José Francisco Lynce Zagallo Pavia is Associate Professor at Lusíada Universities of Lisbon, Visiting Professor at Sciences Po Grenoble (2022)
The emergence and growing importance of new international institutions and groupings, such as the AIIB (Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank), the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the BRICS bank (NDB – New Development Bank) or the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), among others, which all have in common the fact that they « escape » from the control of western countries and, even many times, are seen as « hostile » to them, can lead us to conclude that there is a new international reality that is challenging the International Liberal Order.
If we add to this a significant group of countries, from the Global South, that either vote in favor of Russia, or abstain in resolutions in the General Assembly of the UN to condemn the illegal invasion of Ukraine, we can conclude that something is changing and that the principles that were considered universal by the West are being questioned. We can infer, from here, that we are witnessing a transformation in the nature of the international system, or this situation is just an epiphenomenon that will not change the dominant characteristics. And what about Latin America and, especially Brazil, namely under the new Lula government? A debate and, perhaps, new assumptions and answers are needed on this issue.
The war on Ukraine and the non-alignment of most of the Global South
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, in February 2022, highlighted a cleavage that already existed, but which somehow was not very evident, between what is conventionally called the Global South (Africa, Latin America and Asia) and the West (i.e. the European Union, the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and eventually Japan and South Korea). In fact, this invasion managed to strengthen the Western alliance significantly in a way that eventually went against the Kremlin’s initial predictions (and wishes). See Finland’s recent accession to NATO and the future accession of Sweden, two traditionally neutral countries, but which saw membership in the Atlantic Alliance as an urgent necessity in the face of the Russian threat. However, many countries have not aligned themselves with the West in criticizing and condemning Russia’s actions and, in some cases, refuse to apply sanctions and boycotts to the Kremlin.
This situation has raised much perplexity and uneasiness among many leaders in the West, who cannot understand this lack of empathy for Ukraine and the reluctance to take a stand against the violation of fundamental norms and principles. There is a large variety of explanations for this fact, and not all of them lead us back to an eventual rejection tout court of the Liberal International Order; some explanations have to do with economic issues of dependence on Russian exports of oil, natural gas or cereals and fertilizers; others relate to affinities between the elites of these countries and the former USSR, where many have studied, been exiled or even started a family (as in many African countries); still others are linked to recent developments regarding security issues and contracts concluded with the Wagner Group, (for example Mali, Burkina-Faso or Central African Republic); others, finally, for reasons of sovereignty, non-alignment, desire not to take sides or even some resentment against the West.
The international liberal order and its contradictions
The concept of liberal international order was born after World War II and concerns a set of norms, institutions and mechanisms that have guided the international system (or at least a large part of it). Many of these norms and institutions, such as the United Nations, but also the GATT and now the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank, the UNCLOS and, more recently, although with controversy, the ICC, among others, embody the “order” , whose highest exponent would be the United Nations Security Council; the “liberal” would be based on an idea of economic liberalism, political liberalism (by no means consensual) and the Liberalism of the theory of International Relations opposed to Realism, that is multilateralism, rules and norms, diplomacy, treaties, etc.
The problem is that more and more criticisms and challenges to this “Order” are emerging, not only from revisionist powers, but also from many countries of the so-called Global South, who argue that after all this “Order” mainly benefits the West and that, namely, the United States of America, are quite selective with regard to subjection to these norms and institutions when their interests are at stake. They point to an obvious hypocrisy in the fact that Washington has not ratified, for example, the UNCLOS, and appealed to it in maritime border disputes in the South China Sea; they also point to the fact that it is not a signatory to the Rome Statute – and has even harshly criticized it – but now supports the issuance of an arrest warrant against President Putin by the ICC; they are WTO signatories, but infringe its most elementary rules and norms, when their interests are at stake (Helms Burton Act, among others); they invade countries under false pretenses (Iraq), deliberately not complying with the provisions in the charter of the United Nations, and so on and so forth.
These contradictions, among others, end up “undermining” the West’s credibility vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Hence, the latter’s reaction is, many times, to highlight these contradictions and advocate a new, more inclusive “order” that, in some way, distances itself from this Western predominance and its values. The West will have to pay attention to these criticisms and “(…) this demands paying due respect to the legitimate resentment that many countries of the “Global South” have toward the existing order. Simply defending the status quo will not do the trick. They need to re-envision it.
Latin America and Brazil (again under Lula government)
Very recently (April, 2023), many analysts and political leaders in the West were perplexed by the statements made by Brazilian President Lula da Silva following his visit to Beijing. Lula stated that the West (United States of America and the European Union) should stop supplying Ukraine with arms, contributing to a quicker reaching of some kind of agreement between the two belligerents. By placing the two on the same level, aggressor and victim, Lula raised countless voices of indignation, with some calling the Brazilian president a “Putin ally”.
Now, again, all of this needs to be put in context. This was not the first time, nor will it certainly be the last, that Brazilian diplomacy distanced itself from the West in general, and from the United States of America in particular. The Brazilian Itamaraty (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) has this tradition very much based on distrust and historical fear – which is common in Latin America – towards its great neighbor to the North. In Lula’s previous terms (2002-2010) and even with his successor Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) there were several episodes of disagreement between the diplomacies of the two countries, namely the intervention of Brazil, together with Turkey, in an attempt to mediate of the Iranian-American conflict over nuclear proliferation, or the episode of the reactivation, by the USA, of the Fourth Naval Squad, in 2008, which deserved repudiation and interrogations by the diplomacy of Brasilia, or even, the integration of Brazil in UNASUR, which was never seen with good eyes by Washington, among other episodes. Brazil’s presence in the BRICS, which has been seen as an antagonist of Washington’s positions, is also a deliberate choice of Brazilian diplomacy to find new partnerships in the Global South.
In short, these positions taken by Brasilia are not new and fit perfectly with Itamaraty’s posture and with a line governed by the expression “Autonomy through Assertiveness”. In this framework, President Lula’s words are better understood, despite the fact that he later expressed his “total” condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine. This is also the way to understand the recent tour of the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, through Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. Brazil intends to demonstrate to Washington that it “thinks for its own head” and has an independent posture that is not totally aligned with the, often controversial attitudes and policies, pursued by the White House.
Brazil intends to play the role of a regional power with aspirations to become a global player and this posture often ends up clashing with the interests of other powers, namely the United States of America and, in some cases, the European Union, as has been seen in the difficult negotiations of the agreement between Mercosur and Brussels. It seems to us, however, that what brings the West (in particular the European Union) closer to Brasilia is much more than what distances them, and thus these divergences will necessarily end up being resolved.