today's complex realities, Brazil has participated in the creation of new multilateral forums: Brazil, Russia, India, China (BRIC); India, Brazil, and South Africa Forum (IBSA); and Group of 20 (G-20). But in Brazil's view of the world, regional and other limited number forums are not a substitute for the universal forum that is the United Nations. It remains the preeminent multilateral institution. This view of the UN could be called the core of Brazilian multilateral ideology. And while it may not be unique to Brazil, it is nevertheless a key to understanding Brazil's multilateral diplomacy.

Seminal Moments in the Making of Brazil's Multilateral Principles

The multilateral focus was a constant in Brazilian diplomacy even before the creation of the UN's predecessor, the League of Nations. To be precise, that focus first appeared in 1889 when Brazil attended a meeting of Western Hemisphere countries in Washington, DC, convened by President Grover Cleveland. The meeting turned out to be the embryo of the Organization of American States (OAS). By participating in this meeting, Brazil implicitly accepted multilateralism as a useful means for advancing its national interests. At the same time, however, it demonstrated its determination to resist multilateral commitments inconsistent with its perceived self-interest by joining with other Latin American countries in rejecting the US government's proposal of a continental free-trade zone.(1)

While opposing that particular US initiative, Brazil regarded amiable relations with the United States as very much in the national interest. Consistent with that view, in 1906 it consolidated what both sides perceived to be an "unwritten alliance" with the United States. The essence of the understanding at the heart of that alliance was that the United States would help Brazil defend itself from European threats and would also support Brazil in the event that it encountered diplomatic problems with its neighbors. In exchange, Brazil would generally support the United States with respect to issues that arose between it and other Latin American states. A case in point was the controversy over the so-called Drago Doctrine, which purported to bar the use of military means by one state to force payment of its debts (normally to foreign bondholders) by another, a doctrine strongly supported by most other Latin states and particularly by Brazil's principal neighbors.

Overall, while as noted above Brazil was not hostile to multilateral diplomacy, it approached with great caution any proposals of a multilateral character; in particular, proposals that would commit Brazil indefinitely to a system of obligatory arbitration of disputes and proposals for various disarmament schemes. This caution reflected a still relatively weak state's sense of risks to its national sovereignty, a sovereignty achieved a little later (in 1822) than in the case of other Latin states after Brazil's short period as part of the United Kingdom of Portugal and Algarves (1815-1822).

Throughout the twentieth century, Brazilian diplomacy was informed by a sense that it was not yet one of the major powers that at any given time could define the rules constraining state behavior in a way to advance their interests as they saw them, whether or not the rules coincidentally advance the general interest of the international community. Remaining aloof from the norm-making process was seen as a bad option. At the same time, however, Brazil's foreign policy elite believed that an optimal diplomacy meant participating actively in the norm-making process while being careful to avoid potentially dangerous constraints. Manifest even trumpeted sensitivity about threats to its sovereign discretion was seen as part of a strategy of participation in multilateral fora. The defense of sovereignty and its consequences for international order, as equality of states, was one of the traits of that balancing act between multilateral commitment and a permanent effort for preserving and strengthening political autonomy.

Brazil's behavior at the Hague Peace Conference of 1907 illustrates this strategic approach to multilateral diplomacy. Despite the overall alignment of their foreign policies, on certain key issues at the conference the Brazilian and US positions diverged. The latter strongly supported the creation of the International Prize Court and the Court of Arbitral Justice.2 Brazil did not object to the creation of the two institutions, but was concerned about the unbalanced manner by which the major powers intended to define the composition of the courts. The debate ended up going beyond the jurisdiction of the courts to the fundamental question for the international order: how to decide on who decides in international institutions. The choice was clear: the control of the decision process was based either on a country's power or on international law, which dictates that every country is juridicially equal.

According to former foreign minister Celso Lafer, that Hague moment coincided with the beginning of Brazil's "questioning the exclusive management of the world order by the major powers," an attitude that became even more pronounced during the Versailles Conference of 1919. At the outset of the conference, Brazil successfully opposed a procedural rule that distinguished between countries with general interests (the United States, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Japan) and countries with limited interests, which would have allowed the latter to participate only in sessions that dealt with their direct interests. Lafer posits, "The affirmation that Brazil has general interests, that is, a view of the world and how it should be organized and that this view is important to preserve . . . the specific interests of the country, became a defining trait of the Brazilian identity in the 20th century."(3)

A third seminal moment of Brazilian multilateralism occurred during the negotiation on the creation of the Permanent Court of International Justice established by the League of Nations Covenant. One of the contentious issues was the jurisdictional consequences of becoming a member of the court. Would adhesion imply an obligation for a state to submit all of its judicial disputes to the court? The issue was divisive and some countries rejected peremptorily any possibility of accepting mandatory rulings by the court. Brazil's proposed compromise, which in the end enabled the establishment of the new court, was the so-called optional clause that allowed each state party to the treaty creating the court to decide whether to accept compulsory jurisdiction to some greater or lesser degree, if at all. That clause is now embodied in the Statute of the Permanent Court's successor, the International Court of Justice. As Lafer explains, "the principle of equality of States was preserved and the interests of major or minor powers were safeguarded."(4) This episode began to delineate a possible role for Brazil in multilateral forums; namely, mediating and creating bridges between highly contentious positions.

Another seminal moment took place in the 1920s, when Brazil tried to obtain a permanent seat on the council of the League of Nations, the UN's predecessor. In 1926, its effort was thwarted by a decision of the European powers to award the seat to Germany as part of the process of reintegrating Germany into the established order. So Brazil decided within the following year to withdraw entirely from the League. This episode evidences a point when Brazil was still a young and relatively weak state with an aspiration to become an important actor in the international arena and a readiness to pay significant diplomatic costs in order to make that aspiration become a reality.(5)

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