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V. Lengruber, Brazil and BRICS: Between Soft-Balancing and Strategic Goals

V. Lengruber, Brazil and BRICS: Between Soft-Balancing and Strategic Goals

Vitor Lengruber
Student and Research at the Petropolis Catholic University, Brazil
Head of the Latin American Studies Working Group
at the Volgograd Centre for International Humanitarian Cooperation, Russia
email: v.lengruber@ihc-vog.ru

Brazil and BRICS:
Between Soft-Balancing and Strategic Goals


This piece aims to demonstrate why Brazil is interested in participating in BRICS. It argues that the Brazilian interests within the group might be understood in a context of shifting in the world order - that is, from the American dominance to a multipolar one. The article relies on the concept of soft-balancing, defined as a strategy which relies on the use of nonmilitary mechanisms to delay, frustrate, and undermine a great power’s policy, to develop such an argument. Therefore, the piece is divided into three brief sections: (i) Brazil’s Foreign Policy (2002-2010); (ii) Soft-Balancing Established Great Power; (iii) Conclusions.

Brazil’s Foreign Policy (2002-2010): Assessing the Autonomy through Diversification Approach

International Context

In November 2001, in an article that induced readers to invest in Brazil, Russia, China and India, Goldman Sachs’s economist, Jim O’Neill, created the acronym BRICs. O’Neill argued that “in view of the expected continued relative growth of the BRICs, the opportunity should be taken to incorporate China and probably Brazil and Russia and possibly India, expanding the key body of global economic policy coordination to 8 or 9”[1]. José Sá Pimentel states that O’Neill illuminated and gave credibility to an assumption that had been in the collective unconscious for a long time: “those countries would be indispensable bricks for the construction of the international system in the 21st century”[2].

However, the transformation of the acronym into a semi-institutionalized political group was not immediate. The first official BRICs Summit, held at Yekaterinburg in 2009, was preceded by a meeting between the Brazilian, Russian, Indian and Chinese foreign ministers at the margins of the UN Assembly General Debate in 2006. (In 2011, South Africa joined the group and added the letter S in the acronym). In 2008, similar meetings took place at Hokkaido, New York, São Paulo, and Yekaterinburg[3], not to mention the maintenance of close dialogues between Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa within the G20, O-5, BASIC, IBSA, RIC and G77 in the early 2000s. During the 6th Summit, BRICS agreed to establish two institutions: the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA), both destined to offer financial resources for emerging economies[4]. Up to November 2020, the NDB has approved loans to China (RMB 7 Billion), India (USD 1 Billion), South Africa (USD 1 Billion), and Brazil (USD 1 Billion), respectively, to combat the COVID-19 pandemic[5]. Although BRICS originally emerged aiming to reform the financial world order, one decade later it embodies cooperation mechanisms in the field of health, education, climate change, terrorism, outer space, drug-trafficking, piracy, energy, and migration[6].

Chronologically, to comprehend Brazil’s interests in participating in BRICS is crucial to examine the Brazilian foreign policy in the 2000s. In the first decade of the 21st century, Brasilia was conducted by two presidents: Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1998-2002), who counted with Luiz Felipe Lampreia and Celso Lafer as the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2002-2010), who had Celso Amorim ahead of the Ministry[7]. Since scholars argue that Lula continued the diplomacy adopted by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, with a considerably larger degree of engagement and proactivity, this piece focuses on the 2002-2010 period[8]. Daniel Flemes states that the Brazilian foreign policy under Lula reflected the new-born geography of world power and economy, characterized by the relative descent of Brazil’s traditional commercial partners, as the US and the EU, and the rise of non-traditional partners, as China and the Asia-Pacific region[9]. Lula also assumed the Brazilian presidency in the period of the edification of the post-Western world, as well as the American War on Terror and South American integration, retaken in the early 1990s with Mercosur[10].

The Autonomy through Diversification Approach

In this scenario, Brazil adopted an approach known as Autonomy through Diversification. Put simply, Brazil tried to sustain close ties with its traditional partners - the US and Western Europe - while prioritizing relationships with the Global South. It was a clear attempt to cultivate new cooperative relations in the changing world. Under Lula, Brazil embraced a multilateral and active posture in the international arena, emphasizing the need to structure a multipolar order and consolidate its leadership in South America. Brazil was one of the main forerunners in the foundation of Unasur and its organs, as the COSIPLAN and the South American Defense Council, as well as in the deepening of Mercosur, which nowadays counts with institutions beyond the commercial sphere (e.g. the Mercosur Structural Convergence Fund, Mercosur Parliament). In addition to leading meditation initiatives in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia, the country offered loans to national companies to execute infrastructure projects in Mozambique, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Angola, Venezuela, Cuba, and Argentina[11].

In the international realm, Brazil proposed to be the representative of the Global South in international forums, assuming the role of an interlocutor between Northern and Southern countries. Such behavior may be represented in the country’s posture in the G20 and the WTO, where Brazil required the reformulation of trade rules to allow developing countries to benefit from their comparative advantage in agriculture[12]. The same posture is reproduced within the IBSA, composed by Brazil, India, and South Africa[13]. Beyond the South-South cooperation, Francis Kornegay argues that “there is a geostrategic logic for IBSA, revolving around the centrality of South Africa along the southern maritime routes, connecting the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, combined with its function of geoeconomic access to the potentially vast African continental market”[14]. Alongside BRICS and the G4,  Brazil reclaimed the reform of international organizations, as the UN, the IMF, and the World Bank, expressing a shared objective to restructure the world order. Demonstrating its commitment to bear the costs of its desired international projection, in May 2010, while Western powers were drafting a resolution in the UN Security Council to impose further sanctions on Iran due to its nuclear program, Brazil and Turkey announced a fuel-swap deal with the Islamic Republic[15]. The Tehran Declaration stipulated that 20-percent-enriched nuclear fuel should be provided to Iran, supposed to be used for medical purposes, in exchange for the Iranian commitment “to deposit 1200 kg LEU [Low-Enriched Uranium] in Turkey”[16].

Official documents may also assist one to unveil the Brazilian interests during Lula’s administration. Beyond the traditional goals (e.g. the promotion of international law, maintenance of regional stability, etc), others are interesting to be analyzed for the purpose of this piece[17]. Assuming that “the configuration of the international order based on unipolarity in the military field associated with power asymmetries produces undesirable tensions and instabilities for peace”, that is, “the prevalence of multilateralism and the strengthening of principles enshrined in international law such as sovereignty, non-intervention, and equality between states” should be adopted to promote a more stable world, the 2005 National Defense Policy called Brazil to have a greater projection in the concert of nations and in the international decision-making processes[18]. On its turn, the 2008 National Defense Strategy officially demonstrated the Brazilian pretension to represent the Global South. It states that Brazil should work for a “better representation of emerging countries (...) in the established - political and economic - international organizations”[19].

Finally, it is worth mentioning one last example present in a strategic document issued during Dilma Rousseff’s first presidential mandate, between 2010 and 2014. In a first moment, Dilma, a politician chosen by Lula to be his successor, succeeded in maintaining the latter’s foreign policy approach (e.g. revision of international organizations, attempting to represent the Global South in multilateral forums, reinforcing the South American dimension). However, around 2013 the government was hit by domestic turmoil and the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. From then on, the Executive’s political energy focused on domestic affairs and Brazil lost proactivity in the international arena[20]. But it is valid to mention the 2012 National Defense Policy, which commented on BRICS and the shifting world order. Although recognizing that it has historically maintained “cooperation ties with traditionally allied countries and blocs”, Brazil assumed that it should seek “new strategic partnerships with developed or emerging nations to expand these exchanges. Alongside this, the country follows the changes and variations of the international political and economic scenario and continues to explore the potential of new associations, such as those it maintains with the other members of the BRICS”[21]. The document also emphasizes alliances with the IBSA, CELAC, CPLP, ZPCAS, and Mercosur.

Recapitulating what was exposed in the previous paragraphs, Lula assumed the Brazilian presidency in an international environment characterized by the emergence of new powers, as China, and the questioning of the Western dominance in world politics and economics. The first official BRICs Summit, for instance, took place in 2009, right after the outbreak of the Subprime Crisis. In this scenario, Brazil behave actively in the international arena by vindicating the reform of international institutions (e.g. IMF, UNSC, WTO), participating in multilateral forums (e.g. IBSA, G20, O-5, BRICS) and fomenting the South American integration (e.g. CELAC, Unasur, Mercosur). That said, the next section will detail the Brazilian interests in participating in BRICS. (Although not mentioned, one of the strategies adopted by Brazil to promote such an integration was the attempt to advance the discourse of a South American supranational identity, an interesting research topic for those eager about Brazil[22]).

Soft-Balancing Established Great Powers

This section argues that the Brazilian participation in BRICS is due to a long-term goal to soft-balance established great powers and create a multipolar system[23]. Here, soft-balancing is assumed as a movement which does not directly challenge one’s military preponderance, but relies on the use of nonmilitary mechanisms to delay, frustrate, and undermine one’s policies[24]. From this angle, BRICS may be understood as one useful instrument amongst others present in a broader foreign policy toolbox. This section additionally argues that Brazil has collaborated with BRICS as the latter offers a strategic dialogue mechanism to address leading actors in contemporary world politics and, thereby, to achieve its long-term goals.

First, the Brazilian participation in BRICS might be taken as a soft-balancing strategy in which the country aims to actively contribute to the construction of a multipolar and representative world order. This strategy involves institutional tactics, such as the formation of coalitions and diplomatic axis (e.g. BRICS, IBSA, G20), to frustrate great powers' pretensions[25]. However, one should not assume that Brasília directly counterbalanced Washington, its most important traditional partner. The Brazilian soft-balancing is the result of its globally-recognized growing power in the early 21st century, a phenomenon facilitated by the perception of the Western weakening. Meanwhile the US and Western Europe were either trying to manage their domestic economic crisis or to settle their political differences about the war in Iraq, the “rest” had their soft-balancing capacity strengthened[26].

“As a regional leader and candidate for a more prominent role in world politics, Brazil needs to balance carefully the two faces of power in order to be, at one and the same time, a legitimate representative of the Global South and a trusted ally of the North”[27]. Thus, Brazil’s soft-balancing should be understood as a movement towards established great powers, rather than exclusively the US. Besides, the Brazilian balancing is not as assertive as the Iranian or Venezuelan. This is why the concept used is soft-balancing rather than (hard)balancing, more suitable for Tehran and Caracas. On its turn, other South American powers, as Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Venezuela, also adopt the soft-balancing strategy towards Brazil[28]. This discussion, however, deserves an individual piece.

As mentioned in the previous sections, the BRICS group was grounded above the demand for a greater voice and representation within international institutions, named the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and UN. Since the first joint declaration, issued in June 2009, BRICS has emphasized this intention[29]. The last summit, held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic, was not different. The Moscow Declaration acknowledges that the “current interconnected international challenges should be addressed by strengthened international cooperation in the interest of both nations and peoples through reinvigorated and reformed multilateral system, including the UN, the WTO, the WHO, the IMF and other international organizations”[30]. On the occasion, the group also congratulated Brazil for its candidacy “as a UNSC member for the biennium 2022-2023”[31]. Only Japan and Brazil have a double-digit history within the council, having been elected for 11 and 10 terms respectively[32].

Thus, one may understand the construction of a representative multipolar world as the general interest of BRICS, as well as its reliance on soft-balancing movements as a strategy to achieve it. For example, BRICS has operationalized international organizations to resist the recent American attempts to promote new norms on the use of force, as the conditional sovereignty[33]. Not for nothing, BRICS members are apprehensive about the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm[34]. But the American response to BRICS is neither as harsh as one would expect or reckless. “If the United States responds too heavy-handed it may speed the formalization of the international organization, but if it ignores the BRICS and maintains a business as usual approach it will miss the fact that the BRICS are a response to the way that the United States’ power and its use of power in the international system”[35]. Instead, put Mark Schaefer and John Poffenbarger, Washington has individually engaged with those with whom it has the best relations, named Brazil and India, to undermine BRICS’s cohesion.

Furthermore, the Brazilian participation in BRICS may be read as a tactic to reach some strategic objectives, as greater autonomy in the cybernetic, spatial and nuclear sectors. Since 2008, Brazil has acknowledged the existence of three strategic sectors crucial to the national defense, the cybernetic, the spatial, and the nuclear[36]. Although BRICS has developed cooperation projects in these three areas, this piece focuses on cyberspace. Noting that “BRICS countries are, simultaneously, amongst the most frequent targets of cyberattacks but also some of the countries from which most cyberattacks originate”, since the 5th BRICS Summit, held in 2013, the group has acknowledged the need to join forces in this issue[37]. The first BRICS Ministers of Science and Technology Meeting took place one year later, in Cape Town. On the occasion, the group agreed that the main areas of cooperation would be, amongst others, the exchange of information on policies and programmes, the promotion of innovation and technology transfer, nanotechnology, high performance computing, and information and communication technology[38]. Other initiatives include: the BRICS Framework Programme, the BRICS Intelligence Forum, the BRICS Working Group on ICT Cooperation, BRICS Partnership on New Industrial Revolution, the BRICS Centre of Technology Transfer, the New Architecture on Science, Technology and Innovation and the meetings of the BRICS Working Group on Information and Communications Technologies and High-Performance Computing. The Cyber BRICS Project, hosted by the Brazilian Fundação Getúlio Vargas in partnership with Russian, Indian, Chinese, and South African universities, also demonstrates that BRICS countries have adopted similar approaches to regulate cybercrime and data protection[39].

Moreover, nowadays BRICS offers projects and initiatives in sectors beyond finances and commerce, including education, climate change, health, outer space, infrastructure, energy, terrorism, and drug-trafficking. Some of them, as energy, infrastructure, and drug-trafficking, are sensitive to Brazil. Recently, Brazil has received more than USD 400 Million from the NDB to implement infrastructure projects[40]. On its turn, concerned about the “increasing links in some regions of the world between drug trafficking, money laundering and organized crime and terrorism”, the group held the first BRICS Anti-Drug Working Group Meeting in Weihai, in August 2017[41]. On 12 August 2020, the Working Group held its fourth edition[42]. In the energy sector, the Moscow Declaration has congratulated the members for the ongoing energetic cooperation[43].

This section has argued that the Brazilian participation in BRICS is due to a long-term goal to soft-balance established great powers and create a multipolar system, as well as to reach strategic objectives. Furthermore, as a BRICS member Brazil is officially recognized by its international counterparts as an emerging power with interests and demands for representation in world politics, as well as a crucial player in contemporary politics.


This piece has tried to answer why Brazil would be interested in being a BRICS member. Firstly, it provided a brief historical overview of the Brazilian foreign policy between 2002 and 2010, the period in which BRICS was established. Later on, the piece argued that Brasilia perceives BRICS as one useful tool to soft-balance established great powers and create a multipolar world, as well as to achieve strategic objectives and be officially identified as an emergent power. For Brasilia, BRICS is a special and restricted forum to maintain close dialogues with important actors in contemporary world politics. As many scholars have indicated, Beijing, New Delhi, Moscow, and Pretoria are the main nerve centers behind the building of a new world. Brazil should grab this opportunity, which many countries do not have. Brazil holds the advantage of having a special forum to cultivate close conversations with its greater commercial partner and candidate to be the world superpower, China, as well as a Eurasian great power, Russia. India is an actor with a strong nuclear capacity and expertise on nuclear technology, while South Africa is crucial to maintain the South Atlantic regional security. With a pragmatic approach to BRICS, focused on turning world politics more representative, Brazil would have even more chances to achieve its long-term strategic goals. 


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[1] O’Neill 2007, 3.

[2] Sá Pimentel 2012, 122. In original Portuguese: “aqueles países seriam tijolos indispensáveis à construção do sistema internacional no século XXI”.

[3] University of Toronto 2008a, 2008b, 2008c, 2008d.

[4] University of Toronto 2014.

[5] NDB 2020a; NDB 2020b; NDB 2020c; NDB 2020d.

[6] Stunkel 2015.

[7] CHDD-FUNAG 2020.

[8] Almeida 2004; Vigevani, de Oliveira, Cintra 2003; Vizentini 2005.

[9] Flemes 2010a.

[10] Stunkel 2016.

[11] Bueno, Júnior and Vigevani 2014; Garcia 2011; Gavião and Saraiva 2019; Vigevani and Cepaluni 2007.

[12] Brazilian Ministry of External Relations, Bureau of Diplomatic Planning 2008.

[13] Flemes 2009.

[14] Kornegay 2010, 147. In original Portuguese: “há uma lógica geoestratégica para o IBAS, girando em torno da centralidade da África do Sul ao longo das rotas marítimas de sul, ligando o Atlântico Sul e o Oceano Índico, combinada com a sua função de acesso geoeconômico para o potencialmente vasto mercado continental africano”.

[15] De Jesus 2011.

[16] Republic of Turkey Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2010.

[17] Cervo and Bueno 2002.

[18] Presidência da República 2005. In original Portuguese: “A configuração da ordem internacional baseada na unipolaridade no campo militar associada às assimetrias de poder produz tensões e instabilidades indesejáveis para a paz”; “A prevalência do multilateralismo e o fortalecimento dos princípios consagrados pelo direito internacional como a soberania, a não-intervenção e a igualdade entre os Estados”.

[19] Ministério da Defesa 2008, 19. In original Portuguese: “melhor representação de países emergentes (...) nas organizações internacionais – políticas e econômicas – estabelecidas”.

[20] Saraiva 2014.

[21] Ministério da Defesa 2012b, 26. In original Portuguese: “tem laços de cooperação com países e blocos tradicionalmente aliados”; “novas parcerias estratégicas com nações desenvolvidas ou emergentes para ampliar esses intercâmbios. Ao lado disso, o País acompanha as mudanças e variações do cenário político e econômico internacional e não deixa de explorar o potencial de novas associações, tais como as que mantém com os demais membros do BRICS”.

[22] Gavião 2018.

[23] The 2012 Defense White Paper states that “Brazil works for the construction of a participative and inclusive world community. The country commits itself to the promotion of “multipolar cooperation”, a term which summarizes the multipolar power structure consolidating worldwide. In this strategic environment, international action must excel in the consolidation of governance mechanisms that better represent this new international reality. Such mechanisms must ensure world peace and security for the good of mankind”. The 2020 version maintains this position.

[24] Pape 2005.

[25] Flemes 2010b.

[26] Kalil and Braveboy-Wagner 2016, 31.

[27] Valença and Carvalho 2014, 87.

[28] Flemes and Wehner 2015.

[29] University of Toronto 2009.

[30] University of Toronto 2020, 2.

[31] University of Toronto 2020, 2.

[32] UNSC 2020.

[33] Flemes 2010b; Sá Pimentel 2012.

[34] Stunkel 2015.

[35] Schaefer and Poffenbarger 2014.

[36] Ministério da Defesa 2008, 2012b, 2016.

[37]  Belli 2020, 2; University of Toronto 2013.

[38] IBASE 2014.

[39] Belli forthcoming; CyberBRICS 2020a, 2020b.

[40] NDB 2018, 2019a, 2019b.

[41] University of Toronto 2017.

[42] BRICS Russia 2020a.

[43] BRICS Russia 2020b.

08 декабря 2020
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