For a new foreign policy

Notes for a post-Trump diplomacy

By Philip Yang, for Valor, from São Paulo

December 4, 2020

Brazil could become the vertex of a new triangular diplomacy in the context of the Chinese-American confrontation.


Major changes in the world order require major adjustments in foreign policy. It was like that in the first decades of the 20th century. It should be like that also in the first decades of the 21st century.

With the shift of the power axis from Europe to the USA, Brazil of President Rodrigues Alves (1902-1906) changed the direction of its diplomacy, building a rapprochement with Washington. Today, as we witness the emergence and consolidation of the "Asian century", we need to inquire what  direction should be given to the Brazilian diplomacy and seek to understand - in light of the relative economic decline of the West - what type of international engagement we want to build for the country.


I emphasize the verb to build, because the design of new policies demands a volitional act, which would pull us out of inertial forces, daily routines, various determinisms, traditions and analytical frameworks that inadvertently take over our worldviews.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the rapprochement to the United States came from voluntary and proactive action by our foreign affairs ministry. Had we adopted a bureaucratic stance, stuck to habit or tradition, the shift would not have occurred. The American government was not very enthusiastic about any special ties with Brazil and, on the Brazilian side, the driver of closer ties with the United States, the Baron of Rio Branco, had to break with its traditional worldview of European inclination to forge a policy attuned to the new era and consistent with our permanent national interests. In other words, the shift of the focus of our diplomacy, away from Europe towards the USA, was something built.


I refer to this event that occurred over a hundred years ago, given that the depth of the transformations that are taking place in the world today - political, geoeconomic and technological - has no parallel in our recent past. In the transition from the 19th to the 20th century, we witnessed the emergence of a new hegemonic power and, internally, we belatedly  lead the country to a new production paradigm – industrial and wage-based. Rio Branco's foreign policy reflected the set of anxieties and demands that resulted from this double transition of international power and in mode of production.

Today, a century later, a double transition of a similar nature, is unfolding. China - the new exponent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution - emerged and consolidated itself as a new global superpower, in a new economy that has digital technologies in the fields of automation, control and information as structuring pillars. We in Brazil, again belatedly, seek to lead the country towards this Industry 4.0 paradigm.

Has Brazil, in recent decades, developed a foreign policy in line with this new international and technological reality? In other words, has Brazilian diplomacy developed policies that, like what happened at the beginning of the last century, promoted the country's international stance in line with developments in the political and technological field?

Certainly not.

Background and diagnosis of what we did: an "insufficient" foreign policy

I start backwards, from the current administration to the previous ones. Today Brazil adopted a foreign policy that systematically attacks China. What would be the logic of offending the emerging political, geoeconomic and technological superpower, which, furthermore, is our main trading partner? Such a stance constitutes an obvious contradiction and a primary error in strategy, in addition to being grotesque in form. This impropriety is more evident when it is registered that the current ostensibly anti-Chinese policy is made in a personalistic way, as a way of demonstrating personal loyalty (and subordination) to the American president, who, as we have just seen, was not reelected.

In previous governments of Presidents Temer, Dilma, Lula, FHC, Itamar, Collor and Sarney – which more or less coincide with the decades of China's remarkable growth  period that stemmed from the economic reforms of the Deng era – our diplomacy acted correctly in the relationship with the Asian country, within the values ​​and principles that guided Brazilian foreign policy. As a backdrop for debate, we can say that Brazil's dialogue with China and Asia in this time span from Sarney to Temer was constructive, but insufficient. Yes, insufficient in the sense that it did not anticipate the transfer of power to Asia, in such a way as to generate relevant, strategic and concrete actions. Also insufficient in the sense that the dialogue did not substantially and structurally alter, through bilateral diplomatic channels, the natural course of our economic, social and technological reality.

If we agree with this thesis of insufficiency, it is worth asking what, in terms of our geographic diplomacy, would be a sufficient and adequate foreign policy for the current context. A most obvious criterion: the best foreign policy is one that leverages the process of economic and social development of the countries involved, based on exchange processes that are complementary, mutually beneficial and sustainable over time. What would that policy be then?


In the abstract, the alternatives are not many. In the context of the deepening Sino-American rivalry, we would make a simplistic choice for "one of the sides" in the context of a supposed new bipolarity. For those who see a geometry of power that is less bipolar and more tripolar, Europe as a pillar of world power – strengthened by the process of integration of the European Union and holder of an economy with a higher degree of complementarity to Brazil compared to the USA – could be an option of priority.

To those who understand the BRICS group as a viable coalition alternative, a policy based on strengthening the bloc also emerges as an important vector. A variant of this perspective would be a bet on a more structured partnership that strongly prioritizes India, a country seen by many as "the next China", in terms of market size, economic performance and technological innovation. Russia, rebuilt after the collapse of 1991, remains a relevant player in the military, energy and technological fields, a domain in which the country has reinvented itself as a power.

For autonomists, there would remain alternatives aimed at a set of policies that favor relations in the Global South or, still, sub-regional initiatives in South America. And, of course, to the more undecided, those adherents of "we are friends of all", we would have diffuse mixes of these vectors, which would combine with all the important topics of the multilateral agenda that, due to space, will be left out in this text: environment, international trade, non-proliferation and disarmament, etc.

As we reflect more concretely, our choices must be conditioned to the internal Brazilian reality - our afflictions, anxieties, limitations, urgencies and collective needs that are chronically unmet. On the positive side, to what we have to offer, materially, both as a present reality and a promise for the future.

At a level of even greater realism, we have to remember the old saying: it takes two to tango. It is useless to idealize new associations and geometries of power if, in an imagined partnership, we cannot count on the conjunction of two wills. Therefore, finding partners who see us as a valued nation and state is an essential condition for any structuring diplomacy.

Criteria for a new policy

In the historical moment in which we find ourselves, an inevitable starting point for thinking about our external action is the risk of irrelevance. This Brazil that has had a basically horizontal labor productivity curve for four decades, anemic growth rates, low contribution to innovation processes, mediocre educational performance, reduced internal savings and a systemic inability to design and execute large infrastructure projects tends inexorably to insignificance and systemic marginalization.

In the face of such a dire situation, we have no choice but to take the time factor as a fundamental variable for our diplomatic decisions. In other words, the sense of urgency must be a central element in the construction of our foreign policy. Of course, there is a huge task on the domestic realm to be carried out, but we cannot help asking what foreign policy that - in the shortest time - can help us to get out of this swamp we are in.

A second factor that must be taken into account is the technological stage that Brazil is in, in the context of the paradigm transition through which the world is going. The dynamic nuclei of the world economy are moving irrevocably towards a framework of digital ubiquity, characterized by the constitution of new ecosystems in which the architecture of high-speed networks, robotics, big data, internet of things, and artificial intelligence dominate urban infrastructures, our work environment and social life. The late realization of this digital condition condemns us to an even greater delay. Therefore, our choices should seek partnerships that will leverage us towards a leapfrog towards Industry 4.0.

Among many other aspects that deserve to be raised, I would like to stress at last a third important factor that derives from the urgent Brazilian need for investments, notably in the general and urban infrastructure, new industries and clean energy segments, which configure the environment and the physical logistics of the new economy. As mentioned before, Brazil has low and declining domestic savings rates, which compromise our investment capacity, limit our growth potential and place us in a position of demand for foreign direct investments. Thus, in the effort of our international interactions, the investment capacity of potential partners - notably in segments of digital and multimodal physical infrastructure, pillars of the new economy - must be assessed as a central requirement.

Plausible scenarios

Among the different scenarios outlined above, I highlight two. Perhaps these are the ones that seem most plausible and are of most interest to us. Perhaps it is possible, in these two scenarios, that we have a chance to seek, through negotiation, with a good dose of pragmatism and in the light of the lessons of history, the best alternative for the engagement of Brazil in the world. Perhaps it is in one of these two scenarios that the configuration of world power allows an international positioning of Brazil that effectively leads us to the environment of the new economy.

Of course, it is an exercise in undeniable simplification of complex realities. International relations are not located in the field of natural sciences, a field in which we can carry out controlled experiments. I try to bring these two possible paths to the foreground, leaving several other scenarios and variables to a background that will deliberately remain in the shade, so that we can examine, explore and, who knows, induce a specific hypothesis of integration of Brazil in the international order that is now taking shape.

The conventional option

The first scenario counts on the weight of history and the strength of geographical determinism. In it, we would seek an alliance with the USA, in a context marked by growing regionalism and/or the intensification of the Chinese-American confrontation. In this scenario increasingly stiffened by polarization, the main contenders would admit, as in the Cold War, that middle and secondary powers would align themselves exclusively with one or another superpower. In such a scenario, if radicalized, we would be urged to participate in a regional bloc of a political and economic nature and to adhere to regulatory regimes that, on the one hand, would serve to integrate the two economies (and others in the region) and, on the other hand, would make it difficult and discriminate, in a more or less veiled way, directly or indirectly, the economic-technological-commercial relationship with the opposite pole of power.

If we followed this path, we would tacitly accept (certainly more pragmatically and intelligently than in the present administration) the resurgence of the two sides of the Monroe Doctrine - hegemonic-offensive and paternalistic-defensive - implicit in its defining catchphrase, "America for the Americans." To some extent, this path could shape a response from the Americas to the recent initiative of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership - the RCEP, which brings together 15 countries in Asia. In an eventual scenario in which the North American presence in the Pacific regionalism weakens, given the withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), inter-American integration may gain relevance.

It is worth emphasizing here that such a pro-US option would not bear any resemblance to the pro-Trump policy in place today and now transformed into an unburied corpse. If we want to maintain a strong and productive relationship with the United States, we must imperatively build a high dialogue with China. The need to compete with the Chinese will be the only way to get the United States to extend real concessions to Brazil. If we burn our bridges with China, as the so-called “bolsotrumpism” wants, Washington would take us for granted, without giving value to our specific weight.

What would weigh in favor of this choice (as far as we have the capacity and the possibility to choose our paths): (i) worldviews in the two countries that, although different, are derived from the same Western Jewish-Christian Greek-Roman matrix, (ii) relative geographical proximity, (iii) kinship of the languages ​​we speak, both of Indo-European origin and based on writing in the Roman alphabet, (iv) substantial trade volume, (v) significant history of exchanges at the level of societies, (vi) an establishment in the U.S strategic-military-technological field that sees, though not unanimously, Brazil’s geostrategic value in the world order, even if secondary, (vii) the value of the USA as a hub of technological innovation and production of knowledge.

Contrary to these presumed advantages are (a) the low rate of domestic savings that historically prevails in the USA, which theoretically precludes the flow of investment on the scale we need, (b) frontally competing export agenda, (c) remote possibilities of a trade liberalization in the USA that could benefit us, (d) the low priority traditionally attributed to Brazil as a strategic partner or, perhaps in other terms, the calibrated limited role that the Americans give to Brazil.

Another path

The alternative would be to build a strategic partnership, differentiated and unprecedented,  with China. To the detriment of this scenario are critical factors such as (A) the reciprocal ignorance that prevails in the two societies, aggravated by the historical-cultural, linguistic, geographical and political-legal-normative distance that separates us; (B) the absence in Brazil of a critical mass about China in the business, academic world and in society in general; (C) the lack of a stable staff in Itamaraty specialized in Asia in general and in China in particular, with specific training in language, culture and political economy. As an indicator of this panorama, we just need to remember that, each year, about 20,000 Brazilian students enter educational institutions in the USA, while the annual Brazilian student flow in China is only at double digits.

Among the favorable factors in a partnership with China it is worth mentioning (1) the Chinese political capacity to mobilize economic agents in the direction of strategic policies (inside and outside the country), (2) the Chinese governmental power to direct foreign investment in infrastructure sectors, (3) the consolidation of China as an innovation hub and a potential provider of technological solutions of strategic interest to Brazil, (4) high savings rates, (5) the great and growing Chinese demand for products in our export basket, notably agricultural products, (6) China's interest in the Brazilian energy sector, (7) China’s condition as the country that most invests in sustainability, and renewable energies, which results from having included in its constitution the challenge of becoming "an ecological civilization".

A new triangular diplomacy?

From the variables listed above, and among many others that the reader will certainly be able to add, we can freely speculate on which scenario best suits us. However, this speculation will not be worth the effort if we do not remember that a decisive portion of that choice is not in our hands.

Returning to the argument at the beginning of the text, our choice needs to be constructed. A considerable part of the advantages that we can obtain in one or another scenario derives from the value that each of the potential partners attributes to Brazil. And the value with which we want to be seen also depends on the internal capacity to articulate our material advantages as elements of negotiation with each one of our counterparts.

It is useless to have a large consumer market and wealth dispersed in the different sectors of the economy if these advantages do not constitute a negotiating agenda articulated by the market, government and societal forces. Such an ability is not something given; it is an action that depends on a construction, on a collective will that needs to be ordered. In this sense, it is worth remembering diplomatic negotiation is not limited to negotiations on the external front; it necessarily implies the engagement and coordination of internal forces. The Brazilian chancellery therefore needs, if that is our purpose, to build competence in this area.

In the 1970s, in the context of the US-USSR East-West confrontation, Washington saw the strategic value that China could play in the balance of power of that old bipolar order. There, under the leadership of Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon, the so-called triangular diplomacy began. Beijing distanced itself from Moscow and thus changed the geometry of power of the bipolar era, opening the door to cooperation with the United States, an event that had profound consequences for China's economic development.

Such a flashback is useful as a historical reference, given that the Sino-American alliance, in the context of the old bipolar rivalry between the USA and the USSR, unleashes the deep, complex and sophisticated bilateral economic-financial and commercial interdependence currently in force. In this window of opportunity, derived from the tensions of the Cold War, China finds the door to its entry into the Third Industrial Revolution and opens the path to economic prosperity as we know it.

Taking this historic and decisive event, in which a continental country like China - which was in a situation of ruin, hunger and impoverishment – reconquers, in a few decades, its place in the Olympus of the great powers, it is worth asking ourselves whether, in light of the intensification of the Chinese-American confrontation, we would also have, in the interplay of a new triangular diplomacy, conditions to build an international partnership that leverages our development process, accelerating our transition to the Industry 4.0 environment.

As we know, the formula for China's extraordinary path involved five main ingredients. I list them below as a reference point for the construction of a possible entente with the same level of reach and depth.

First: a set of high-level strategic decisions. In the case of the US-China rapprochement, the initiatives were corroborated by the secret meetings between Kissinger and Zhou Enlai, followed by the Nixon-Mao talks in the early 1970s and the subsequent adoption of the open door policy by Deng Xiaoping in 1978.

In the light of these high-level decisions, the second ingredient of the Chinese trajectory is represented by China's remarkable ability to ensure an enabling environment for massive investments and technology transfer activities from the USA, other countries in the West and Japan.

Third: the existence in China of competitive factors that were interesting to the US - huge workforce and consumer market.

At the same level of importance as the previous ones, the fourth ingredient is given by the systemic incentive for the USA to reconnect with China, which pointed to a rebalance of forces in favor of Washington in the context of the Cold War rivalry. Given its specific weight, China came to be seen by the USA as "the Chinese card", an actor capable of fundamentally altering the geometry of world power.

And, finally, the fifth ingredient constitutes the awareness, among the leading elite of the PRC, that the rapprochement to the USA should not imply any form of exclusivity or political subordination, an awareness that gave China ample freedom of action with several other countries.

In very simplified terms, these were the elements of China's leap into the Third Industrial Revolution, a process that came as an enormous mutual benefit for China and the United States - and also for the international system.


Would it be plausible to imagine that Brazil could become the vertex of a new triangular diplomacy in the context of the ongoing Chinese-American confrontation? Could we be raised to the condition of a "Brazilian card", as a key player in the China-US confrontation board? A central hypothesis of this text, this will perhaps be our only chance to build a grand strategy on the international order that will support us structurally on the domestic realm, on a scale of transformation similar to what China has experienced in the last four decades. But the construction of a partnership of this magnitude involving Brazil – capable of simultaneously adjusting ourselves to the new geometry of world power and to leverage the technological transition of the country – faces two obstacles.

First, borrowing a classic Schopenhauerian expression, there is no collective "will and representation" in Brazil of a world that we wish to create. We lack, for reasons that do not fit in this text, a vision and a design, a manifest destiny. We need not only a foreign policy, but also internal conditions - in the State and in society - that would constitute the substrate for its implementation at the international level. Both have yet to be built. The material components for construction are present: we are an agricultural superpower, an environmental superpower, an energy superpower and a consumer market of 220 million people, 87% of whom live in urban spaces, open fields for experimentation and the construction of the digital ubiquity of the new economy. We "simply" lack, perhaps, the collective, political determination, a strategic vision of making this endowments an internal asset that articulates us with strength in the international order.

Second, in this bipolar scenario, neither the USA nor China, so far, see any strategic value that Brazil can present as a serious and reliable partner, with the potential to leverage geopolitical and geoeconomic interests. Certainly because of our own fault, due to the lack of transforming collective commitment, the pettiness and the lack of enlightened and critical mass in our elite, low educational level of the population in general, we were unable to articulate assets that, in the absence of a collective will, exclusively serve particularist interests located on the margins of society and governments.

Moving to the end, I emphasize once again that these two scenarios are taken as the main ones here, both for a methodological reason and the author's unmistakable anguish. Would the complex international dynamics open the opportunity for Brazil to overcome, with the support of diplomacy, the many social problems that surround us and our economic underperformance? Evidently, such hypotheses do not exclude other arrangements that the international dynamics will provide us with eventually in the long run.

Caution will always say that, even in the face of reflections that point us to more circumscribed scenarios, diplomatic action should always be guided by an open, pragmatic and ecumenical foreign policy. For example, India is now the third largest economy in the world by purchasing parity and could certainly be the object of a strategic partnership for Brazil, as previously indicated, due to the promise it represents in terms of economic and technological development, in addition to its huge and growing consumer market. Japan, a country with which it maintained an important migratory relationship and which in the past was an important source of resources for Brazilian infrastructure projects, could vigorously rescue its interest in the country. Likewise, we cannot forget Euclides da Cunha, for whom geography pre-shapes history. In this context, we will not be able to give up our possibilities of articulating political arrangements in South America and West Africa, regions that make up a population of more than 1 billion people.

But at the same time, we cannot ignore the hypothesis that, due to our specific weight and the attractiveness in the aforementioned domains (agriculture, bioeconomy, energy and urban infrastructure), we can build a high strategy, with dynamics favorable to our interests, from a new triangular diplomacy derived from the rivalry between China and the USA.

What to do? What realistic expectations can we have? At the external level, it is up to us, systematically, to probe and provoke through the institutional channels, in Washington and Beijing, the conditions of possibility for the construction of the partnership that best meets our challenge of urgently finding our path of prosperity and equity, departing from a technological leap. With skill, we must follow an intelligent choreography, navigating between the two powers, without ever approaching or distancing ourselves excessively from one and the other potential partner, at least in the first moments, until a deeper formula of real connection and interchange is envisioned.

Among the possibilities indicated, my personal analytical preference transpires in the paragraphs above. But the outlines of partnerships of such stature cannot be derived only from an analytical-speculative will. They depend, above all, on work and political-diplomatic articulation that, sadly, are absent from our horizon. If none of them are viable now, let us at least be able to internally build the boundary conditions for a better future. As Rubens Ricupero, a central reference in Brazilian thought, reminds us, there is no historical example of a country that has developed only or mainly through its foreign policy. Diplomacy, however brilliant it might be, is always ancillary. The decisive impulse must invariably come from within.

Philip Yang is founder of the URBEM Institute and Senior Fellow of CEBRI - Brazilian Center for International Relations

P.S. In the post-Trump context, marked by the exacerbated animosity between Biden and Bolsonaro, we can see an inflection given by the indications of personal approach of the current Brazilian president to President Putin. Such a move has the potential to have important implications for our foreign policy and introduce even greater complexity. It is worth remembering that the current Russian system is neither socialist nor capitalist; it presents a militaristic vision and a strong presence of the state, both to the taste of the Brazilian leader. In this scenario, India, under Modi's nationalist and conservative populism, would also play a role as a way out to minimize the isolation of Brazil, which today is vehemently confronting both the USA and China. We would no longer have the BRICS, but the RIB, creating a new “rib” in international relations.


1 At the time, the Brazilian chancellery was in a formative period as a State organ. The change in the orientation of foreign policy was conceived and implemented by Barão do Rio Branco, with support from Joaquim Nabuco and Rui Barbosa. 

2 It is worth rescuing Joaquim Nabuco's contribution to changing the center of gravity of Brazilian foreign policy in the text by Leslie Bethell, entitled Nabuco and Brazil between Europe, USA and Latin America (New studies - CEBRAP no. 88 São Paulo Dec. 2010) 

3 This trend must always be examined in the light of the country's economic growth prospects, which are not exactly encouraging, given its high degree of dependence on oil. 

4 The sense of urgency is aggravated when we remember that the window of our demographic bonus is closed. There is no record in history of cases of economic development after the end of this transition. 

5 Of course, eventual easing of the spending ceiling to increase investment and the use of monetary policy tools such as quantitative easing mechanisms could reduce dependence on foreign investments, but given the scale of Brazilian infrastructure demand, it seems certain to state that the inflow of foreign investments it will always be an important factor for the resumption of growth. 

6 In this regard, it is worth reading the book The Americanization of Brazil: A Study of U.S. Cold War Diplomacy in the Third World, 1945-1954), by Gerald K. Haines. 

7 We have private foundations dedicated to sending Brazilian students to educational institutions in the USA and Europe, but no counterparts aimed at universities in China or Singapore, for example. 

8 The arc of the Sino-American approach begins with the so-called Ping Pong Diplomacy in April 1971 and culminates in the formal recognition of the PRC by the USA in 1979. 

9 Julian Gewirtz's book Unlikely Partners - Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China portrays the construction of Chinese economic thought and the doctrinal formation of "market socialism". 

10 The mechanisms of pendular diplomacy are not unknown to the Brazilian diplomatic tradition. During the Vargas period, Brazil was courted by the allies and powers of the Axis and was able to extract financing for the construction of the Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional from this competition.


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