In spring 2010, Brazil made a quixotic effort with Turkey to mediate the West’s long-running conflict with Iran. Although this gambit failed—“We got our fingers burned,” Foreign Minister Celso Amorim confided to the Financial Times—the affair underscored Brazil’s determination to play on the global stage. Ironically, the ploy may also have harmed Brazil’s chances for a UN Security Council seat.
After two decades of galloping growth, Brazil has joined the top rank of emerging powers, just behind China and India. Its diplomatic ambitions have kept pace. Under flamboyant President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil has flexed its muscles within the BRIC coalition, barged into Middle East diplomacy, secured a place in the G20, shaped global climate and trade negotiations, and demanded greater clout within the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
But one prize eludes Brasilia—permanent membership in the UN Security Council. Sixteen years after Amorim formally declared its candidacy, Brazil’s campaign remains stalled by resistance from the permanent five and regional rivals in Latin America. Brazil currently occupies one of the council’s rotating, two-year seats—for a record tenth time—but this has been a poor consolation prize.
Brazil’s meteoric rise presents a quandary for President Obama, who is committed to renovating global institutions to harness rising powers. “The international architecture of the 20th century is buckling,” his new National Security Strategy declares. “International institutions must more effectively represent the world of the 21st century, with a broader voice—and greater responsibilities—for emerging powers.”
Obama’s reform agenda presumably includes enlarging the UN Security Council, the world’s most important (and arguably outdated) institution. And yet, U.S. officials remain wary of opening this Pandora’s box, given the hurdles to securing an actual Charter revision and fears that new members will dilute U.S. influence and weaken council enforcement.
The biggest wild card in council expansion is how new permanent members will behave. Ideally, rising powers would assume new responsibilities and cast off outdated ideologies. But Brazil’s unpredictable behavior suggests that emerging powers may not sing from Washington’s sheet music, even if they are democracies.
Brazil’s candidacy has been a bone of contention since World War II, when the Big Three debated who should join them as veto-wielding permanent members. Churchill ultimately won agreement on liberated France, which Stalin had dismissed as “charming but weak.” Roosevelt secured support for Chiang Kai-shek’s China, on the grounds that they needed at least one Asian member.
Roosevelt also lobbied hard for Brazil. Beyond rewarding the country’s participation in the war, he was impressed by its massive size, resources and potential. He worried that a council without a permanent Latin American member would undermine hemispheric solidarity, and that a dissatisfied Brazil might quit the UN altogether—just as it had left the League of Nations when denied a seat on the League Council.
Other U.S. officials were skeptical. Brazil was in no way a great power, and treating it as one would undermine the council’s credibility. Moreover, Brazil’s selection would antagonize its Spanish-speaking neighbors, while emboldening other regional powers to make similar claims. Despite Roosevelt’s support, Brazil’s bid was ultimately thwarted by London and Moscow.
A lifetime later, these historical debates—over Brazil’s great-power status, relationship to Latin America, potential contributions to global security and likely behavior as a permanent member—remain relevant.
Brazil is still not Latin America’s natural representative. Lula has pursued regional diplomacy, but few South American countries recognize Lusophone Brazil as their leader. Brasilia got little hemispheric support for its energetic council bid in 2004–2005, and Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela will surely oppose any future efforts. More fundamentally, the issue of regional representation is more appropriately addressed in the council’s elected membership, leaving permanent status to great powers able to guarantee global order.
The question remains, however, whether Brazil is a great power. Brazil has obvious strengths, ranking fifth globally in area and population, and eighth in the size of its economy (which has world-class agriculture, aerospace and biofuels sectors). Recent discoveries place it in the top ten in proven oil and gas reserves, and it has amassed huge foreign-exchange holdings. Its environmental assets include massive mineral deposits, rich biodiversity and the largest renewable freshwater resources on earth. Despite the economic crisis, Brazil will probably grow 5 percent in 2010.
And then there are Brasilia’s enviable “soft power” resources. An open, vibrant and multiethnic democracy, Brazil is widely admired as a champion of the developing world and equitable globalization. The Itamaraty, the country’s sophisticated diplomatic corps, speaks with pride of Brazil’s “diplomatic GDP,” and the country has expanded its global presence by opening scores of embassies and consulates since the turn of the century.