NATO-Brazil Relations by Robert Helbig

by tuftsigl
Jul 07

During the last three years, I have been doing research on NATO’s relations with states that pose interesting cases because of their strategic relevance, including India, Mongolia, Colombia and Brazil. Focusing on the latter one, I identified a number of key areas of possible cooperation between Brussels and Brasília that have not been explored thoroughly, including counter-piracy in West Africa, cybersecurity, political dialogue, and military training to increase interoperability. However, cooperation seems unlikely because of Brazil’s antagonism against NATO, an alliance that supposedly stands for a world order very different from what Brasília’s policymakers desire.

Having looked at specific cases of NATO’s partnerships, I learned that it is essential to understand the countries’ strategic cultures, security policies, and political dynamics in order to assess the potential for closer cooperation. To get an update on the development of these factors, my research led me back to Brazil for the summer (South American winter) where I have the chance to interview important stakeholders of Brazil’s security policy community. The results of this research serve as the basis for a PhD thesis after completing my Masters of Arts in Law and Diplomacy degree at The Fletcher School.

Since Tufts’ Internal Review Board prohibits me from disclosing the names of my interviewees, I can merely say that I have already been able to meet with representatives of the Brazilian government (a former Minister and a Colonel of the Army), as well as with analysts of local and international think tanks that are active in this policy area. I have also been able to set up interviewees with the leadership of one of Brazil’s main military schools and hope to be able to meet policymakers in Brasília.

Important preliminary findings of my research include the following: Changing dynamics in Brazilian foreign policy

Brazil is in the middle of an economic crisis (2% economic contraction, inflation, corruption scandals). This led Brazil’s policymakers to reconsider their strategy because in their mindset, internal development is closely coupled with external status. During the past decade, Brasília has been increasingly assertive of the US (the cancelation of President Dilma’s state visit to Washington, D.C.) and has built closer cooperation with emerging economies (BRICS, IBSA, huge trade with China) and the Global South (the number of Brazilian embassies in Africa increased from 18 to 34 under President Lula). Now, that this path does not seem to work out for Brazil, the Dilma administration is taking a new course, installing personnel that is more open to cooperation with the US and EU into key position (appointing Joaquim Levy as finance minister, bringing Roberto Mangabeira Unger back to Brasília). At the same time, Brazil has been practically closing down some of its embassies in Africa (because of the disproportional costs for a mere political statement), and has been quiet about its cooperation with emerging powers (IBSA seems to have stalled and not much has been achieved within BRICS since the 2014 Summit in Fortaleza).

This potential shift towards a closer cooperation with “the West,” however, is not the result of a change in the political ideology of Brazil’s policymakers, but rather a pragmatic approach to the consequence of the economic challenges. It also reflects Brazil’s history of altering strategic posture (love-hate relationship) vis-à-vis the US since the time of Baron of Rio Branco in the beginning of the 20th century.

Hypocrisy in Brasília’s rhetoric

Brazil continues to display itself as a leader in South-South relations (especially through the rhetoric of the foreign ministry). The reality, however, suggests a different course. Here are three illustrative examples:

As a response to the NSA scandal, which revealed that President Dilma’s cell phone has been tapped by US authorities, Brazil decided to install a fiber optic cable across the Atlantic to Angola (South Atlantic Cable System) in order to avoid channeling its data traffic with Africa and Asia through Europe and the US any longer. However, it turns out that government-owned Telebrás cancelled the deal with its Angolan counterpart and entered into cooperation with French and Swiss companies to install a connection with Portugal instead. The Brazilians turned their back to their African partners to work once again with their former colonial masters.

An example in case of the US occurred right before the 2014 FIFA World Cup when the Brazilian authorities realized that they are not sufficiently prepared to counter a possible biological weapon attack during the event. They asked the American military to provide assistance, but refused them to send ships to Brazilian waters at the same time. Consequently, US ships were stationed off the coast of Florida, staying on alert in case of an emergency in Brazil. A proposal by the US to extend this cooperation beyond the World Cup was refused by Brasília. This shows that the Brazilian government does cooperate with the US, but only if it must and only if the cooperation is under the radar. In short, the Brazilians cannot manage their grand projects without help, but they are too proud to admit it.

In regards to NATO, the Brazilian Foreign Ministry continues to block staff meetings when Brazilian government delegations travel to Brussels. However, the official position does not prevent some diplomats to stop by the NATO Headquarters for talks with NATO's International Staff. This illustrates Brazil’s relations with NATO: while individuals in the government are at least interested in NATO (and some in the military even look up to NATO), the government itself tries prevents them from exploring possibilities for cooperation.

In short, Brazil is slowly adjusting its foreign policy to the reality that Brasília cannot forego its relationships with Europe and the US. Thus, the government is practically moving towards closer relations even though their rhetoric would suggest a continuation of President Lula’s focus on South- South cooperation and anti-Western attitudes.

Next on my agenda

Given that I could only acquire these insights by being on the ground, talking to the right stakeholders in Brazilian foreign policy, I am already very satisfied with the results of my field research. In the next weeks, during my meetings with the policymakers, I would like to touch on the following topics: Brazil’s defense industry (the future of the arms deals with France and Sweden in times of economic constraints), regional dynamics and their effects on Brazil’s policies (Venezuela collapsing, Cuba opening), Brazil’s international defense cooperation (participation in UN Peacekeeping Operations), Brazilian-Chinese competition in African maritime affairs, Brazil’s perceptions on the Ukraine Crisis and ISIS, as well as Angela Merkel’s visit to Brazil in August 2015.

I hope that these topics will round up my update on Brazil’s security policy dynamics and help me to better access the chances for closer cooperation with the US and Europe, as well as the North-Atlantic Alliance.

Robert Helbig