One of the few certainties about Brazil’s political landscape is the timeless quality of its foreign service. The Brazilian Ministry of External Relations (also known as Itamaraty, the Modernist palace designed by Oscar Niemeyer where it is housed in Brasília) often prides itself on having some of the world’s most professional diplomats. Over the past century, the ministry has been responsible for constructing a sound foreign policy repertoire built upon principles such as pacifism, multilateralism, and realism—with José Maria da Silva Paranhos Júnior, the Barão do Rio Branco, one of Brazil’s national heroes, as their main inspiration. Some would even go as far as to claim that the evolution of Itamaraty, both as an institution and as the centerpiece of foreign policymaking, has walked hand in hand with the formation of Brazil’s national identity.
In recent years, however, Brazilian foreign policy and its admirable operators have fallen under heavy public scrutiny. Common sense has it that it all started with the allegedly controversial diplomatic choices made by president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his party, the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) in the last decade. Lula’s foreign policy, by detaching itself from the traditional guidelines of the country’s diplomacy, would have put our international credibility at risk by courting leftist dictators and insisting on an ideology-driven, “third-worldish” orientation. Surprised and enraged at the attempt to break with the past, a number of diplomats and scholars, backed by some important business sectors and opposition parties, have come to the fore to denounce the perils of that new global strategy. Some analysts, on the other hand, claim that debate over foreign policy is just a natural outcome of Brazil’s democratic maturity. One thing is certain: while public debate on foreign affairs in Brazil was no novelty, never before did it take such significant proportions.
At first, criticism focused only on international options, opportunities, and outcomes. The president and his close aides—Foreign Minister Celso Amorim and Lula’s personal advisor, Marco Aurélio Garcia—were the ones to blame. However, rifts within Itamaraty and between diplomats, organized public and private sectors, and the general public, became deeper to the point of filling pages of editorials and Op-Eds and hitting the headlines on the country’s leading newspapers—O Estado de São Paulo(OESP), Folha de São Paulo (FSP), and O Globo. What started as a purported crisis of foreign policy developed into a crisis within foreign policymaking. Brazilian diplomacy now, unlike any other moment in its history, is being put up against the wall. One respected Brazilianist, Sean Burges, of the Australian National University, recently posed the most sensitive of questions: “Is Itamaraty a problem for Brazilian foreign policy?”
What exactly is happening to Itamaraty, and what to do about it? The extent of the public debate and the harm it may cause to one of Brazil’s most prestigious institutions is yet to be assessed. What is possible to say about it so far is that it has at least three different sources—a “triple crisis” therefore. The common denominator between the three is, above all, the fact that they have been identified (and amplified) in the pages of newspapers. Let us call those processes a crisis of ideological neutrality; a crisis of cognitive dissonance; and a crisis of social legitimacy. All changes are the natural outcome of democratic processes that have intensified in the past decades and have taken their toll on the logic of Brazil’s diplomatic structures. While it may pose challenges to Itamaraty and, ultimately, to Brazilian foreign policy, it also offers some opportunities for the future.
“I Come to Serve Brazil”
There are several reasons why diplomacy has become so central to the development of Brazil’s national character—which sometimes seems to be a work in progress that does not coincide with independence. Diplomacy has literally shaped our borders. Modern Brazil originates from two treaties signed between Portugal and Spain under the auspices of the Catholic Church: the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), brokered right after the first Iberian mission to the New World, and the Treaty of Madrid (1750), which acknowledged the Portuguese rights to territory at the heart of South America, based on the long-standing custom of Uti Possidetis. According to the notable thesis of Ambassador Synésio Goes Filho, Brazil has been founded by sailors, bandeirantes (the Brazilian pioneers), and diplomats. While the first two agents are common to many countries in their path toward territorial consolidation, wars often replaced diplomacy in shaping modern statehood, particularly among former colonies. Brazil, on the other hand, is a country that has been almost entirely forged by diplomacy—to the extent that our rejection of the use of force has become part of our national identity.
Diplomacy has always been the ticket to Brazil’s international recognition. Among the continental-sized nations of the globe, which George Kennan pictured as ‘monster countries,’ Brazil has never been able to match its territorial assets with military or economic might. Only by mimicking the behavior and style of traditional European diplomatic services from the earliest days of the nineteenth century would the Brazilian Empire be accepted in the foreign circles in the Old World. The country paved its way into becoming, at the turn of that century, a champion of parliamentary diplomacy, embodied in multilateral initiatives such as the Pan-American Conferences and the League of Nations. As the country and its foreign policy grew in maturity, it would become a “norm entrepreneur” on its own, helping devise rules for global regimes in issue-areas as diverse as free trade or environmental protection.
Finally, diplomacy has been the motor of development since the early days of industrialization. Most of the policies that have been played out along Brazil’s path toward industry represent an intricate equation between resource allocation and international bargaining. Although the domestic-foreign nexus has taken many different forms, it is possible to argue that, from Getúlio Vargas in the 1930s to Ernesto Geisel in the 1970s, or even to Lula in the past decade, a great share of Brazilian development has relied on foreign strategies to build the country’s base industry, attract investments for infrastructure, or boost trade globally. Economic pragmatism has been the guideline of Brazil’s foreign relations, and is often regarded as one of the main assets of its diplomacy.
It therefore comes as no surprise that Itamaraty has, in many ways, become greater than governments themselves. More than just an element of Brazil’s national construction, the Ministry of External Relations boldly claims to be the champion of the national interest. Foreign policy, unlike many other public policies, is presented as a state policy and does not subject itself to partisan incongruities. Diplomats and scholars often quote, as the foundation stone of such claim, Barão do Rio Branco’s inaugural speech upon taking office as foreign minister in 1902: “I come not to serve a political party; I come to serve Brazil, which we all want to see united, integrated, strong, and respected.”
Over the course of the twentieth century, the success of Brazil’s diplomacy was cherished as an island of tranquility in a sea of turbulence, given the numerous upheavals the political system had gone through. It seemed to many as if Itamaraty remained as the only stable institution in a nation torn by opposing social forces, having survived several coups d’état and economic breakdowns, thus revealing the genuine identity of a people struggling to make sense of its past with an eye on the future. Indeed, in that same speech, Rio Branco went on to say that in his past diplomatic deeds he received the support of the entire Brazilian people, having “completely identified with it.”
That feeling apparently remained for the next hundred years. The “moral authority” of Brazilian diplomacy was kept largely unchallenged among social actors and political institutions. Foreign policymaking in the second half of the twentieth century witnessed a slow yet consistent move towards bureaucratic insulation. Congressional activism on foreign affairs, which helped shape international outcomes in the hectic postwar years, was replaced by Itamaraty’s virtual monopoly over policymaking as the military took over in March 1964. While it did not represent any major change of course—after all, Brazilian foreign policy is known for its continuity—it empowered diplomats to define and implement, to an unprecedented extent, what they thought best suited Brazil’s national aspirations. By the mid-1970s, there were few doubts among domestic and international spectators that the country’s sound foreign policy strategy was the key for Brazil to become a global power on its own.
In spite of all the economic and political setbacks that marked Brazil’s entry into the next decade (the “lost decade”—due to slow growth rates and escalating inflation), diplomatic orientations still enjoyed a great deal of popular acceptance. The deepening rift between the incumbent military and the civilian opposition in the early 1980s only revealed the strength of Brazilian foreign policy and of diplomats, widely acclaimed for their deeds on both sides of the political struggle. When Tancredo Neves, the first civilian candidate for president after a long military rule, was elected in early 1985, he is said to have decided to keep foreign policy untouched for it represented a supra-partisan consensus. While the late president-elect—Neves passed away even before taking office, but his diplomatic legacy remained—was referring to unanimity around the content of foreign policy, his statement reveals a second, and deeper, consensus: that Itamaraty is the backbone of foreign policymaking.
Transition to democracy did not challenge, at first, the notion that the “national interest” was a reality and that it would still be defined by one single group of statespeople. Not even the new constitution, which was adopted in 1988 and granted enlarged powers and duties to the congress, changed diplomats’de facto monopoly over foreign affairs. To the contrary, yet another “tradition” was born: the diplomatic posts which could erstwhile be filled by politicians—those of ambassador and the foreign minister itself—were progressively given to career diplomats, to the point that no high-level foreign policy position today is out of Itamaraty’s domain. One exception is that of Ambassador Laercio Vinhas, Brazil’s permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, who is a long-time public servant and renowned scholar in the field of nuclear energy.
As Brazil’s foreign relations became more complex, mostly thanks to growing economic interdependence and to greater activism of organized civil society, diplomacy was faced with numerous challenges to its traditional role. Issues relating to trade and regional integration were progressively scattered across several federal institutions, most notably at the Brazilian Foreign Trade Chamber (Câmara de Comércio Exterior, or CAMEX) within the Ministry of Development, Industry, and Foreign Trade (which incorporated the adjective “foreign” as late as 1999). Modalities of cooperation, such as technical cooperation or cooperation for development, have become particularly intense in issues as diverse as health, tourism, agriculture, and education, and have been carried out by their respective ministries. Even though the Brazilian government had already created an official cooperation agency (Agência Brasileira de Cooperação, or ABC) under the auspices of Itamaraty in 1987, inter-ministerial coordination around the foreign policy agenda has been relatively low, irrespective of (or due to) several attempts by the foreign ministry to retain its centrality in those key areas of foreign policymaking.
Moreover, the last three decades marked a watershed in state-society relations in Brazil, with the rise of social movements and organized interest groups. This has also caused turbulence in foreign policymaking in two different aspects.
First of all, in the wake of a new democratic regime, Itamaraty had to engage with societal demands at an unprecedented level, being pressured by what they understood as a “democratic circumstance.” Having realized the inevitability of addressing such demands, the ministry took up the duty of devising new channels of dialogue. One of the most crucial moments in this process was the launching of a government-sponsored cycle of seminars on the future of Brazil’s foreign policy in 1993, which paved the way for more intense talks between Itamaraty diplomats, businesspeople, labor union leaders, and scholars. However, despite some concrete changes—such as the deepening of relations between the ministry and subnational units, or the strengthening of dialogue with business sectors through permanent committees or working groups—the declared goal of “making foreign policy more democratic” is yet to be fully attained. Surveys conducted by Professor Amaury de Souza between 2001 and 2008 with several interest groups (business associations, government ministries, communication media, the congress, universities, NGOs, labor unions) show that they consider that Itamaraty does not give them enough attention.
Secondly, public debate over foreign policy in Brazil has grown considerably in recent times. This was, in a way, propelled by the expansion of international relations undergraduate courses and graduate programs (from two in 1985 to more than a hundred today). The number of specialized journals, master’s theses, and doctoral dissertations in the fields of international politics and foreign policy also has risen sharply in the last two decades. Yet, recent academic developments may not suffice when attempting to grasp the broader picture of Brazil’s international choices among the general public. Considering that the electoral impact of foreign affairs on voters and candidates is still rather low, salience in public opinion seems to be best measured by the growing number of editorials, Op-Eds, and analyses on foreign policy issues in Brazil’s leading newspapers. Indeed, mass media has become the main battlefield of ideas regarding Brazilian diplomatic choices and orientations, not rarely opposing the incumbent government—and offering plenty of room for critics, from scholars to businesspeople to retired diplomats. However limited the agenda-setting capacity of print news media is, their readership is far from negligible.
Curiously enough, during most of the Lula administration, when public attacks against his foreign choices became commonplace, Itamaraty was spared from harsher criticism. One thing critics were cautious about was to dissociate the foreign ministry as an institution from the specific policymakers in charge of foreign affairs. In the last four years, however, public debate in mass media shifted from criticism against Lula’s foreign policy to severe slings and arrows directed at diplomats and their century-old institution. Even though there have always been critics of Itamaraty (particularly among business sectors, non-governmental organizations, and scholars), the ministry was able to shield itself against public bickering, responding to the discontent on a case by case basis and controlling the opening of channels of dialogue. The strategy, however, did not survive the mounting rhetorical attacks that intensified in the last years of the Lula administration, and that have become ruinous under President Dilma Rousseff, leading to the “triple crisis” at the heart of Brazilian public service.
National Interest or Party Interest?
The crisis of ideological neutrality refers to the alleged influence of partisan interests on foreign policymaking. “Partidarization,” as it is often called, is associated with the Lula administration and is said to represent an unprecedented rollback of Brazil’s foreign policy. It contradicts, all at once, the most basic tenet of Brazilian diplomacy—the monolithic unity of the national interest, and its most important characteristic, its linearity and continuity over time. Having initially been formulated as a mere change in tone and emphasis, it developed into a grave disruption of diplomatic tradition. When Lula took office in 2003, backed by a left-wing coalition, he is said to have used foreign policy to counterbalance the orthodox macroeconomic policies he had promised to undertake.
While change, at that point, was more of rhetoric than of substance, it seems to have deepened old cleavages within Itamaraty that became visible some years later. In a 2007 interview with leading news magazine Veja, Roberto Abdenur—who had been secretary-general of Itamaraty and ambassador to the United States—charged the government with promoting “ideological indoctrination” in the ministry. Young diplomats were being brainwashed and forced to read biased literature while older civil servants were promoted according to political affinities and ideologies. “Itamaraty needs to restore its professionalism free from ideological postures, intolerant attitudes, and partisan identification,” concluded Abdenur. He was promptly seconded by former Foreign Minister Mário Gibson Barboza and by other senior diplomats in other leading newspapers, who attacked the political adhesion imposed by the new chiefs. Nevertheless, the “thesis” of partisan interference—or the crisis of ideological neutrality—would be penned by former Foreign Minister Celso Lafer, who served under presidents Fernando Collor de Mello and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in the pages of O Estado de São Paulo in late 2009.
His thesis flows from three logically connected arguments. The first one suggests that, if the state apparatus was taken over by the Workers’ Party’s rank and file to fulfill long-term political aspirations, then the same logic would apply for Itamaraty, albeit at a slower pace. The key role played in the bureaucratic structure by openly left-wing diplomats, such as the then-Secretary-General Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães (2003−2009) or Foreign Minister Amorim himself (who joined the PT in 2008) provides good evidence that the diplomatic agenda was being hijacked by the incumbent political group. That would break with the (otherwise unshakable) notion that diplomats serve the Brazilian state, not specific governments. The second argument is built upon the idea that there have been consistent efforts to put Itamaraty on the sidelines of foreign policymaking in key areas, such as relations with Latin American countries—the most visible of those being the appointment of Marco Aurélio Garcia, a longtime party figure, to the position of special advisor for international affairs to President Lula. Finally, partidarization was being noticed in preferences and outcomes of Brazil’s foreign agenda. In the eyes of the critics, the country’s helmsmen were responsible for leading Brazil to an atypical position of subservience to neighboring caudillos such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez or Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Globally, spectators were taken aback by the enthusiasm with which Lula shook hands with controversial leaders such as Muammar Gadhafi, Bashar Al-Assad, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The natural conclusion was that “from the standpoint of the conduction of foreign policy, partidarization has been leading to mistakes in diplomacy.”
Following Lafer’s Op-Ed, several versions of the same thesis were published in newspapers by high-ranked retired diplomats identified with the Cardoso administration, or by scholars who have become known by their objections to the Workers’ Party. Interestingly, the discussion has not received much academic attention, nor has it been taken seriously by members of the government—who, despite having been constantly asked about the phenomenon of “partidarization” in interviews with newspapers and magazines, did not show much interest in developing on the subject. We may look at it in two different ways. If the point of the criticism is valid, then it is natural that policymakers will avoid talking about it publicly. On the other hand, silence about partidarization may reveal that there are more important issues one should address when it comes to Brazil’s foreign policy challenges. An interview given by Special Advisor Marco Aurélio Garcia to Folha de São Paulo in late 2013 is quite telling in this sense. In an attempt to dodge the question about the relationship between party politics and the national interest, he affirms that “the main lines of foreign policy [in Brazil] are established by the president.” Even if partisan interests are not a problem, it seems that the traditional narrative is being challenged by actors that had seldom taken part in foreign policy making in the past.
Diplomacy and the Presidency
The second crisis of Brazilian diplomacy has to do with the growing divergence between the president and the foreign ministry. This is often attributed to the development of a phenomenon called “presidential diplomacy,” according to which the head of state would take on a more prominent role in foreign policymaking. While there may be specific constitutional provisions for those roles, many of the activities conducted by the president take place in an informal and voluntarist fashion. Therefore, presidential diplomacy is usually identified with strong chiefs of executive, as in the postwar United States or in the French Fifth Republic. In Brazil, it only gained force in the early 1990s, and most of the diplomatic efforts undertaken by the presidents at that moment were related to the need to restore international credibility by reaffirming our democratic credentials.
The new diplomatic reality, in which presidents are active international stakeholders and multilateral summits take place quite often, has also transformed the relationship between public opinion, the mass media, and international affairs in Brazil. As long as the president’s actions abroad naturally receive more media attention, diplomacy is forced to become more accountable, which also contributes to the political salience of world issues. In a nutshell, Brazilian heads of state may use the country’s global standing to boost their own popularity at home; conversely, the “center of gravity” of popular support to international choices shifts from a vague identification with Itamaraty towards a more specific relationship with the president. In any event, for good or ill, the otherwise linear diplomatic orientation put forth by the Ministry of External Relations becomes more complex and intertwined with domestic forces and partisan interests. With an eye on the public, the president helps turn foreign policy into a public policy, which may endanger Brazil’s long-standing diplomatic orientations. At the same time, tradition should be preserved to some degree for the sake of coherence.
If coherence is something to be sought after, then the president and diplomats must establish a good working relationship, with the foreign minister as the link between them. This has been generally true for the Cardoso and Lula administrations, and some even claim that their success abroad was made possible by the harmony between the strategies forged by the presidents and the idea of national interest secured by the ministry. When Dilma Rousseff was elected in 2010, many thought she would return foreign policymaking to Itamaraty, given her apparent lack of interest in global questions—except for the defense of human rights, which was part of the president’s own biography. The nomination of Ambassador Antonio Patriota as foreign minister, who had a lower and more technical profile than his predecessor, also pointed towards a risk-averse foreign policy. In any case, expectations were high that traditional diplomatic guidelines would be maintained, building on the achievements of previous years.
President Rousseff’s relationship with the diplomatic institution, however, did not turn out as imagined by several analysts and policymakers. It was clear, on the one hand, that she would retreat from the active presidential diplomacy of the prior heads of state. But rather than simply transfer some political prerogatives back to Itamaraty, she decided to impose her own worldview on how foreign policy should be made, dramatically constraining diplomats’ room for action. While it seemingly had to do with her personal traits and leadership style, with a more centralized and straightforward touch (as opposed, for instance, to Lula’s largely consensual style), it ended up revealing an insurmountable cognitive divergence between the president and the foreign ministry. Ever since President Rousseff took office there have been several accounts of public and private disagreements between herself and Foreign Minister Patriota; and other ministers were placed at the center of foreign policymaking. To one journalist, the problem was that diplomats were not able to adapt themselves to the president’s demands, which led Brazil to have weaker global positions. To another, quoting a senior diplomat, there is a growing sensation that the president deems diplomacy “irrelevant” and diplomats as a hindrance to her foreign policy goals. The unwanted but expected outcome is instability at the core of foreign policymaking.
Indeed, some of Brazil’s major initiatives abroad in the last three years were undertaken without greater engagement, or even prior knowledge, of the foreign ministry. The ambitious Science without Borders program, aimed at sending undergraduate and graduate students to top-notch universities in the fields of science, technology, and innovation, was almost entirely devised and carried out by the ministries of education and of science and technology—even though it partially changed the country’s international priorities. Infrastructure projects connecting Brazil and its neighbors, whose goal is to overcome some persistent economic bottlenecks, gained priority over regional political agreements that marked previous administrations. Itamaraty played a secondary role in the diplomatic maneuver that admitted Venezuela to Mercosur, after suspending Paraguay’s membership due to an alleged breach of democracy. It fell to Luís Inácio Adams, attorney general of the Union, not Patriota, to make a public case for the Brazilian government in Folha de São Paulo—which raised doubts as to whether the decision was made with the consent of diplomatic officers.
Finally, the most celebrated diplomatic achievement of the Rousseff administration—the election of Brazilian Ambassador Roberto Azevêdo as director-general of the World Trade Organization—was claimed to be the fruit of the personal engagement in negotiations of President Rousseff and of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade Minister Fernando Pimentel. In the government’s official narrative, no word has been said about the diplomatic contacts built by Itamaraty in the previous years and which were key to Azevêdo’s victory. The foreign ministry has been portrayed as unimportant even in the most central foreign policy issues. This weakens Itamaraty within the government (already the ministry receives the second smallest budget allocation out of thirty-nine ministries) and undermines the prestige of diplomacy in the eyes of the public.
The third crisis is the growing incompatibility between foreign policy and social demands. There are several reasons why foreign policy remained unchallenged over the decades, most of which related to the notion that diplomatic orientations undertaken by Itamaraty enjoyed broad consensus along party lines. It may be argued that this agreement has been eroding from the moment foreign policy became a distributive issue. Democratization on the one hand and economic opening on the other, have been major forces in shaping the political process in post-authoritarian Brazil. One of the outcomes was the progressive transformation of foreign policy into a public policy. Both international and societal demands had become more complex, with the potential to undermine the longtime understanding that Brazil’s international affairs were driven by a monolithic “national interest” defined exclusively by Itamaraty. Professor Matias Spektor, who writes a fortnightly column on foreign affairs in Folha de São Paulo, has wisely pointed out that the greatest foreign policy challenge for the next years will be meeting the demands of the new—and growing—working class in Brazil.
Signs of divided opinion on diplomatic paths have been quite evident ever since President Cardoso took office—they intensified under President Lula. The interesting aspect of the struggle is that most of the criticism was fired at the presidents themselves and their foreign policy choices, leaving Itamaraty untouched. It leads us to the necessary distinction, which is particularly critical in the Brazilian case, between diplomacy and foreign policy. While the former is often related to the work of diplomats on behalf of the foreign ministry, the latter encompasses a broader set of policies which are directed to foreign countries, regional blocs, or multilateral institutions. As already mentioned, the two concepts converged for most of the twentieth century, given Itamaraty’s enlarged role and prerogatives in foreign policymaking. Thanks to the greater complexity of Brazil’s global agenda, diplomacy went on to become, in the last two decades, a subset of foreign policy—surely, the most important one, but struggling to maintain its centrality in a context of rapid social, economic, and political transformations at home and abroad.
Guided by the long-standing motto “the best tradition of Itamaraty is to be able to renew itself,” several institutional adaptations were undertaken within the ministry to keep up with these changes, such as increasing the number of diplomatic positions, improving recruitment mechanisms and bureaucratic structures, as well as enhancing transparency through public diplomacy, social media, and academic publishing. For many years, the ministry’s slow but inevitable opening to democratic forces was enough to shield diplomacy from public attack, mostly so because Itamaraty still enjoyed a great deal of prestige among presidents and within the public administration. Nevertheless, with the dramatic weakening of the foreign office in the Rousseff years, it is possible to suggest that the ministry could not live up to the growing pressure to which it has been subjected—irrespective of the achievements of the institutional reforms.
The symptoms were many: from high-ranked officers being charged with misconduct to allegations of unconstitutional “super salaries” being paid to ambassadors overseas, Itamaraty has been exposed like never before. In the most vehement criticism of the current state of Brazilian diplomacy, veteran journalist Fernando Rodrigues calls diplomatic excellence a “mirage,” describes the ministry as a “snakepit inhabited by gossipers,” and claims that the foreign ministry “possibly has the worst cost/benefit ratio for the Brazilian taxpayers.” While it is not hard to dismiss the overstatements of a long-standing foe of the diplomatic career—Rodrigues published, as early as 2000, an Op-Ed entitled “Privatize Itamaraty” —the growing number of scandals that have hit the headlines is indicative of turbulent times. Things only got worse when Justice Joaquim Barbosa declared, in an interview with O Globo in August 2013, that the foreign ministry was “one of Brazil’s most discriminatory institutions.” Barbosa, the country’s first black Supreme Court president, had been turned down for a diplomatic career because he “did not fit into the ideal profile” supposedly due to his skin color. Although Barbosa’s declaration was quickly disavowed by the ministry’s spokesperson, his words were a blow to an institution that had been investing in affirmative action policies for more than a decade.
But perhaps the most eye-catching example of estrangement took place during the massive popular demonstrations all around Brazil in June 2013. In the country’s capital, protesters broke into the Itamaraty Palace and left a trace of damage along the building’s main façade. The palace has long been the greatest symbol of national diplomacy and a monument of Brazil’s republican virtues. The act of vandalism led Professor Dawisson Lopes to draw a comparison between popular discontent in Brazil and the United States. In his Op-Ed “Occupy Itamaraty” (in a clear parallel with the events in Wall Street), he argues that the excessive formalism of Brazilian diplomacy is incompatible with “political practices of the twenty-first century.” His conclusion points out to a structural problem which relates to the very nature of the diplomatic activity: “in a time of instant and massive communication, in which individuals, making use of their portable devices, exchange information from any point of the planet… it becomes less sensible for the taxpayer to fund public officers to perform apparently simple tasks such as sending official telegrams or promoting courtesy among nations.” It seems high time that a thorough public relations reform is undertaken to bring Itamaraty closer to the general public (not to mention to the key interest groups). Only by restoring its legitimacy and popular support will the ministry be able to regain ground as the pillar of foreign policymaking in Brazil.
In Search of Renewal
Even though the word “crisis” is often employed in its negative sense, one of Merriam- Webster’s definitions is “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending.” There is no denying that Brazilian diplomacy is going through difficult moments, and that a major transformation is being demanded from many different sides. After all, Brazilian democracy has come of age. But it is important to assess the depth and extent of the three crises, for they do not represent equal challenges to the future of Itamaraty and of Brazil’s foreign policy as we know it. While the crisis of ideological neutrality is the most commonly mentioned in the pages of newspapers—having become a staple among journalists and politicians—it is probably the least perilous to the foreign service. Partisan interference in diplomatic affairs is relatively low, and strategies played out by specific administrations rarely contradict the goals and traditions set forth by Itamaraty. As long as foreign policy remains salient in the public agenda, debates over the ideological leanings of foreign policymakers will eventually surface. Judging by the last two decades, however, the impact of such discussions will be trifling.
The second and third crises should be of greater concern. If presidential diplomacy is not necessarily antithetical to the traditional foundations of Brazilian diplomacy, it becomes a problem when the relationship between the chief executive and the diplomatic body is marked by divergent worldviews. That seems to be the case of the current administration, and one of the most daunting tasks of the new foreign minister, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, is to build stronger bridges between the president (and all political imperatives that come with the office) and the long-standing role of Itamaraty.
In any event, cognitive dissonance is a short-term issue; power shifts at the top of the executive branch may open up opportunities for new equilibria between politicians and diplomats. Societal demands, on the other hand, are a much stronger force, but its impacts are only felt in the long run. Apparently, given the confluence of challenges the Brazilian diplomatic structure has to face, the time has arrived for a decisive change in how Itamaraty addresses the idea of a “democratic foreign policy.” With improved accountability mechanisms and a renewed reputation among the general public, the Ministry of External Relations may find the necessary leverage to overcome the so-called crises and to live up to the challenges of this new century, while remaining the cornerstone of our national aspirations.
Guilherme Casarões is a professor of international relations at Faculdades Integradas Rio Branco and a lecturer at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas, specializing in Brazilian diplomacy and Middle Eastern affairs. He has contributed to publications such as Austral, Bulletin of Latin American Research, Contexto Internacional, and Perceptions.
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