Brazil’s Quest for Regional Leadership: The Concentric Circle Strategy

  Since the end of the Cold War, Brazil has been seeking to play a leading role in regional affairs. Based on its special relationship with Argentina, it has formed the Southern Common Market (Mercosur), the Union of South American Nations, and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). ) as the main content of the “concentric circle” regional diplomatic structure. However, due to its lack of political and economic strength, it is difficult for Brazil to continue to play a stable and leading role in regional affairs. Lula will serve as President of Brazil again in 2023 and strives to revitalize regional cooperation, but the prospects are not optimistic.
The formation of Brazil’s “concentric circle” diplomatic structure

  After the end of the Cold War, regional cooperation around the world ushered in a wave of great development. As the intensity of great power competition declines, greater intensity and more autonomous interactions within the region become possible. As a result, there has been a wave of expansion in inter-state activities at the regional level, with countries working together to jointly promote peace, stability and development in the region.
  Since the 1980s, Latin American countries have begun to seek independent solutions to major security issues in the region. In the early 1980s, Venezuela, Mexico, Panama and Colombia formed the Contadora Group, which was dedicated to mediating conflicts in Central America. Brazil has actively joined this process and formed a support group with Argentina, Peru and Uruguay to provide assistance to the former. The two groups eventually merged into the Rio Group, which continues to promote the peaceful resolution of major conflicts in the region. Brazil has followed this process and increasingly taken a leadership role in regional affairs. From 1995 to 1998, a group of Latin American countries led by Brazil successfully mediated the military conflict between Ecuador and Peru; in 2002, Brazil actively promoted the resolution of the chaos caused by the military coup in Venezuela; in 2004, Brazil became a member of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti commander of military operations.
  At the same time, Brazil is actively improving relations with its important neighbor Argentina. In the security field, the two countries reached an agreement to resolve the nuclear issue and committed to fully comply with the Latin American Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, also known as the Treaty of Tlatelolco. This move has greatly enhanced security mutual trust between the two countries. In 1986, the two countries signed the “Brazil-Argentina Integration Action” treaty, committing to deepen economic and trade ties, which provided conditions for the establishment of Mercosur. The establishment of the special relationship between Brazil and Argentina has laid an important foundation for Brazil to seek regional leadership.
  In the process of extensive participation in regional affairs, Brazil has gradually regarded South America (rather than Latin America) as a regional support for the rise of a great power. One of the incentives for this adjustment in its diplomatic strategy is that Brazil feels that its identity as a South American country is more conducive to negotiating with Western creditors on debt issues. Another incentive is its pessimistic view of Mexico. From Brazil’s perspective, Mexico’s entry into the North American Free Trade Area means that Mexico’s diplomatic autonomy with the United States will be greatly reduced, making it difficult to advance Latin American cooperation. Therefore, in the 1990s, Brazilian diplomacy turned to South America as the focus of regional cooperation.
  During the transformation process, Brazil’s regional diplomacy gradually formed a “concentric circle” structure. Its core is the special relationship between Brazil and Argentina, which then expanded into Mercosur, the Union of South American Nations, and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Countries. Mercosur is regarded as the “original cell” of South American integration by Amorim, the long-time foreign minister of Lula’s government. Driven by Brazil, Mercosur was established in 1991. It was not only committed to promoting regional trade liberalization, but also integrated cooperation in the political and security fields. On this basis, successive Brazilian governments have been committed to building a South American cooperation framework. In 1993, Brazilian President Franco proposed the establishment of the South American Free Trade Area; in 2000, Brazilian President Cardoso promoted the holding of the first South American Summit; in May 2008, the Union of South American Nations was formally established, declaring Brazil The South American cooperation framework has been completed.

Brazil’s Great Power Pursuit and Union of South American Nations

  For Brazil, forming the Union of South American Nations is a grand strategy. Brazil hopes to use regional cooperation to make up for its own shortcomings in strength and create a regional environment that is beneficial to itself, thereby enhancing its influence in international politics.
  Since the late 1990s, Brazil has been in a period of rising national power. The Cardoso government (January 1, 1995 – January 1, 2003) took effective measures to gradually control inflation, stabilize the macroeconomy and achieve economic growth. At the same time, President Cardoso carried out major reforms to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to enhance the government’s ability to advance diplomacy. In 2003, Lula took office as president. This was the first time in Brazilian history that power was transferred smoothly between the left and right parties. After Lula came to power, Brazil’s economy reached a new level. From 2003 to 2013, the Brazilian economy prospered as commodity export prices soared. During this “golden decade”, Brazil maintained an average annual economic growth rate of 4%. According to World Bank data, Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP) reached US$891.6 billion in 2005, surpassing Mexico and once again becoming the largest economy in Latin America and the Caribbean, and has maintained this position since then. By 2011, Brazil’s GDP jumped to US$2.62 trillion, which was twice the size of the Mexican economy (US$1.18 trillion), the second largest economy in the region, and exceeded the combined GDP of the other 11 countries in South America (about US$1.8 trillion). . The sustained economic growth and domestic political stability enable the Brazilian government to continue to vigorously promote the implementation of regional diplomatic strategies.
  The Lula government (January 1, 2003 – January 1, 2011) continued the policies of the previous government and formulated a clear agenda for South American cooperation. Its Foreign Minister Amorim pointed out that South America is the highest priority of Brazil’s foreign policy. Driven by the Lula government, the Community of South American Nations was established in 2004. This organization was the first organization to involve 12 South American countries. In May 2008, the Community of South American Nations transformed into the Union of South American Nations, focusing on promoting cooperation in politics, security, infrastructure and other fields in the region. Brazil is the largest economy in the Union. Its economic volume is equivalent to 60% of the total economic volume of the Union, and it bears the highest share of dues among the member states of the Union (approximately 39%).
  The Union of South American Nations is a multilateral cooperation structure designed by the Lula government to enhance Brazil’s international influence. Brazil first hopes to use it to maintain peace and stability in South America. If there is unrest in the surrounding area, Brazil’s attention will be drawn into it and the door will be opened to outside intervention. Secondly, the Lula government hopes to use regional cooperation to resist the negative effects of globalization and transform South America into a priority market for Brazilian companies. Third, the alliance helps Brazil become a leader in regional affairs and lays the foundation for it to play a greater role in global affairs.
  The Union of South American Nations played a very significant role after its establishment. It has repeatedly mediated conflicts between member states and promoted stability in the region. At the end of 2009, Venezuela and Colombia had a serious diplomatic conflict. The Alliance quickly intervened and mediated, promoting the two countries to restore bilateral relations in 2010. The alliance emphasizes the defense of the democratic institutions of member states and stipulates the adoption of diplomatic, political and trade sanctions against member states that commit unconstitutional acts such as coups. In 2012, Paraguayan President Lugo was forcibly removed from office by Congress. The league was quick to condemn and subsequently suspended Paraguay’s membership. In 2012, relations between Argentina and the United Kingdom intensified again because of the Falklands dispute. All members of the alliance support Argentina’s sovereign status of the Falkland Islands and prohibit ships flying the flag of the Falkland Islands (the British name for the Falkland Islands) from entering their ports.

Can Lula’s return revive regional integration?

  In the past 20 years, Brazil’s domestic situation has experienced drastic changes. In the first decade of the 21st century, the country maintained economic growth and political stability, sought to exert influence on the international stage, and became a representative member of emerging economies. In the second decade of the 21st century, Brazil fell into an extremely passive situation. Since 2014, the Brazilian economy has gradually lost its growth momentum, first falling into negative growth in 2015 and 2016, and then experiencing a severe recession in 2020 that has not been seen in decades – the annual GDP growth rate is -5.3%. At the same time, political corruption scandals broke out repeatedly, and large-scale social protests occurred frequently. In 2016, President Rousseff was impeached and stepped down, triggering a violent domestic political turmoil. This situation inevitably affects Brazilian foreign policy. From the second term of the Rousseff government to the Temer government, and then to the Bolsonaro government, Brazil’s attention to regional and global affairs has shown a significant trend of shrinking.
  Brazil’s diplomatic retrenchment resulted in the lack of clear leadership in the Union of South American Nations, which became one of the main reasons for the union’s temporary “suspension”. The Alliance has a large number of member states, with different levels of economic and social development and different policy orientations. Therefore, from the beginning, the alliance has relied heavily on Brazil as the regional leader to coordinate and maintain unity. Since 2015, the rotation of left and right forces in the region has led to a reduction in the degree of political unity among alliance member states. The unfavorable economic and social situation has caused many member states to pay less attention to regional affairs. The divergent positions of member states on the political crisis in Venezuela have triggered internal divisions in the alliance. . Brazil has become a “half-hearted leader” at this critical moment, with no intention of taking on broad obligations to maintain the unity of the alliance. In April 2018, Temer’s government decided to suspend participation in alliance activities. After the Bolsonaro government came to power, it further accelerated Brazil’s “withdrawal” momentum: Brazil first officially withdrew from the Union of South American Nations in April 2019, and then announced in January 2020 that it would suspend its participation in CELAC activities.
  Lula’s return to power in 2023 means that Brazil’s foreign policy will return to its traditional line. He highly emphasized the importance of regional cooperation. He first announced at the beginning of the year that Brazil would rejoin the activities of CELAC, and then announced its return to the Union of South American Nations in April. But Lula’s newfound diplomacy cannot solve Brazil’s old problem of insufficient regional leadership. World Bank data shows that Brazil’s GDP reached a historical high in 2011, ranking seventh among countries in the world; thereafter, due to weak economic growth, Brazil’s GDP dropped to US$1.9 trillion in 2022, and its world ranking fell to 11th, behind India and Russia. Brazil’s lead over Mexico, the region’s second-largest economy, has shrunk significantly. To this day, Brazil’s domestic economy is still sluggish, and the poverty situation has not significantly improved. If the economic and social situation cannot be improved, the scene of voters casting “angry votes” during the 2018 general election may happen again, and the resulting political instability will inevitably damage the stability of Brazil’s foreign policy again. By then, the regional cooperation it advocates and promotes May be in trouble again.

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