In Brazil, international issues used to be confined to the domain of diplomacy. Heads of state – let alone society as a whole –seldom interfered with or had much interest in international issues. But in the last couple of decades, this has changed: Brazilian society, politicians and a broad range of domestic institutions have moved in the direction of internationalism and international relations. It started during the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (from 1995 to 2003), and gathered momentum during the second term of his successor, President Lula da Silva (2003-11). Led by the president, this period saw many more people getting involved in international issues and diplomatic relations.
Following the first ‘oil shock’ in 1973, and then the end of two decades of dictatorship in 1985, Brazil struggled for almost 20 years with persistently high inflation. Successive governments paid little attention to Brazil’s foreign policy, concentrating instead on domestic problems. Thanks to the stabilization of the economy, the introduction of successful social policies and the growing importance of Brazil as a global food provider, the country has been able to turn its focus outwards. In addition, a number of Brazilian companies have become very successful in the global arena; all these elements have created a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions which became the ideal background for an eloquent President Lula to draw the world’s attention to the increasing global importance of his country.
Without discussing the merits and demerits of Lula’s actions, the fact is that they were rapidly understood, and translated into a greater international role for Brazil: the country led development co-operation initiatives in Latin America and Africa, hosted international gatherings, enjoyed greater participation in international forums, and appeared more regularly in the foreign press.
To some extent, Lula’s rhetoric also helped the Brazilian people believe that their cultural values, life experiences and resilience were something not only to be proud of but also of use to countries and people going through similar problems and facing the same realities. While it is true that Brazilians started to engage more fully in sharing information and expertise with other countries, it must be said that much of this engagement was in response to requests received from countries that President Lula visited, rather than proactive behaviour.
Brazilians are still learning about democracy, their rights and the political system, but as populations become better connected and more aware of others’ realities, they start to realize that solutions to many domestic problems will only be sustainable if tackled within a global framework – not necessarily a formal one – and/or in a collaborative way. Solidarity thus plays an important role; as the saying goes, ‘best friends are people who make your problems their problems, so you don’t have to go through them alone’. The big revolution in internationalism is still to come.
Yet resistance to internationalism can still be seen. In Brazil, as in any other country, there are factions whose individualistic and nationalistic views are detrimental to internationalism and to social justice.
In the Brazilian government, and in particular in the Ministry of External Relations, there is still a reluctance to adapt to democracy and pluralism. Brazilian foreign policy must be modernized if it is to work for today’s internationalism. It should not only engage with other governments and the private sector, but also support and incorporate civil society dialogues.
Educating the very youngest generations to truly embrace an internationalist perspective is crucial: we are, after all, facing an increasing number of global and systemic problems that will determine their future, including climate change, limited natural resources and transnational crimes. Promoting educational exchange programmes may also play an important role in improving mutual understanding and building bridges. Increasing awareness of other cultures and promoting interpersonal connections are ways of pursuing internationalism. We live in an era where hard power has not only lost its effectiveness – as if it had any to begin with – but has increasingly been losing the support of people all over the world. There is space for internationalism to become even more effective – once we generate connections that are transformational.
Adriana De Queiroz is the Executive Coordinator at the Brazilian Center for International Relations – CEBRI where she has been responsible for projects on issues such as international trade, development and the environment.
The Internationalists blogging series has been timed to mark NI's 40th anniversary. Read the other blogs exploring perspectives on development and global solidarity.