Great power rivalry at the UN
The UN Security Council is in desperate need for reform, and Brazil is leading the charge.
By Nikolas Kozloff for Al Jazeera
Few would argue that the United Nations Security Council, which has long been dominated by five powers including the United States, China, France, the United Kingdom and Russia, would not benefit from some degree of democratic reform.
Indeed, it can hardly be said that the United Nations, which was originally set up in 1945, truly reflects a more diverse 21st century world.
Though ten other nations besides the big five currently serve on the council, they only stay for two years and are relegated to inferior “non-permanent” member status.
The non-permanent countries are elected on a regional basis and do not have the right to veto. Long excluded from power, influential nations such as Japan, Brazil, Germany and India have sought either permanent member status or a system of so-called “semi-permanent” membership.
In this new, revamped Security Council, newcomers would be elected for an extended 15 year term without initially being granted the right to veto.
Vying for a seat
Such changes are certainly long overdue. The real question, however, is which country is most likely to provide a much needed progressive voice on the council and to advance the social agenda of marginalised people throughout the Third World?
Of all the aspiring countries Brazil is probably the most satisfactory, though far from ideal. Currently Brazil is a non-permanent member of the council and in recent years the South American juggernaut has undergone a political transformation of sorts, with former Workers’ Party president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva closing ranks with leftist leaders in the immediate neighbourhood.
By all accounts, incoming president Dilma Rousseff will likely continue in the footsteps of her mentor Lula by extending friendly ties to neighbouring Venezuela, Bolivia and even Cuba.
Brazil has been campaigning for a larger role on the Security Council in accordance with its increased economic profile, which authorities say gives the South American powerhouse rightful leadership throughout the region.
Indeed, Brazil is now Latin America’s biggest economy and has become a huge exporter of key commodities such as iron ore and soy meal.
Judging from US diplomatic cables recently disclosed by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, Brazil will stop at nothing when it comes to securing greater international visibility.
Don’t expect, however, for Brazil to provide a serious ideological challenge to Washington. Indeed, the documents reveal that the South American nation is exceedingly interested in placating Washington while extending its own business interests.
Moreover, in private Brazilian diplomats express grave misgivings about South America’s “Pink Tide” to the left.
An opportunistic player, Brazil will not be deterred in its quixotic quest to advance its status on the United Nations Security Council, even if that means becoming politically compromised.
The Haiti imbroglio
Brazil’s wider ambitions were surely placed on display when it came to the island nation of Haiti.
During the Bush era, Brazil formed part of the United Nations Mission to Stabilise Haiti, or MINUSTAH. According to US officials, there was little domestic support for the peace keeping operation, but the ministry of foreign relations “remained committed to the initiative because it believes that the operation serves foreign minister [Celso] Amorim’s obsessive international goal of qualifying Brazil for a seat on the UN Security Council.”
Brazilian diplomats were moreover concerned lest they offend the political sensibilities of the Bush White House which had long demonised former president Jean Bertrand Aristide.
When American officials stressed that every effort should be made to keep the leftist president from returning to Haiti after he was ousted in a coup, the Brazilians agreed, stressing their own “resolve to keep Aristide from returning to the country or exerting political influence.”
By policing Haiti and preventing Aristide from returning to the Caribbean, the Brazilians may have hoped that they could secure Washington’s support for their vital Security Council bid.
Events on the ground, however, quickly took an ugly turn and could have forced Lula to engage in unsavoury public relations to protect Brazil’s wider geopolitical aspirations.
In 2006, the Brazilian commander of MINUSTAH forces in Haiti, General Urano Teixeira da Matta Bacellar, was found dead in his deluxe hotel suite with a bullet through his head.
Initially, Brazilian authorities called the shooting a “firearm accident” but later changed the official verdict to “suicide” even though Bacellar left no note and was known as a religious man with a wife and two children.
In private discussions with US diplomats, Dominican president Leonel Fernández threw cold water on the official story. In a recently disclosed WikiLeaks cable, the Dominican remarked that Bacellar could have been killed by anti-Aristide forces.
Fernández wouldn’t rule out the possibility of “an accidentally self-inflicted wound”, but believed that:
|the Brazilian government is calling the death a suicide in order to protect the mission from domestic criticism. A confirmed assassination would result in calls from the Brazilian populace for withdrawal from Haiti. Success in this mission is vital for president Lula of Brazil, because it is part of his master plan to obtain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.|
A single-minded fixation
Other WikiLeaks cables hint at Brazil’s single minded fixation on geopolitics.
In 2005, US officials wrote that the Brazilians were “obsessed” with securing a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Former Brazilian ambassador to the United States Rubens Barbosa reassured Washington that his government would not step on anyone’s toes: if the South American giant was successful in its United Nations bid, Brazil would not insist on being awarded the traditional right to veto resolutions on the council.
Later, in the twilight of the Bush administration, US officials remarked that most of Brazil’s actions on the international stage were carefully crafted to advance the nation’s ultimate goal of gaining a permanent seat on the Security Council. “Brazil”, the Americans remarked, “desperately seeks US support for its aspirations.”
In the Obama era, the Brazilians have been no less shy in pressing their agenda.
In 2009, US officials reported that Lula was determined
|to develop and maintain friendly relations with all global players as Brazil seeks a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The end result is that Brazil often remains reticent to take firm positions on key global issues and generally seeks ways to avoid them. More often than not, the government of Brazil eschews positions of leadership that might require overtly choosing sides.|
In yet another cable, the Americans remarked that Brazil was busily seeking African diplomatic support for its Security Council bid, arguing that it alone was uniquely qualified to act as a “champion for all developing states.”
Washington’s in no mood to share power
Though WikiLeaks cables reveal Brazil as politically crass, the documents also show the United States to be a Machiavellian player and wary about sharing power on the Security Council.
Indeed, when American diplomats were not pooh-poohing Brazil for the South American nation’s lack of vision and reluctance to take on shared responsibilities at the international level, they were critical of Lula’s foreign diplomacy in the Middle East, a region where Washington is used to calling the shots.
US diplomats were quick to note, for example, Brazil’s convening of an Arab-South America summit. American officials were none too pleased by Brazilian meddling, and characterised the South American nation’s initiatives as “unhelpful”.
Irking Washington yet further, Lula staked out a role in the Middle East peace process by conducting talks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
During a press conference, Lula remarked provocatively, “as long as the United States is trying to negotiate peace in the Middle East there won’t be peace… The one who should oversee the negotiations is the United Nations, and that’s why Brazil wants to reform the UN system.”
What is more, under Lula Brazil pursued policies toward Iran that Washington saw as inimical to its own interests.
On repeated occasions, Brazil defended Iran’s nuclear program, and on the Security Council the Lula government joined Turkey in rejecting Washington’s proposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Though US diplomats noted that Brazil was “in no danger of falling into the Iranian ‘orbit’,” nevertheless the South American nation’s “almost obsessive interest in pursuing ‘balanced’ relations” with Iran tended to come at US expense.
More recently, the Rousseff government may not have ingratiated itself with Washington over the Libya imbroglio: on the Security Council, Brazil abstained when it came time to vote on the mandate to use military action against the Gaddafi regime.
Perhaps, in light of that vote, US diplomats may have reasoned that an expanded council including Brazil might weaken the western bloc of the US, France and Britain and strengthen the hand of non-interventionist countries such as China and Russia.
While attending the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad in the beginning of his presidency, Obama spoke of a new era in Latin American-US relations in which there would be no senior or junior partners but equal standing for all parties.
Since that time, however, the US president has fallen short on his rhetoric. If he was serious about his high ideals, Obama might have endorsed Brazil’s bid at the Security Council.
Brazil is a logical candidate to assume a greater role: the country is a vigorous democracy enjoying a robust economy and has, on balance, steadily increased its international role by participating in peacekeeping missions.
Nevertheless, Washington obstinately refuses to face up to changing twenty first century realities. During his recent tour of Brazil, Obama acknowledged the South American juggernaut’s aspirations but failed to issue a full-throated endorsement of Brazil’s UN bid, remarking in a non-committal aside that the US “expressed appreciation” for Brazil’s larger geopolitical ambitions.
Moving beyond Security Council reform
Judging from WikiLeaks documents, Washington is a crass player and is in no mood to relinquish its international position at the United Nations.
On the other hand, Brazil doesn’t emerge from the cables as a very sympathetic country either: in its bid to enhance its position, the South American powerhouse has played a rather shameless diplomatic game.
Moreover, though Brazil has occasionally pursued an independent foreign policy, it’s doubtful that the South American nation would represent such a progressive breath of fresh air at the United Nations or provide a meaningful voice for the dispossessed.
Indeed, if WikiLeaks cables are any indication, there may be other countries which are far more likely to challenge Washington on issues that matter. Bolivia, for instance, has staked out a much more radical stance on climate change than Brazil.
If the correspondence dealing with the United Nations has underscored anything, it is the urgent need for reform of the Security Council.
Yet, reforming the council to merely include a couple of politically compromised or up and coming powers will not go far enough in democratising the international system.
If anything, the declassified diplomatic cables demonstrate the bankruptcy of business as usual at the United Nations and will hopefully prompt calls for even deeper and necessary reforms.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008) and No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave, 2010).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.