The many possibilities that identity studies generate to understand countries or cultures and their behavior at the international arena are one of the great things about the recent come back of subjectivity in the Social Sciences. In fact, there is no doubt that what we do and create says a lot about what we are and how we think about the world we live in, and vice-versa. In a Freudian sense, thinking about how we see the other and the unknown is pretty much a way to go deep into ourselves.
Hence, I argue here that the idea Brazilians have about the world was traditionally informed by the historical economic development model the country has put forward from 1930 to 1989, based on a nationalist ideology that has built a political consensus around the objectives pursued by successive governments during this period. In 1989, however, this framework suffered some changes with the internationalist turn and the end of the Cold War in Brazil, and the country’s practice concerning the international moved from a relative isolation to a compulsory participation.
The result of this historical path is the combination of a nationalist perspective of the world with the need to participate, a vision of the international as a fearful arena where the country should limitedly fight for its interests with a need to be part of the every day building of the international system. This mixture has produced a notion that allies the perception of an unfair international environment (constructed on unequal terms) with the Brazilian myth of working hard (and being victorious) against hash difficulties.
In this sense, fighting for a fairer international politics is not only in the country’s national interest, as a middle power. Pursuing its national interests is also a way to create a fairer international environment, where middle (and smaller) powers could be heard. In addition, Brazil expects to grant the support of the weak assuming it represents them against the rigidities of the international order. In fact, the end of the Cold War in the country allied the concept of international justice with the Brazilian national aspirations for greatness. Due to all that, I will try to conclude here that the best way to convince Brazilian decision-makers, elites and and citizens of the need to cooperate internationally is to radically democratize the international institutions and framework.
What we do/how we see
Brazilian industrialization process started around the 1930s and was based on the need for breaking the chain that connected the country to the world as an agricultural exporter. It was an ideological rupture with the liberal arguments of free trade and productivity, as much as an embracement of the interventionist idea of a very strong state running a whole industrialization process for the country. From a nationalist perspective, the economic process put into practice could also break Brazil’s “dependency” from foreign production, and would place Brazil side by side with the industrialized nations, the great powers.
The economic development model and the nationalist ideology combined led to some very peculiar positions of the Brazilian foreign policy. Until 1989, Brazil was out of the most important international regimes concerning, for example, trade, nuclear proliferation and intellectual property. The country praised some “independency” related to the United States during the Cold War and fiercely competed against Argentina for the regional hegemony.
This historical path led to the 1980s debt crisis, a huge inflationary process, one of the worst income concentrations of the world and the terrible neglect of public services in social areas as education, health care, public security and access to justice, but it also has placed Brazil in the hall of the ten strongest economies of the globe. In addition, it consolidated the idea that the international arena should be a place for the country to act limitedly, or not to establish any commmitments that could negatively influence the economic development plan and the process of strengthening Brazilian relative position. Joining a nuclear regime, for example, as the Non-Proliferation Treaty, was perceived more as a limitation to progress than a pacifist policy.
The end of the Cold War in Brazil
The Brazilian political, social and economic crises of the 1980s and the global changes during the last quarter of the 20th century – the fluctuation of the dollar, the raise of the international interest rates, the oil shocks, the economic globalization and the dismantle of the Soviet Union and the old East European regimes – contributed to the noteworthy ideological changes in Brazil. Hence, 1989 is a very special year. While communism was crumbling behind the Iron Curtain and social catastrophe was knocking on Brazilians’ doors, the country was experiencing the first democratic presidential elections since the military coup in 1964. Twenty-two candidates were running for president at that very moment, including the current president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, and the elections took place in November (first round) and December (second round) of 1989.
Unsurprisingly, the presidential campaign generated a political debate of gigantic proportions. The whole situation and history of the country was questioned. This was our “revolution”, our yellow and green revolution that should be perceived more as the end of the Cold War in the country than a byproduct of this process – in a way that opens the possibility for including Brazil in the comparative studies of this peculiar historical moment. After all, for example, both Brazil and the Soviet Union perceived their economies as technologically lagged and their relative position as deteriorating with the economic globalization process that they were not participating.
After 1989, Brazil changed radically its international profile – and this is, in my view, together with the democratization process, the seed for the widely praised current situation of the country. Brazil slowly commited itself to the trade, nuclear proliferation, the environment and intellectual property international regimes, even though sometimes in a limited or critical way. It opened itself for the international finance and radically diminished the direct role of the state in its domestic economy. A huge privatization process generated private business stars such as Embraer, the aeronautic exporter, and the giant of the mineral sector Vale do Rio Doce, now called simply Vale.
Among all these changes, one of the main notions this “revolution” has put in place was of “international participation”. Brazil could no longer be out of the political debate concerning the international regimes, as it could no longer be out of the globalization process. On the contrary, the country should participate in as many forums as possible, defending its interests and an exceptionalist behavior. At this very moment, the nationalist tradition and the need to participate created a mix of a realist fight for selfish interests with the need to have more voice in the system. This behaviour was deeply linked to the discourse in defense of the democratization of the decision making process at the international level, and the strategy adopted aimed at fulfilling Brazil's self interests as a middle power country as well as served as a mechanism to gain foreign support from the numerous nations in similar positions or those with even more limited capabilities.
Brazil’s role in the WTO debates concerning the Doha Round, for example, is very representative of this point. As the leader of the developing world at the G20 forum, Brazil represents its own interests by calling for a wider liberalization of the international agriculture market and the end of the subsidies practices. At the same time, advocates to the great powers for a fairer trade system, in which less developed countries could also profit from international commerce.
The plea for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council follows the same logic, and also the country’s position concerning global environmental rules and intellectual property – as in the breaking of patents of HIV medicines, for example. All of these moves ally Brazilian interests with the intention to fracture what is seen as an elitist framework of international politics and economics. Hence, wealthy and power nations have to do their material and political sacrifices for the world to become fairer and more equal. Even the timid and controversial defense of Iran’s nuclear program fits this model, since the issue is sensible for the Brazilian decision makers and is perceived as an intervention of the great powers in a middle power national project.
In conclusion, my argument is that Brazil’s historical path led the country to a perception of the international environment as an unfair arena in which one should work hard and struggle for its interests and survival, and that this same struggle is perceived by Brazilians as a way to build a fairer and better world. Curiously, this representation fits very well into the characters presented at the most famous contemporary Brazilian movies, praised particularly in Europe, as Central do Brasil and Cidade de Deus.
The only way that the Brazilian decision-makers and political elite could favor a more cooperative behavior for the country at the international realm would be through a radical transformation of the international institutional framework in a way that the global political environment could be perceived as a more democratic arena. This would be, for sure, shared by a public opinion used to see the world as a very unfair place where the rich and great powers are always trying to gain against the weaker peoples.
The materialization of this idea would be, for example, to accomplish the reform of the UN Security Council, new efforts from the United States and Europe concerning the developmental agenda of the Doha Round, new postures within the environmental debate that take into account the position of late developers and, the unlikely and radically, the global nuclear disarmament. Unfortunately, in my view, this is the only way nationalism can be defeated in Brazil in favor of globalism, or the important Brazilian cooperation in global issues.