Will Brazil Miss the Liberal International Order?

Harold Trinkunas is the deputy director of FSI’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. This article originally appeared in Portuguese in the September 2018 edition of the Brazilian magazine Exame CEO, reproduced here in English with its permission.

Brazil has long criticized the U.S.-led liberal international order. First established after World War II, this rules-based order was designed to avoid another Great Depression or World War by constraining the international military and economic behavior of member states and providing the basis for international cooperation through organizations like the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions. Initially limited to the non-Soviet Bloc states, it spread worldwide after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Rio de Janeiro at sunrise (photo credit: Getty Images).

So what doesn’t Brazil like about the liberal international order? With all its defects, the present international order has at least accomplished its main objectives of avoiding catastrophic global conflicts and economic crises. Brazilian diplomats cite four aspects of the order that should change: it is not multilateral enough, it is not democratic enough, it is not collaborative enough, and it is not supportive enough of developing states. They see it as a system in which less powerful states are not treated as equally sovereign and don’t get an equal voice in making collective decisions. In particular, Brazilian foreign policy has been critical of Washington’s view that the United States could unilaterally ignore the rules of the international order and intervene in the affairs of other states in the name of protecting the system as a whole. Brazil argues that U.S. unilateralism can cause problems for others even when the U.S. believes that it has achieved a lesser of two evils with its interventions. With persistent instability and refugee flows from countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria following U.S.-led interventions, Brazil may have a point.

The Liberal International Order and its Critics
Today, the Trump administration is busy undermining the international order by starting trade wars, criticizing NATO and the G7, and cozying up to dictators such as Kim Jong Un in North Korea and Vladimir Putin in Russia. President Trump seems skeptical of the notion of a rules-based order, and instead seems to prefer maximum latitude for the exercise of U.S. power to intimidate friends, partners, and allies. The unwillingness of other states to trust U.S. international commitments after the Trump administration’s abandonment of Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the Paris climate change agreement, and the Iran nuclear deal is understandable.

The apparent retreat of the liberal international order is causing grave concern among U.S partners and allies, as well as among international relations scholars. So should Brazil be happy that the liberal international order is fading? No, because the alternatives are worse, less predictable and more threatening to Brazil’s national interests.

Brazil has long sought to reform the international order, not to end it. Unfortunately, most other critics of the liberal international order, ranging from China and Russia to Syria, Iran and North Korea, are not particularly interested in reform. They instead want fewer international constraints on the exercise of their power and on their ability to rule their peoples without regard for norms supporting human rights, democracy, or freedom.

The Role of International Institutions in Securing Brazil’s Interests
Brazil has long relied heavily on international institutions to safeguard its national interests. Whether it is the United Nations, the Word Trade Organization, or UNASUR, Brazil has promoted rules-based institutions and multilateral diplomacy as the solution to the world’s problems. Rather than relying on military force to protect itself, Brazil has promoted regional and international peace as the best way of securing its borders and its people. It benefits from a world in which the great powers feel obligated to conduct their foreign policy in accordance with the rules and norms embedded in international treaties and institutions.

For Brazil, the emerging order characterized by great power rivalry is less predictable, and because of that, more threatening than what has come before. In the past, the United States followed most of the rules most of the time to encourage other states to do the same. Although the U.S. sometimes violated the rules of the international order in the name of ‘protecting’ it, the United States usually tried to check the ability of other great powers such as China and Russia to act outside established diplomatic boundaries. With President Trump freely expressing his skepticism of international rules and his admiration for authoritarian leaders such as Putin and Xi Jinping, China and Russia are likely to feel emboldened.

Brazil is not the only country to find itself worse off at the prospect of a fading liberal international order. In Europe, Japan, South Korea, India, and across the Global South, most states prefer a more predictable and rules-based international system. A system where great powers are more rather than less constrained is preferable for the majority of humanity. Moreover, the institutions on which the international order is based, such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, still exist. Working collaboratively with likeminded partners to defend these institutions and isolate rogue great powers such as Russia and, increasingly, the United States under the Trump administration, is preferable to a world in which Brazil turns its back on diplomacy and international institutions.

Restoring Diplomacy to its Proper Place in Brazil’s Foreign Policy
Historically, Brazil has found it hard to sustain an effective foreign policy in times of domestic political and economic crisis. Domestic crises undermine Brazil’s ‘soft power’, its ability to persuade others via diplomacy to align their interests with Brazil’s. And in fact, Brazilian diplomacy, in part because of the national crisis and in part because of budget cuts at Itamaraty, has taken a decidedly lower profile on the international stage during the Rousseff and Temer administrations.

To protect its national interests, Brazil’s next president should reverse course and make international diplomacy a priority. This will mean more cooperation with countries that share Brazil’s preference for a rules-based order to protect international institutions such as the United Nations and the WTO. It will mean a rebalancing relations with China to focus on issues where both countries are committed to a rules-based approach and diplomatically disagreeing when China fails to follow the rules. It means rethinking BRICS given Russia’s rogue behavior. And it means taking a more active global leadership role, including through greater participation addressing international security crises and in peacekeeping.

It is true that a more active Brazil abroad will generate more costs for Brazilians at home. However, the alternative is for Brazil to behave as many other states do, relying on more coercive means to secure its borders and its interests abroad, necessitating higher levels of defense spending. But even if Brazil does nothing, it will still pay a cost because it will be less able to protect its national interests as the liberal international order fades away to be replaced by a less predictable and more threatening system dominated by great power rivalry.