With only the exception of the United States, every single state that has reached a prominent hierarchical position in the international system since the dawn of history has originated in the Eurasian landmass. In this regard, from a long-range perspective, the creation of Brazil as a national state is fairly recent. Hence, in the global geopolitical chessboard, Brazil is a latecomer. However, the idea that Brazil could become a great power at some point is not new. Brazilian statesmen, diplomats, and generals have contemplated such aspirations since the 19th century, and even sharp realist thinkers such as Henry Kissinger and George Kennan forecasted decades ago that, given its latent potential, the South American Goliath would eventually awaken. Indeed, the efforts undertaken by Brazil to reassert itself as a force to be reckoned with on a global scale is one of the most consequential ongoing geopolitical phenomena in the American hemisphere.
It is worth noting that Brazil is a unique national state in more than one way. It was originally a Portuguese colony in an era in which most of the continent was under the control of the Spanish crown. In other words, as a process, the conformation of what is nowadays Brazil is a direct product of the so-called “Age of Discovery,” a period in which sea-faring European empires reshaped the world. Moreover, in contrast to countries that became republics once independence was declared, Brazil became independent as a monarchic polity and, unlike many other Latin American states, it was not engulfed in permanent political turmoil since the 19th century.
Furthermore, Brazil is also exceptional because ‒ thanks to the systematic implementation of import-substitution policies ‒ it managed to upgrade the profile of its economic structure through the development of several economic sectors related to industrial manufacturing. Thus, although it was initially a producer of agricultural goods (sugar, coffee, cotton and cacao), Brazil no longer operates primarily as a mere exporter of commodities, a qualitative transition that only few Latin American states have successfully accomplished. In addition, in a continental region in which Spanish is the most common language, Brazil is the world’s largest Portuguese-speaking nation. Last but not least, Brazil is likely the most ethnically heterogeneous Latin American country.
Nevertheless, it would be mistaken to believe that the consolidation of Brazil as a modern national state has been smooth sailing or that it has been uneventful. In fact, the country has experienced coups, military dictatorships, foreign covert interventions and bitter internal political rivalries. Yet despite the problematic impact of these issues, the country has not fallen apart. Accordingly, Brazil has not only proved to be a resilient national state. Its upward trajectory makes many observers think that this South American state has a promising future. Such views have only grown since the BRICs acronym was first coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neil in 2001 to describe a small constellation of emerging markets with significant potential, and they continue to thrive in the aftermath of Brazil’s 2022 presidential election
Assessing Brazilian national power
Brazil’s quest to assume a leading role as an assertive state is no Quixotic crusade out-of-touch with reality. Far from being a backwater, the country has what it takes to pursue such ambitions. The full extent of its national power provides the critical mass that would be needed. In fact, Brazilian statecraft can rely on several resources and capabilities worth harnessing for strategic purposes.
Concerning its geopolitical situation, Brazil is located in the so-called ‘outer crescent,’ far from the Eurasian heartland and the rimland’s contentious flashpoints. Brazil’s territorial extension is the largest in South America and the country has the chance to engage with the wider world through its direct access to the Atlantic. Plus, due to its colossal size, Brazil borders eleven weaker states, most of which used to belong to Spain. Nevertheless, much of its heartland consists of tropical jungles that are sparsely populated since they are barely suitable for the establishment of permanent human settlements and the accompanying infrastructure that could support them. Hence, the country’s political and economic nerve centers are located in close proximity to its much more habitable coastline.
This condition is double-edged sword. It represents the opportunity to participate in international trade and to develop substantial naval capabilities. On the other hand, such geopolitical configuration comes with vulnerabilities, since it generates exposure to potential naval threats. Yet here it seems as though Brazil does not have much to worry about. After all, the country is far stronger than any of the states in its immediate periphery and sea powers which possess significant maritime power projection capabilities have no interest in targeting Brazil, at least for the time being. Moreover, the area covered by the Amazonian rain forests acts as a natural buffer zone that shields Brazil from direct contact with actual or potential sources of chaos, including Venezuela, the Colombian highlands, and several disputed borders. Likewise, Brazil is relatively unaffected by instability in neighboring states such as Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia.
Regarding military strength, Brazil has the second-largest armed forces and air force in the American hemisphere (after the United States) and the South American country has developed its own military-industrial complex, which manufactures sophisticated hardware, platforms, and weaponry. The Brazilian navy lacks expeditionary warfare capabilities, but it does not need them. South America is a region in which the prospect of interstate war is rare and even extra-regional great powers are unlikely to invade Brazil in the near future. Hence, the chief tasks of the Brazilian military are the protection of the country’s vast territory (which includes territorial waters, often known as the ‘Blue Amazon’) so that the state can ensure full control and effective governance; guarantee a regional balance of geopolitical power which favors the pursuit of Brazilian national interests; defend Brazilian natural resources; and suppress unconventional threats related to malicious nonstate actors such as organized crime groups and transnational terrorist networks. Finally, the Brazilian military ‒ as an instrument of hard power ‒ also supports the credibility of the Brazilian state’s foreign policy.
It also must be borne in mind that, during the 70s, Brazil launched a nuclear weapons program. And although the country ultimately decided to abandon the venture due its commitment to non-proliferation, it still retains the technological resources and the specialized expertise that would be needed to produce nuclear weapons in the future.
In the economic sphere, Brazil has the world’s twelfth largest GDP according to the IMF, which places it ahead of South Korea, Australia, Mexico, Spain, and Turkey. Brazilian industries are involved in sectors such as textiles, steelmaking, aerospace (Embraer is the globe’s third-largest aircraft producer), chemicals and car-making. Harvard University’s Atlas of Economic Complexity classifies Brazil as being more economically complex than South Africa, Argentina, Kazakhstan, and Australia. In addition, unlike other Latin American states, Brazil has nurtured the growth of domestic financial and banking entities. Interestingly, China is ‒ followed by the US ‒ Brazil’s top trade partner in both exports and imports.
Likewise, this South American state has abundant reservoirs of strategic minerals (bauxite, iron ore, manganese, uranium, copper, tungsten, gold, nickel, zinc, vanadium, lithium, titanium) and gemstones (amethyst, emerald, aquamarine and opal). Furthermore, when it comes to energy, Brazil is self-sufficient in oil and is one of the planet’s leading producers of hydropower. Likewise, its arable land is useful for the production of cash crops (including sugarcane, soybeans, coffee, oranges, corn, cotton, tobacco, coconut, bananas, pineapples) and biofuels. Plus, the country has comparative advantages as a producer of beef, chicken, dairy and pork. Finally, Amazonia is a formidable source of fresh water, timber and biodiversity.
Moreover, Brazil’s demographic size (with nearly 215 million people) represents an abundant supply of manpower. In fact, Brazil is the world’s seventh most populated state and the second in the American hemisphere. Another relevant component that needs to be taken into account is the projection of Brazilian ‘soft power.’ In this regard, Brazilian art, cuisine, music, cinema and the impressive accomplishments of Brazilian athletes in internationally competitive sports are elements that strengthen national identity, promote the attractiveness of Brazilian culture, and confer a subtle but prestigious diplomatic influence.
Concerning the quality of diplomacy, the Brazilian state has developed highly professional foreign policy cadres (Itamaraty is regarded as the best Latin American diplomatic service). Likewise, Brazil is the most prominent Latin American nation in the academic study of geopolitics. Since these assets offer a sense of situational awareness for policymakers, they are instrumental for the practice of statecraft, the encouragement of informed deliberations to define Brazil’s place in the world in a foreseeable future and the formulation of grand strategy. Accordingly, Brazil possesses the intellectual ‘software’ to mastermind far-reaching geopolitical plans through the holistic management of all the components of its national power.
Therefore, a comprehensive understanding of these realities explains why Brazil is seen as a potential great power. In fact, Brazil’s weight in international high politics is by far heavier than that of Portugal, its former colonial overlord. Now, as a result of this reversal, Lisbon is eager to play a meaningful role in the rise of Brasilia. So, as the legitimate heir of the defunct Portuguese empire, Brazil has become the undisputed leader of the Lussophone world, a community that includes third-world nations from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Indo-Pacific region. In comparison, no Hispanic Latin American country has ever managed to overtake Spain. In order to keep things in perspective, Brazil’s bid to get a seat in the UN Security Council as a permanent member is taken seriously by diplomats and analysts alike. No other Latin American country can even aspire to anything similar. For instance, Argentina (a traditional rival) is behind Brazil in every single significant field and Mexico ‒ the other Latin American state that could realistically attain a higher geopolitical status ‒ is too far away so their corresponding spheres of influence do not overlap to a considerable degree and, perhaps more importantly, unlike Mexico, Brazil is not overshadowed by the might of the United States. This geographical distance from Washington gives Brasilia a relatively greater margin to maneuver independently.
The first Lula era
After several unsuccessful attempts to run for the country’s highest office, Luis Inázio Lula da Silva was served as president of Brazil from 2003 to 2010. His administration was remarkable for several reasons. As a former trade union leader and a representative of the largest Brazilian left-wing political party, his progressive government had close ties to both the both moderate social democrats and hardline militant Latin American groups and leaders (he was a known personal friend of the late Fidel Castro). Nevertheless, Lula was pragmatic enough to collaborate with local business chambers, multilateral institutions, transnational corporations and even the financial community in order to foster economic dynamism. Lula thus became a powerful symbol that left-wing Latin American governments could be successful and democratic. As the ultimate representative of the so-called ‘pink wave’ (the political triumph of various left-wing groups throughout Latin America during the 2000s), he became an inspirational role model and symbol for progressives at home and abroad.
Nonetheless, the major turning point of the Lula administration was the intrepid orientation of its foreign policy. For the very first time, Brazil followed a course of action whose purpose was to advance a multipolar correlation of forces, a configuration that would be convenient for the pursuit of Brazilian national interests, including its bid for regional hegemony and great power status. This ambition was hardly unprecedented. Arguably, Brazilian strategic culture and national ideology had been nurturing the development of an emerging imperial tradition for many decades. Nonetheless, it was not until the early 21st century that Brazil had become bold enough to fulfil its own ‘manifest destiny.’ As American thinker Hal Brands has argued, Brasilia’s high strategy in the Lula era included measures that are often helpful for rising middle powers to boost their geopolitical profiles, such as ‘soft balancing,’ the conformation of coalitions, and the advancement of regional integration under their leadership.
Unlike Latin American countries eager to antagonize the US at every turn as a result of their strong ideological commitment to leftist ‘anti-imperialist struggle’ (such as Cuba, Nicaragua or Venezuela), Brazil did not assume an openly confrontational towards the Americans, or any other great power for that matter. However, Brasilia actively sought to dilute American hegemony in a subtle way through active efforts conceived to strengthen multilateral diplomatic frameworks and remake the structural governance of key international institutions. For Brazil, a unipolar world is not convenient in the sense that might it constrain Brazil’s desire to aim higher, and states like Brazil do not want to be treated as junior partners, satellites or worse. However, Brazil holds the impression that the perpetual endurance of ‘Pax Americana’ cannot be taken for granted. In fact, it has been eroded by changing systemic patterns and also as a result of counterproductive US foreign policy decisions. Particularly, Brazil has taken advantage of Washington’s neglect towards the American hemisphere due to the presence of the American military in the Middle East and Central Asia during the Bush administration. In addition, Brasilia also managed to keep in check the growing influence of Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran in South America (which has often by facilitated by states aligned with the Bolivarian axis).
On the other hand, Brazil also forged diplomatic partnerships as force multipliers that increased Brazilian influence and pursued common objectives. The most visible sign of this is the active Brazilian participation in the BRICS bloc, a framework that represents the collective interests of states that are both emerging economies but also revisionist powers that prefer a multipolar world order. Brasilia also engaged Turkey and Iran, both of which are independent regional heavyweights. Likewise, it also harnessed existing disparities with neighboring states ‒ whose economies are smaller and less developed than that of Brazil ‒ to push for the consolidation of the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR). Such a project was designed to foster regional economic integration, but it can also operate as a vector to achieve regional hegemony through the legitimate leadership conferred by Brazil’s gravitational pull rather than through outright conquest. Nevertheless, progress has been hampered by political disagreements and economic disruptions.
The Bolsonaro years
After a series of unstable governments, Jair Bolsonaro became president of Brazil in 2019. In the field of domestic politics, he could not be farther from Lula and his followers. Bolsonaro is a conservative politician that outspokenly embraces right-wing illiberalism and the ideological banner of anticommunism. Furthermore, Bolsonaro’s electoral victory and the contents of his platform, opinions and domestic policies have encouraged newer generations of Latin American right-wing militants to express ideas that were not seen as politically correct by the mainstream in previous decades. Interestingly, Bolsonaro ‒ as a former army captain ‒ shares the views commonly held in the military about the desirable prospect of a Greater Brazil as an increasingly assertive state in the geopolitical domain.
Bolsonaro’s ideological worldview is heavily shaped by the late Olavo de Carvalho, a controversial philosophical thinker − close to the likes of Steve Bannon − who championed a conservative interpretation of concepts such as homeland, traditional identities, and family values – all of whose preservation supposedly must be upheld to avoid societal decline. Regarding international affairs, De Carvalho believed in the superiority of nationalist and traditionalist forces over supranational “open societies,” especially in an environment in which there are three competing projects of world order: Atlanticist liberal cosmopolitanism, the classical Westphalian-Clausewitzian model supported by Eurasian continental powers, and the Islamist dream to establish a universal theocratic Caliphate. He also criticized the Lula administration of being “unpatriotic” due its constant collaboration with international institutions, corporations, NGOs, and mainstream media. In addition, the Brazilian ideologue was a vocal admirer of the Christian paleo-conservatism that still flourishes in US rural communities and also of Zionism, regarded as bulwarks of civilizational virtue.
The rise of Bolsonaro also needs to be understood as part of a larger wave of conservative nationalists, such as Donald Trump, Victor Orban, Narendra Modi, Benjamin Netanyahu, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Rodrigo Duterte, amongst others. Although these leaders are highly heterogeneous, they share meaningful common denominators, including the unapologetic rejection of cosmopolitan liberalism and everything it stands for; a staunch commitment to the protection of traditional values as socio-cultural cornerstones of collective identities that are needed to ensure the organic revitalization of nations; close ideological and political ties to religious groups; an emphasis on the protection of sovereignty rather than the promotion of supranational governance; and nationalist worldviews which shape foreign policy.
Initially, Bolsonaro sought to remake Brazilian foreign policy. He envisaged Brazil as a senior partner of assertive Western states like the US and Israel, ruled respectively by Trump and Netanyahu (fellow conservative nationalists) when he took office. During his presidential campaign, he was highly critical of China and the Bolivarian axis, seen as ideological enemies. Nevertheless, these ideological proclivities were mugged by reality, especially in a dangerous age of simmering strategic competition amongst the international system’s major powers. Out of pragmatism, his administration reassessed its position towards Beijing in order to harness the benefits of bilateral cooperation based on aligned national interests and it engaged Moscow on win-win basis too, much to the chagrin of Western liberal elites. Interestingly, despite inconsistent rhetoric, the Brazilian government under Bolsonaro remained largely neutral in the context of the Ukraine war, an attitude that was seen as an act of defiance by the Biden White House (not seen as an ideological ally by Bolsonaro and his supporters). This is a powerful reminder that, if Brazil truly covets an elite position in the concert of nations, it has no choice but to learn how to swim with sharks in an assertive way. Passivity will not suffice to propel Brasilia to the status it wants. On the other hand, the Bolsonaro administration did not conceal its contempt for Latin American left-wing regimes (a reciprocal dislike) but, concerning facts on the ground, it did not assume an openly hostile approach even though it abandoned Brasilia’s proactive role in regional cooperation.
In a nutshell, Brazilian foreign policy under Bolsonaro was not a mere continuation of the path followed by government headed by Lula. However, regardless of the contrasting ideological inclinations of both leaders, Brazil acted as an aspiring great power regardless of who was in charge through both periods.
Brazil is an interesting case study which shows that even though the behavior of geopolitical dynamics is driven by impersonal forces, the role of human agency is not insubstantial. Therefore, Brasilia’s quest has been favored both by fortune (advantageous external circumstances) but it has also been furthered through virtue (the fateful decisions made by Brazilian leaders). It is still unknown if the South American heavyweight will successfully reach the greatness it seeks. After all, it has to deal with problematic phenomena like the systematic and local fallout of rising geopolitical confrontation, internal political discord as a result of growing polarization, overall volatility in neighboring South American states, the proliferation of organized crime, and corruption. Such threats could unleash troublesome levels of instability and challenging dilemmas for Brazilian statecraft. In the 21st century, Brazil wants to be one of the leading players in the so-called “Great Game,” but the path that leads to the big leagues is hazardous and mistakes can be deadly under Hobbesian conditions. Then again, as Machiavelli observed hundreds of years ago, nothing of importance can be conquered without exposure to risk.
*This article was originally published on November 8, 2022.