Brazil woke from a foreign policy slumber last week and waded into the world’s most complex geopolitical conflict.
As the number of civilian deaths in Gaza continued to climb to disturbing levels, Brazil’s Foreign Ministry issued a short statement saying it considered the “escalation of violence” between Israel and Palestine “unacceptable” and “strongly condemned the disproportionate use of force by Israel in the Gaza Strip.”
Brazil said it would recall its ambassador in Israel for consultation — an act of protest in diplomatic terms — which effectively fractured ties with Israel. The Palestinians praised Brazil for the strong diplomatic gesture, but Israel’s Foreign Ministry said, “Such steps do not contribute to promote calm and stability in the region,” provide a “tailwind to terrorism” and affect “Brazil’s capacity to wield influence.”
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor then launched a scathing attack on Brazil, labeling the country a “diplomatic dwarf” whose “moral relativism” made it “an irrelevant diplomatic partner.” Brazil countered the takedown in undramatic fashion, affirming that “friends” could “disagree,” but the Israeli official went for the jugular, mocking Brazil’s World Cup semifinal defeat.
“This is not football. In football, when a game ends in a draw, you think it is proportional, but when it finishes 7-1, it’s disproportionate,” Palmor said. “Sorry to say, but not so in real life and under international law.”
After a decade of being labeled a new global player, Brazil flexed its diplomatic muscles but received short shrift from one of the world’s smallest countries. It left Brazil with its diplomatic self-esteem bruised at a time when it had been at its most powerful, protected and internationally relevant for years, after a flurry of visits by dozens of world leaders and top-level diplomats for the World Cup and the BRICS summit of emerging economies.
But although Israel’s “dwarf” comment was callous, some observers in Brazil agreed. “Calling Brazil a dwarf was an exaggeration on Israel’s part, but in truth, Brazil is not a diplomatic heavyweight and is excessively discreet in its foreign policy,” Andrew Traumann, a Brazilian expert on the country’s Middle East relations, said in an interview with Al Jazeera America.
President Dilma Rousseff finally commented on the spat with Israel four days after it began. “Brazil was first country to recognize Israel. Brazil is a friend to Israel…but there is a massacre ongoing in the Gaza Strip,” she said in an interview with local press. Rousseff welcomed the United Nations demand for immediate ceasefire and suggested that the Israeli official chooses his words more carefully, noting, “Words can create a bad climate.” She also hinted that Brazil’s ambassador would be back in Tel Aviv in due course.
Economy vs. global politics
The reason the world’s seventh-largest economy doesn’t have political clout to match is that Rousseff has been focusing on domestic issues, particularly her attempts to stimulate the Brazilian economy out of the rut in which it resides. “President Dilma Rousseff doesn’t really value international politics. She prefers things that can help control the economy,” said Traumann.
Although Rousseff has continued many policies started by her charismatic predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — particularly poverty and inequality reduction and pledges to expand a successful subsidized housing program — she views international politics as something of a minefield best avoided and during her time in office has certainly traveled far less than Silva did.
The boldest statement Rousseff has made came in the wake of revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that the U.S. monitored the communications of Brazilian citizens, the country’s precious Petrobras oil giant and even Rousseff.
She called off the first state visit by a Brazilian leader to the U.S. for 20 years and instead led an international debate on the governance of the Internet. But that was an issue that affected Brazil and the president directly, not a global diplomatic matter that Brazil altruistically ventured into.
Brazil’s foreign policy has also been restricted because of Rousseff’s centralized decision-making process. The country’s Foreign Ministry is kept on a very short leash. As Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations expert with Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas Foundation, put it in an opinion piece for Post-Western World, Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo has been “strikingly invisible … Under no other Brazilian leader in recent history has the Foreign Ministry — historically above the political fray — been so secondary.”
Rousseff has been far less vocal than Silva on the Middle East. Silva traveled widely to the region and openly criticized Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. He warned in 2010, for instance, that the building of new settlements, the infamous dividing wall and the blockade of Gaza were extinguishing a “candle of hope.”
That comment was made on a visit to the West Bank at a time when Brazil’s foreign policy looked to be growing. Its courting of the Arab world was closely tied to business, but the successful double act that Silva forged with his foreign minister, Celso Amorim, was starting to make an impact regionally and globally. Brazil maintained working relationships with countries that the U.S. could not, including Iran and Syria.
Focused on an ailing economy back home, Rousseff did not pick up where Silva left off in the Middle East. However, amid the latest cycle of violence between Israel and Hamas, she has commented on the escalation, such as in a speech alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping during his recent state visit to Brazil, saying she was “profoundly concerned by the dramatic events” in the region, “particularly in the Gaza Strip.”
But it is still curious that Brazil would suddenly drop such a diplomatic bombshell — and is considering upping the ante further at this week’s Southern Common Market meeting with a proposed joint statement on Israel’s Gaza offensive — when you consider what little fuss Brazil has made about other bloody conflicts.
In February, when world leaders gathered in Geneva to discuss Syria’s ongoing civil war, Brazil was the only major economy that was not represented. Brazil has said virtually nothing about Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and the downing of Flight MH17 in the midst of a deadly pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine.
Even in the regions where it wields tangible influence — South America and Africa — Brazil has done very little. For example, it failed to rein in the Venezuelan government’s violent oppression of anti-government protests and has been silent on many cases of human rights abuses in African countries where Brazil has been expanding its diplomatic and commercial presence.
Instead Brazil’s foreign policy traditionally tries to befriend everyone and keep the peace: It is one of only 11 countries that have diplomatic relations with every member of the U.N. Brazil has been more comfortable listening to all sides. These qualities might help Brazil with its application for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, but its lack of general engagement and Rousseff’s introspective, controlling managerial style has begun to unpick her predecessor’s work to outfit Brazil as a strong new voice for international diplomacy.
Brazil has proved that when it steps into the light and challenges the dominant world order on issues such as human rights, sustainability and, yes, even the Middle East — as with its successful negotiations with Iran — it has plenty to contribute to the global debate and diversification away from the dominance of Western powers.
But now elections are looming in Brazil, and with the economy front and center in voters’ priorities and none of the main candidates pledging major changes to foreign policy, it appears there is little chance Brazil’s international political clout will be boosted anytime soon.
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