Nimrod Novik
The Guardian
December 22, 2010 - 1:00am

Despite the worldwide economic downturn, Brazil's economic performance is the strongest in recent memory. Inflation is under target and international reserves stand at around $240bn (£155bn). This, in turn, has created a space for Brazilian diplomatic activity that reaches far wider than in the past.

Partnerships with South Africa and India through the IBSA dialogue forum, a rising presence in Africa and the Middle East, and the strategic partnerships with China and the EU are all examples of Brazil's emergence on the international stage.

The five-day tour of Israel, Palestine and Jordan by President Lula da Silva last March, Brazilian involvement in the Iranian nuclear controversy, and its recent decision to recognise a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders all point to a new Brazilian strategy aimed at being seen as a neutral player in the Middle East willing to talk to all sides.

Although Brazil's efforts to find a Middle East role have been unsuccessful so far, its eagerness to become a key player in that region ought to be taken seriously. Brazil's attempt to portray itself as an enabler and hence a legitimate actor is a clear sign of its ambitions in global affairs and its ultimate claim that emerging powers should have a greater say in international politics.

But what, exactly, underlies this new strategy? Is Brazil seeking to utilise the Middle East as a platform for challenging the current structure of global governance or is it merely trying to secure its ever increasing economic interests and needs? The most accurate answer, perhaps, is both – though it seems securing economic gains outweighs political considerations.

A central theme in the discourses emanating from Brazil is the idea of asymmetry in international political and economic relations. Since the early 1990s, Brazilian governments have sought to employ the regional context for an approach to globalisation and development that facilitates a near-equal insertion of developed and developing countries into the global market .

Not only has this political agenda had very beneficial economic and trade effects, boosting exports to Africa and the Middle East by 200%, it has also offered Brazil increased opportunities for dialogue and interaction with the rest of the world.

In addition, Brazil hopes that a decrease in American power and popularity in the Middle East will provide opportunities to increase its own influence in the region and rival that of China.

As a result, the new Brazilian strategy in the Middle East does not solely stem from a desire to prove its worthiness to western powers. Although positive Brazilian contributions to either the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Iran stand-off with the west could lead to significant political gains, the main objectives of Brazil's Middle East policy are economic in nature: namely, diversification of trade relations and seeking new partners for the Brazilian economy.

Brazil's interest in altering the world economic and trade geography now focuses on the Middle East. This is clearly evident in the Brazilian-backed Mercosur free trade agreement with Israel, the offer of free trade agreements to Jordan, plans to hold a world economic conference of the Palestinian diaspora in Sao Paulo in July 2011, and growing economic ties between Iran and Brazil with annual trade figures set to increase from $2bn to $15bn.

There is a massive market in the Gulf sub-region for Brazilian aluminium, which is yet to be fully explored. Within the energy sector, Brazil hopes that its experience in biofuels will offer alternative solutions to Middle Eastern countries. This is one reason why Brazil insists on Iran's right to nuclear energy – since it sees a profitable market for itself.

Last but certainly not least, Brazilian coffee, ethanol, sugar, and meat are highly demanded commodities in the region and Brazil needs to forge closer ties to regimes there in order to secure favourable deals.

All in all, Brazil has entered the 21st century as a rising global power catching the attention of international affairs professionals. This silent rise to international prominence, in turn, has its roots in the way in which Brazilian foreign policy is conducted.

A careful analysis of the Brazilian strategic thinking reveals that the country has a long history of acting covertly to protect its interests under the guises of multilateralism and south-south relations. What is more, enlisting foreign policy to the service of Brazilian economic and social development has been the dominant theme of its foreign policy since the early 1990s when Brazil adopted neoliberal economic policies, albeit in its own distinctive way.

But the foreign ministry has neither the administrative structure nor the trained and experienced diplomats to handle religious, ideological and political complexities associated with the Middle East. Brazil is new to the region and everyone there is likely to draw something for their own benefit, with all being prepared to condemn Brazil when/if it fails to deliver. Add to this Brazil's inability to provide security guarantees due to its lack of regional, let alone global, capabilities to project force and it then becomes clear that solid business interests, not peace, constitute the genuine part of the Brazilian Middle East agenda.

Nonetheless, Brazil can assist in stabilisation of the Middle East if the Obama administration is prepared to reduce US political monopoly over the region and share the cake. There is certainly a role for a state which has not only chosen not to develop nuclear weapons but is also home to more than 120,000 Jews and 10 million Arabs living in full harmony. A combination of Brazilian soft power and American hard power can potentially be a force for good in the region.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017