EXCERPT | Realist Cornerstone: Brazil’s National Interest in Power Accumulation
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EXCERPT | Realist Cornerstone: Brazil’s National Interest in Power Accumulation

By Kurt Weyland
via The Journal of Politics in Latin America, GIGA-German Institute of Global and Area Studies

EXCERPT | Realist Cornerstone: Brazil’s National Interest in Power Accumulation

The lodestar of Brazilian foreign policy has long been the quest for national power. In line with Realism, foreign policymakers have read this fundamental aspiration off the map. Because Brazil is by far the largest and most populous nation in South America, the country’s leaders have long viewed it as destined for continental leadership and global influence. Brasília perceives the pursuit of international power as grounded in objective reality; the country ought to play the hand it has been dealt by geography and demography (Burges 2009: 36–41). Followed by governments of all stripes – authoritarian and democratic, left- and right-wing (Vigevani and Cepaluni 2009: 11, 82) – this goal constitutes a national interest à la Realism. It does not emerge from interest group pressures or party competition, as Liberalism claims. Instead, it is Brazil’s “manifest destiny,” equivalent to the notion guiding the 19th-century United States. Promoted by the Brazilian state, this national interest has found widespread societal support (Schirm 2005: 113–114). 

Brazil has pursued national power and international leadership in a coherent long-run trajectory. In the early 20th century, the father of Brazilian foreign policy, the Baron of Rio Branco, managed to assert territorial claims and enlarge the country westward. Since then, borders have remained fixed. The fear of provoking a ring of containment by the Spanish-speaking neighbors and the expanding hegemony of the US, which disliked trouble in its sphere of influence and suppressed armed conflict, ruled out territorial conquest. Consequently, Brazil has used other means to tie its smaller, weaker neighbors slowly into asymmetrical linkages and make them dependent, as analyzed below. 

Increasing Brazil’s national power and international clout has remained the country’s fundamental goal to the present day. What the Baron of Rio Branco initiated (Bueno 2012: 171–173), subsequent governments of all stripes have continued. This persistent goal pursuit is noteworthy. While the military regime (1964–1985) advertised this Realist quest openly with its slogan “Brasil Grande,” later democratic administrations have followed the same orientation, for instance by seeking a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Although this longstanding initiative has minimal concrete benefit for a developing country still plagued by grave domestic problems, it represented an attempt to cement Brazil’s claim of undisputed regional leadership and enhance its influence by inducing its neighbors to advance their foreign policy initiatives via their “big brother”.[1] What the anti-Communist generals had sowed, the leader of the socialist Workers’ Party, Lula da Silva (president 2003–2010), tried to harvest by achieving this institutional victory.[2]

Brazil’s effort to boost its power qualifies as a national interest in Realist terms. This goal has been widely shared by foreign policymakers from the ideological right and left, in government and in opposition, and under democratic and authoritarian regimes. This persistent quest fulfills Krasner’s (1978: 35, 42–45) criteria for a national interest: constancy and autonomy. First, the continuous pursuit of this goal over a century shows that it is a national interest sustained by the state, not the specific aspiration of shifting government leaders. Second, this longstanding goal did not arise from the personal interests of state officials or from interest group pressure, such as business lobbies. For most of the 20th century, entrepreneurs had minimal influence on foreign policy. Moreover, the sectoral composition of business has shifted greatly; pressures from a changing private sector cannot account for the unchanging pursuit of the same goal. Therefore, a Liberal interpretation is not persuasive. Realism is more convincing: A self-perpetuating cadre of state actors, especially Brazil’s insulated, professional diplomats, has led the definition and pursuit of this national interest.[3]

This close-knit group of state officials has long run foreign policy and guaranteed continuity (Amorim 2014: 154, 160–164, 169, 173, 176).  Merit-based recruitment and first-rate training have bred a strong esprit de corps, which has cemented commitment to Brazil’s national interest (Schneider 1976: 87–89, 96–97). These diplomats have advanced the permanent goals of the state, whether the government happened to be democratic or authoritarian or whether it hailed from the right or the left. As an “island of excellence” inside the Brazilian state, this diplomatic corps approximates the notion of “unitary rational actor” postulated by Realism (Hirst 2005: 2, 41; Amorim 2014: 173). Thus, the longstanding promotion of Brazil’s great power aspirations has a clear institutional protagonist and bureaucratic carrier. Consciously pursued by a distinct group of actors, this Realist motivation is more easily observable and visible than in the US, for which Krasner (1978) designed his analytical strategy of inferring a national interest.

Brazil’s quest for influence drives its foreign policy behavior as a “revealed preference.” This self-interest causes the striking inconsistency of Brasília’s adherence to international norms. The country eagerly put strong pressure on its weak neighbor Paraguay to safeguard democracy, but was reluctant to support US pressures for democracy in Peru in 2000 and Venezuela in 2014–2015; however, Brazil claimed to have defended democracy in Honduras in 2009, again in opposition to US efforts. These twists and turns are incoherent from a normative standpoint and therefore cast doubt on a Constructivist interpretation. However, these inconsistencies follow a Realist logic: Brazil pressures weak neighbors, yet resists what it sees as attempts to reinforce US hegemony in the Western hemisphere (Burges and Daudelin 2007: 115–129, especially 128–129; Hirst 2005: 45–47). 

Some scholars have taken the absence of militarized power politics as proof that Brazilian foreign policy is an instrument for domestic development, as Liberalism would claim. In fact, Brazilian diplomats have downplayed or denied the quest for political power (Burges 2009: 1, 4–8, 12, 41–43, 46, 62). According to these views, Brazil’s international strategy diverges categorically from earlier great powers, which rose via military strength; for instance, underdeveloped Brandenburg–Prussia gained influence through its armies. How different is contemporary Brazil, which spends strikingly little on defense and instead declares socioeconomic development as its overriding priority? The hunger for butter seems to have pushed aside any desire for guns. 

However, this Liberal view confounds instruments with goals and overlooks the pragmatic, typically Realist adaptation to new realities, namely the opportunities and constraints of the contemporary international system. Because the global power constellation has changed profoundly with US predominance and because Brazil’s position diverges starkly from earlier rising powers, Realism itself predicts that the ways and means differ with which the country advances its foreign policy goals, compared to the tactics used by earlier great powers for their rise. These goals, however, which are the cornerstone of Brazil’s foreign policy, embody the Realist quest for national power and international leadership, which all influential actors in the Brazilian state and society have shared (Schirm 2005: 113–114) and pursued with great consistency. 

Most Brazilian policymakers have deliberately avoided announcing their quest for regional leadership because their South American neighbors are allergic to this ambition (Malamud 2011) and watch the lusophone giant with suspicion (Smith 2010: 2, 30, 86, 187). Brasília has feared a backlash, especially a ring of containment by the Spanish-speaking countries or defensive alliances with the US (cf. Walt 2005: 187–191). Official denials of Brazil’s Realist ambitions (Burges 2009: 1, 4, 6, 8, 12, 41, 43, 46, 62) are a deliberate tactic to diminish obstacles to these Realist ambitions.

Downplaying military aspects of power and concentrating on its economic bases actually furthers Brazil’s quest for influence, especially vis-à-vis Argentina, the one neighbor that historically competed with Brazil for regional leadership. For decades, Brazil avoided an arms race with Buenos Aires. But from the 1970s onward, both countries’ development of nuclear energy threatened to unleash a dangerous form of competition. Strong pressure from the US eventually precluded any military usage. Interestingly, this concession to the hegemon actually benefited Brazil’s regional quest for power. Whereas Argentina equals Brazil in terms of atomic capabilities, it is far inferior in terms of economic clout. Therefore, stopping nuclear competition and privileging economic relations favored Brazil’s aspirations for South American leadership. 

In general, socioeconomic development is not an alternative to national power, but a decisive precondition, particularly for a developing country. A poor, backward nation cannot boost its international influence. Therefore, the quests for power and development often coincide. But power has priority. This rank order became evident when Brazil helped to block the US’s plan to establish a hemispheric free-trade zone. While the FTAA promised to stimulate trade, investment, and growth in line with Liberalism, Brazil forewent absolute economic gains for fear of cementing its subordination to the US and incurring a permanent loss in relative power. This conflict revealed Brazil’s fundamental goal, namely the Realist quest for international influence.

To conclude, national power and global clout are the priorities that have driven Brazilian foreign policy for more than a century. Qualifying as “national interests” à la Realism, these aspirations have guided governments of all stripes.

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About the Author:

Kurt Weyland is Professor of Government and Mike Hogg Professor in Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. Over the years, he has conducted research on democratization, neoliberalism, populism, and social policy in Latin America and has recently broadened his view to study the diffusion of democracy and authoritarianism in Europe and Latin America. His current book project analyzes the wave of reactionary rule during the interwar years and the rash of military coups in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s. Professor Weyland is an associate editor of JPLA. 

Cite this Article:

Weyland, Kurt (2016), Realism under Hegemony: Theorizing the Rise of Brazil, in: Journal of Politics in Latin America, 8, 2, 153–157

ISSN: 1868-4890 (online), ISSN: 1866-802X (print) 

The online version of this article can be found at: www.jpla.org


[1] Showing longstanding continuity in its foreign policy, Brazil pursued this goal during the UN’s foundation in the mid-1940s (Burges 2009: 21) and even in the League of Nations after the First World War (Smith 2010: 81, 86–87). 

[2] While Vigevani and Cepaluni (2009: 3, 7, 11, 31, 53, 63) highlighted the differences in the specific foreign-policy approaches that Brazil has pursued over time, they also acknowledge the fundamental continuity of the country’s quest for greater “autonomy” and influence over the last few decades. 

[3] Even under democracy, its predominance and cohesion have only slowly started to erode (Cason and Power 2009; Saraiva 2010; Amorim 2014: 129–136).