What happened to Brazil’s Foreign Policy during Dilma Rousseff’s first mandate?


The end of the Cold War imposed new dynamics to the world. International Relations no longer have the ideological bias from the Cold War times, and have therefore become more flexible in the sense that states begin to establish relationships with key strategic partners taking into account their national interests, which are not guided by the bipolarity of the system. The Brazilian Foreign Policy, after democracy came back, in 1985, has also changed: Brazil is a more active international actor in key issues of the international system’s agenda.

While in the 1980’s Brazil was a country that participated in discussions together with developing countries, deciding to be distant from the established powers and international institutions, in the 1990’s the Brazilian Foreign Policy goes through an “aggiornamento”. The so called “autonomy by distance” becomes “autonomy through participation”. It is during Fernando Collor’s presidency that Brazil hosted the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio 92), at the time when the presidency and the chancellery sought to change the perception of the world in relation to Brazil, especially regarding environmental issues, which were a delicate matter to the country during the military dictatorship. The country seeks therefore to sustain an attitude of openness to dialogue both bilaterally and multilaterally. Gradually, the logic of the Brazilian Foreign Policy shapes itself pari passu to the world, which was also adjusting its modus operandi after the Cold War.

One can note that the mandate of Fernando Henrique Cardoso continued the “autonomy through participation” from his predecessors Fernando Collor and Itamar Franco and expanded its scope, establishing strategic partnerships with established powers such as the United States, the European countries and Japan; moreover he prioritized South America, foreseeing a Common Market of the South (Mercosur), possibly to the molds of the current European Union. The nomenclature “autonomy through participation” is then updated and it becomes “autonomy through integration” in Fernando Henrique’s mandate, which was essential for Brazil ‘s presence in the world in that specific time.

The solidification of the international presence of Brazil came, however, during Lula’s government. The President and his Foreign Minister, Ambassador Celso Amorim, understood the new dynamics of international relations and deepened Brazilian credentials abroad. The presidential transition between relatively antagonistic parties, PSDB (right) and PT (left), did not impair the continuity of the Brazilian Foreign Policy, on the contrary, strengthened its position in the world. The Brazilian Foreign Policy has never been homogeneous, but the continuity of its basis was maintained from the post-dictatorship period, that is 1985, to the second Lula government, that is 2010. One example was the evolution of the term autonomy coined by International Relations analysts. “Autonomy by distance” became “autonomy through participation”, soon after became “autonomy through integration” and finally it consolidated in “autonomy through diversification”, which briefly translates Lula’s Foreign Policy.

The “autonomy through diversification” was a symbol of high Brazilian self-esteem internationally. The President and his Foreign Minister, Ambassador Amorim, privileged the Brazilian Foreign Policy by strengthening bilateral relations and South-South coalitions (BRICS, IBSA, G-20, BASIC), by having cooperative, proactive and purposeful attitudes (Reform of the Security Council), by trusting traditional partners (US and Europe) and by focusing on regional integration (MERCOSUR and UNASUR).

However, it can be said that during Dilma’s mandate Brazil’s Foreign Policy has not evolved in the same way that had evolved over the past years although belonging to the same party as Lula da Silva (PT). For the first time since the 1990s, there was a change of priorities in the continuity of the Brazilian Foreign Policy. There is no evidence that the term “autonomy through diversification”, represented by Lula da Silva’s government, has been cited by analysts to characterize Dilma’s Foreign Policy. The employees from the Ministry of External Relations as well as opinion makers perhaps have implicitly represented President Dilma’s Foreign Policy as “autonomy by the indifference”. The Foreign Ministry, for example, suffered from cuts in both its budget as well as in the number of places offered to access the diplomatic career (from 100 per year during Lula da Silva’s government to 18-30 diplomats passing the public exam per year during Dilma’s mandate).

Contrary to claims about Rousseff’s lack of interest in foreign affairs, the Group of Reflection in International Relations (GR-RI), in an analysis of the presidential speech at the UN General Assembly in September 2014, shows that the Brazilian leader had given an active speech as well as her predecessor, Lula da Silva, in which she mentions important issues to the international agenda, such as solidarity in humanitarian affairs and internet governance — one can note that the latter was never brought forward properly. GR-RI’s article also mentions that new informal alliances, such as the BRICS, which “express an effort and an ability to create new policymaking procedures” — the BRICS are, in fact, the consolidation of multilateralism of reciprocity that Brazil searches in the international arena, the turning point of Dilma’s mandate concerning Foreign Affairs was even the creation of the BRICS Development Bank, which will be based in Shanghai, China, however, statistics and analysis put Brazil as one of the weakest economies of the group.

The change of priorities, although bad for the image of Brazil, can serve as a lesson for future foreign policy makers. Brazil urges to have concrete goals in the international scenario. Foreign Policy thus should be treated as a state and not a government policy. Although international relations are dynamic, Brazil needs to define its objectives to be part of the international system in the most effective way. Foreign Policy is as important to the development of a country as national policies are.

Although the adverse change of priorities has recently occurred in the Brazilian Foreign Policy, the country has always sought – and has been seeking since – to have a prominent place in the international scenario. Integration, diversification and other progressive synonymous must again be adjectives for Brazil’s Foreign Affairs. However, this does not mean lack of priority in urgent internal structural changes such as the creation of social policies and the reduction of economic disparities in the country. Overcoming internal challenges is key to Brazil. The coordination of both internal challenges and external objectives must be achieved so there is a progressive continuity that Brazil’s Foreign Policy surely deserves.


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