Brazil Must Change Its Foreign Policy Before 2016

The International Olympic Committee today chose Rio de Janeiro to host the 2016 Games, over Chicago, Tokyo, and Madrid. The decision to hold the Games for the first time ever in South America sent hundreds of thousands of revelers into the streets of Copacabana, and in plazas, parks, and boulevards all over Brazil. And, more broadly, it seemed to herald Brazil's overdue arrival on the international stage. Once the developing world's biggest underachiever and last among the BRICs—as the foursome of developing nations Brazil, India, China, and Russia are known—Brazil is now the emerging market of the moment. The economy is surging again, and—along with China—Brazil is set to lead the way back to global growth in 2010. It has been a persuasive voice in the call to overhaul the international financial system and pry open the U.N. Security Council to the developing world. Here come the Brazilians.

But as President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known to all as Lula, has learned, global prime time is not for beginners. Brazil has always been cautious in international affairs, but lately it has taken on a much more aggressive brand of diplomacy that combines outright challenges to rich nations—"blue-eyed, white-skinned people," as Lula called them—with a fraternal indulgence of amigos and strategic partners in the "South." It has been tested time after time in recent months—and, instead of behaving like the powerhouse it has become, often it has acted meek, turned a blind eye to atrocious regimes, punted on problems, and taken a tribal approach to Latin American affairs for the sake of what might be called a world view. Clearly Brazil has the teeth for global politics, but does it have the stomach?

Take Tegucigalpa: since Sept. 21, when deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya turned up at the doorstep of the Brazilian Embassy with dozens of loyalists, Brasília's confidence as a power broker and peacemaker has looked a little wobbly. World peace hardly hangs in the balance, and yet Honduras reminded the world that Brazil still has some lessons yet to learn—from the perils of indulging unpredictable allies to the limits of wielding influence in a conflagrated world. So far, the Brazilians look less than ready for the task.

For Zelaya's part, he simply needed a safe place to make camp, rally his supporters, issue broadsides against the de facto Honduran regime, and leave the international community to sort out the whole mess. And so Brazil became the "useful innocent," as they say here: from rising world power, it was reduced to the status of soapbox. Overnight, Latin America's most distinguished diplomatic corps found itself issuing disclaimers ("We had no choice but to let him in," said Foreign Minister Celso Amorim with a shrug) and beseeching officials from the White House to the U.N. to come to the rescue. As Brasília's finest competed for food with Zelaya and his troupe, the Obama government promptly kicked the imbroglio back to the hands of Latin America, where Brazil looks more a spectator than it does a protagonist.

Brasília has also stumbled in taking on its expansive new posture. Lula has opened embassies in 35 countries in six years, mostly in Africa and Latin America—each one a potential vote in Brazil's campaign to reform the United Nations. But coddling dictators can be risky: in recent months, Brasília has systematically balked or stonewalled when it came to speaking out on human-rights abuses in a number of authoritarian countries, including Sri Lanka and no-brainers like North Korea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. It routinely passes on censuring repression in Cuba, where dissidents are muzzled and jailed. Lula even likened the conflicted Iranian elections and their bloody aftermath to a row between rival football fans. He stoutly defends Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, who has shut down critical media and turned his country's Congress and Supreme Court into rubber stamps. "Give me one example of how Venezuela is not democratic," he told NEWSWEEK.

Now critics—who expect more from an aspiring titan—are speaking out. "Brazil is using its vote in the [Human Rights] Council to support countries with appalling human-rights records," says Human Rights Watch's Julie de Rivero. Unlike Israel or Cuba, which have an impact on world affairs far greater than their size, Brazil is "a giant that acts like a diplomatic dwarf," former Mexican foreign minister and frequent NEWSWEEK contributor Jorge Castañeda told a Brazilian newspaper. "Brazil doesn't like to take sides in [diplomatic] disputes. So why fight for a seat on the [U.N.] Security Council? To abstain on the difficult questions?"

Being cautious is not necessarily bad. "Any nation that has 10 countries on its borders has to be judicious with its neighbors," says Roberto Abdenur, a former Brazilian ambassador to Washington. "But now we have a foreign policy colored by ideology and a sympathy for everything that appears to be on the left, including Chávez, who in many ways stands for everything Brazil is not."

Others wonder if Brazil has simply overplayed its hand. "Brazil wants to exercise a growing role in the region, but it simply doesn't have the clout to impose a solution," says former Brazilian foreign minister Luiz Felipe Lampreia. "The Honduras incident shows that we have to recalibrate our goals to obtain real results."

The Honduras quagmire looks to be nearing an end. At this writing, de facto President Roberto Micheletti has reportedly offered to stand down if Zelaya will submit to trial—a compromise that would clear the way for elections. Brazil's erratic foreign policy may take longer to sort out. No one ever said being a first-class country was going to be easy. What's certain is that with just seven short years to go to prepare for the continent's first Olympic Games, the world will be watching.