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How Energy Independence Influences Brazilian Geopolitics

Brazil is a rare gem, a rising power that has put itself on the path of energy independence thanks to a combination of forward-looking energy policies and newly discovered oil reserves. But what does this actually mean for Brazilian foreign policy?


Energy security is one of those rare issues that most people in the world can agree on. Energy security is the fear of cold winters that sets a place for Russia at Europe’s dinner table. It is the compulsion that might have cost the United States its global pre-eminence, and the exception that so often renders moralistic views of international relations indefensible.  To most countries around the world, energy security is everything: economics, defence, and regime survival wrapped into one.

Thus, Brazil presents an interesting case as a rising power on the road to energy independence. Broadly speaking, Brasilia is able to adopt a foreign policy that is more flexible than some of its counterparts, particularly BRIC countries like China and India. There are two particular areas where this flexibility has been manifest of late: Brazil’s policy towards Iran and the complexion of its defence spending.

Brazil’s position on the Iran nuclear saga seems to have shifted recently. It wasn’t long ago that former President Lula da Silva was embarking on ambitious initiatives aimed at brokering deals to pull Iran out of the noose of international sanctions. This process involved a good deal of stonewalling Washington, and Brazil’s relations with the United States suffered as a result. Enter new Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and suddenly Brazil’s statements on Iran have been dipped in the language of human rights. Brazil even voted to appoint a UN special investigator to look into Iran’s human rights record last week, the first anti-Iran vote from Brazil in over a decade.

The question of what is driving this Iran policy change and how far it will go are both open to speculation. It may stem from the fact that President Rousseff is seeking to repair some of the damage done to US-Brazilian relations by her predecessor. It’s also possible that she has a developed deep ideological commitment to human rights that will continue to manifest itself in her government’s foreign policy.

What isn’t open to speculation however, is the fact that Brazil’s flexibility stems from it not being beholden to Iran over energy exports. The same cannot be said for fellow BRIC countries China and India, two states that are strategically bound to Tehran regardless of resulting diplomatic or economic damage.

This flexibility assumes greater importance when viewed in the context of the global trend towards multipolarity. This kind of international environment will provide ample opportunities for Brazil to form triangular relationships with other major powers in order to achieve its ends. Since these triangular relationships won’t be framed by energy considerations, Brazil will be free to swoop in and make gains where other energy-beholden rising powers cannot.  Iran is illustrative of this point- Brazil seems to have hung on only until it was no longer in its interest to do so.

Defence spending is also influenced by energy independence. Brazil does not have any credible threats in its region and its defence budget has consequently maintained relatively low spending levels. In 2005, Brazil spent only $9.94 billion on defence. By 2010, the number had risen to $33.5 billion, or 1.6 percent of the country’s GDP, and it will rise again in 2012 to a projected $34.9 billion.

These increases are not only relatively smaller vis-à-vis other BRIC countries, they’re also based on vastly different operational requirements. Brazil’s military modernization seeks to achieve the following: better responses to domestic natural disasters, ‘pacifying’ favelas in major urban centres ahead of the Olympics and World Cup, and perhaps garnering the international prestige commensurate with a future permanent member of the UN Security Council. This inward-looking spending strikes a stark contrast to China’s efforts to establish a force projection capacity, which is soon-to-be complete with an aircraft carrier.  Likewise, they diverge from India’s money-pit quest for a ‘blue sea’ navy. The rationale that’s driving other BRIC countries to push their military capabilities outwards is simple: they are strategically vulnerable in regards to international energy supply lines, thus they need a military that can be projected far and wide.

Brazil learned an important lesson from the oil crises of the 1970s, and as a result it built up a domestic renewable energy industry that has now given its foreign policy a free hand. Of course, whether or not Brazil capitalizes on this hard-won flexibility is a question left to the Ministry of External Relations in Brasilia.

By. Zachary Fillingham

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