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Podcast: Antonio Patriota on Brazil's Role in the Global Order

In this Foreign Affairs podcast, Foreign Affairs Unedited, Antonio Patriota, Brazil's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, discusses Brazil’s role in the global order with Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose. Explore our Brazil coverage here.

This interview has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below.

Gideon Rose: Let me start you off with some big questions, there is a global liberal order that has been led by the United States and into which countries such as Brazil have been taking increasingly prominent roles. Do you see that liberal order as one that Brazil wants to join or do you see some other kind of order as one that a rising power like Brazil wants to try to create?

Ambassador Patriota: I think the way we see it is that, we're already part of this order as a very active participant not only in terms of our economic relevance, seventh largest GDP in the world, and a country with the, diplomatic relations with every other United Nations member. We are a country that, I believe, is very intent upon preserving the positive aspects of this order. So we're very committed to multi-lateralism, whether it's within the United Nations, or the World Trade Organization, but we are also a country that sometimes points to gaps, or injustices, or areas of governance that need to be made more compatible with a geopolitical distribution of economic and political influence that has been undergoing very significant change over the past few years. So in this respect, this is why we defend for example the reform of the Security Council, or more inclusive discussions, when it comes to the international financial institutions in Washington, quota system reform in those institutions as well. But basically within a general outlook or perspective of promoting an evolution of the existing order rather than replacing it by an entirely different one.

Gideon Rose: So what does the newly evolved order look like? How does it differ from the one that we have now?

Ambassador Patriota: Well, if you take terms like unipolarity, bipolarity, we lived through the Cold War for many decades. The US and the Soviet Union constituting the two Poles around which international order are organized itself, there was a unipolar moment during which the United States seemed to be capable of determining outcomes, and I think we're very clearly heading towards a multipolar configuration of power. A multipolar configuration where the poles are not equal necessarily. The US Still wields a formidable military and economic power. China is kind of getting there to the top rank in terms of the economy, but maybe not militarily.

There are other established Powers with very significant assets. In Europe you can look at Germany, or the UK, France. The Russian Federation, is an established power even though sometimes it is grouped along with the BRICS as an emerging power. And then you have countries such as Brazil, India, perhaps South Africa and a few others that for the first time in their history, they are actually participating in the shaping of a new order.

Gideon Rose: So two questions. One, is what practical difference would this kind of distribution of power and influence end up achieving? And second, wouldn't things just become incredibly unwieldy, the more you shift and devolve power to broader structures, the G20 and even further perhaps, is it impossible get anything done?

Ambassador Patriota: Well, the point is that this is already happening and it's not something that you can choose to ignore or to pretend that things are otherwise, and you just mentioned, the G20 is a very good example. I mean, until the 2008 financial crisis, it was understood that the G7, or at the time you had the G8 as well, could more or less coordinate satisfactorily around international financial challenges. But come 2008, the consensus was, "Listen, we need to bring in other important players." The Brazilian economy was already larger than the Russian economy at that point. China was outside the old G7 and it was the second economy in the world.

Ambassador Patriota: So this Evolution can already be seen or is already being translated into new governance mechanisms such as the G20. But another aspect that I would highlight, and it's part of what our presidents were talking about today, are global challenges that didn't exist in prior reconfigurations of world order. And one very important item is climate change.

So we are almost forced to cooperate, and why through more multi-polar and inclusive mechanisms? Because in these realms, and I think I can say in practically every sphere of international affairs, no country single-handedly can determine outcomes, or can establish rules that will be obeyed by everyone.

Gideon Rose: Brazil has one of the most glorious ecosystems and environmental legacies of any portion of the world, and yet it's also a rapidly growing economic power, how do you think Brazil has managed to handle its environmental challenges?

Ambassador Patriota: Well, interestingly I think Brazil has used the multilateral system to affect changes domestically and regionally. You may recall that in the '80s, and even in the '90s, deforestation was a big challenge for Brazil, there were international campaigns, talking about, "Well, we must save the world's lungs." And Brazil initially was a bit on the defensive, because there was this idea that development and environmentally sound policies were not necessarily compatible. If you fast-forward to the Rio Conference of 1992, and now Rio+20 in 2012, what we have actually done is recognized that, "Well, maybe we weren't doing enough and trying to overcome this duality, and in fact reconcile the economic social and environmental variables into a sustainable development agenda."

We now have an objective of achieving zero illegal deforestation within a short time frame. I say illegal because some of the deforestation is allowed, provided you replant, and you compensate for what you have done. And this in an overall context where Brazil has unilaterally undertaken to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by up to 40% almost of the 2005 standard, that's a changing what business as usual would lead to.

Gideon Rose: You mentioned the end of unipolarity, do you think the United States is in decline?

Ambassador Patriota: I think the United States has tremendous strengths, and it also has a capacity to reconfigure itself to adapt to new circumstances. And if you listen to US diplomats today, or to President Obama, I can sense the awareness that the US is developing that it needs to work with other partners in order to achieve goals that it considers essential for its foreign policy. So, in a sense this does involve a mental shift from let's say world hegemon, to one where the US will have to be partnering with different countries. But this need not be translated into let's say living standards, a lower living standards on the contrary. I think the US population can be more fulfilled, more interconnected with the rest of the world, and happier in this new role that it can play, and will play I believe.

Gideon Rose: How about China? How do you see China's emerging global role?

Ambassador Patriota: There's no question of the capacity that China has demonstrated for economic growth, for technological innovation, for providing better standards of living for a huge population, one billion 200 million, a daunting task. I believe china is also adapting to it's new international role, it is increasingly interested in developing cooperative relationships with countries with which it has not historically been too involved, Brazil's a case in point.

For Brazil, China is our number one trading partner, which is something unusual, because it's a very far removed.  So, it's a new situation for China, it's a new situation for the world. As far as I can interpret the Chinese agenda, I think it is one for cooperation with the rest of the international community. Of course one where its interests will be protected, and where we will need to be more aware of what those interests are. But again, I think there are issues such as climate change that will force nations to cooperate. Another one actually is combating terrorism, because it is a challenge that affects every corner of the world.

Gideon Rose: For a few years under Lula, Brazil seemed to be trying to play a much bigger global role. And it seems to have been almost burned a little bit in that attempt. Is it fair to say that there is a period of reconsideration, or drawing lessons from its recent efforts?

Ambassador Patriota: Well, that's not how I would describe it. I think what Lula did, these were very important years for Brazilian diplomacy because he provided us with tools that we didn't have. For example, 40 new embassies were opened. Many of them in Africa, many other consulates and offices around the world, diplomatic relations where established with every single country in the world. New integration mechanisms were created. The South American Community of Nations, for example, which is an integration effort that is relatively new.

New coalitions were created, such as the IBSA Forum, which brings together the three multi-ethnic democracies of the South, Brazil, South Africa and India. The BRICS countries started meeting at ministerial and summit level. So, this was a period of revolutionary almost activity, in terms of the expansion of our network of relationships, and provided us with new instruments for diplomacy. I think what is happening now is a period of consolidation, and we're taking advantage of this new network of these new relationships to achieve some specific goals. For example, it was under President Dilma that we elected The Director General of the World Trade Organization.

I see for Brazilian Diplomats, a period of great opportunity where a message in favor of enhanced international cooperation for the benefit of the greatest number of people can be taken seriously by a growing number of partners.

Gideon Rose: With the negotiations over the Iranian Nuclear Program back in the news it brings to mind Brazil's perhaps most prominent foray into recent international diplomacy, the deal with Turkey and Iran, to try to resolve some of the Iranian nuclear issues. How does that look in retrospect, do you think?

Ambassador Patriota: Well, the way I see that is that it was a very important diplomatic exercise for Brazil and perhaps also a sign of changing times. Both Brazil and Turkey at the time were elected members of the Security Council. They were witnessing paralysis around the Iranian Nuclear file, threats by Israel of taking in a lateral military action which, to us, seemed like very much problematic or something that we would consider ill advised. So we tried to approach Iran, and on the basis of correspondence from President Obama to President Lula and to Prime Minister at the time, Erdoğan, who set out some parameters which he would consider that if those kind of ideas or parameters were met a significant confidence building measure would have been accomplished. We set out and, low and behold, we succeeded in obtaining precisely what had been the agenda.

Now, the fact that the Security Council did not respond in the affirmative to that attempt of course generated a lot of disappointment in Brazil and in Turkey, but I describe that as a good failure. Even though at the time it didn't carry the day additional sanctions were imposed, in many ways it can be considered a precursor to what is happening now, except that now Iran has more centrifuge, it has accumulated more low-enriched uranium, so to some extent it's the bigger challenge. But it was a demonstration that through diplomacy, through dialogue, sometimes you can actually reach an agreement where an agreement seemed impossible even months before.

Gideon Rose: Brazil sees itself as an idealistic and moral great power. Are you concerned about the descent into chaos and oppression of Venezuela next door?

Ambassador Patriota: Well, I think it's important to listen to the regions' opinion about different topics. There are mechanisms and regional integration for where Venezuela is present, that have been working with a Venezuelan government to contribute to lessen the tensions that do exist. I think when you see a situation of a country where there's great polarization, between government and opposition, the last thing neighboring countries should do is to act in ways that will exacerbate polarization.

So I think in that sense we have been successful in working with Columbia, with the other countries in UNASUR, the other countries in Mercosur, and acting behind the scenes and contributing to the extent possible. Now, I think one, it's fair to recognize that the polarization of Venezuela has to do with the fact that the opposition in the past has demonstrated that it is not necessarily democratic because they tried to stage a coup against then President, Hugo Chavez, in 2002. And this poisoned very much the political environment and it has a certain effect to this very day.

I think that with the successive elections in Venezuela that have been considered free and fair with international observers, and strong partnerships with other countries in the region, we can help to steer Venezuela to, let's say, a smooth landing in trying to overcome this period of acute polarization. But let's face it, countries go through phases like that, countries go through civil wars.

Gideon Rose: Ambassador Patriota, thank you very much.

Ambassador Patriota: Thank you very much, Gideon.

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