The tragedy and the farce of Brazilian Foreign Policy

Alessandra Beber Castilho
PhD Candidate at the Joint PhD in International Relations – King’s College London and University of São Paulo.

President Jair Bolsonaro’s disregard for the media and other actors of the international arena, such as International Organizations (IO) and NGOs, may seem like a major discontinuity of Brazil’s diplomatic tradition. Nonetheless, his stance is strikingly similar to the way in which the military dealt with these international actors during the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985). As the President is a self-confessed admirer of the authoritarian period, and being a former military man himself, this should not come as a surprise.

The Brazilian military and part of the Brazilian civil society saw the 1964 coup d’état that ousted then President João Goulart as a necessary move to save Brazil from Communism, a crucial victory of the West during the Cold War (1). After the coup, Itamaraty (Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs) took up the task of legitimising the new regime abroad, not as a reactionary authoritarian dictatorship, but as the outcome of a rightful democratic process (2). However, the promulgation of the Institutional Act no. 5 in 1968 brought a challenge to its legitimisation. In the wake of the events that transpired in the Western world in the late 1960s, the world began to pay attention to human rights violations committed by US allies. Solidarity movements towards Brazilian people gained strength, and many Brazilian exiles started talking (3). In 1970, Amnesty International released a report about torture in Brazil, which drew great attention to the human rights violations that were being committed in the country.

For the Brazilian military regime, however, the criticism of some actors, such as media outlets and Human Rights organizations was part of a plot designed by what they called the International Communist Movement. Allegedly, the plot was a defamatory device aimed at tarnishing Brazil’s image abroad since the country had imposed a major defeat to the communist world in 1964. Notwithstanding, the country was able to dismiss accusations regarding human rights violations, especially torture and forced disappearance in fora such as the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (4). The human rights issue was not a problem for US-Brazil relations during the government of Brazilian military President Emilio G. Medici (1969-1974). It was also, indeed, overlooked by President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who saw Brazil as an important ally of the Nixon Doctrine (5).

The United States’ position would change with the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter was responsible for one of the major shifts in US Foreign Policy. This new foreign policy was vocal about human rights violations by traditional US allies, Brazil included – something that caused great discomfort between military President Ernesto Geisel (1974-1979) and Carter himself. The Brazilian military perceived this shift as a betrayal since the regime that emerged after the 1964 coup was only possible with the help of the United States (6).

Unlike the military in 1964, President Jair Bolsonaro was democratically elected in October 2018. However, it is interesting to trace the parallels between his foreign policy approaches and those of the military regime. Notwithstanding the blatant authoritarianism, the passionate defense of the military dictatorship and the fact that Bolsonaro himself is a former member of the Brazilian army, it is noteworthy to see a repetition of conspiracy theorists’ Cold War rhetoric, this time mixed with new alt-right elements.

Ernesto Araújo, Bolsonaro’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, gained notoriety after publishing an article called Trump e o Ocidente (Trump and the West) in 2017. In this article, he defends the position that Trump’s election in 2016 was the ultimate victory of the West, the one thing that could prevent its demise. According to Araújo, Western civilization is under the threat of dangerous forces that, in the past, were known as Communism – nowadays these forces go under the name of globalism (7). Bolsonaro, in his inauguration speech in the 2019 UN General Assembly, much like the military in 1964, claimed that he had saved the country from the perils of Socialism (8).

As the Human Rights issue drew the attention of the international public opinion during the military dictatorship, now we face criticism because of the way the Brazilian government has been dealing with the environment, especially the Amazon fires in 2019 as well as more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. In his speech at the inauguration of the 2020 UN General Assembly, Bolsonaro has claimed that the country has been a victim of a massive disinformation campaign led by the media and international organizations, such as the ways in which the fires that afflicted the Amazon forest and the Pantanal region are discussed. Furthermore, he reaffirmed his unconditional allegiance towards US President Donald Trump. In this sense, regarding US-Brazilian relations, he has established a more radical form of Americanist foreign policy, something we can call Trumpism. Just like the military regime under President Médici found support amongst those in the Nixon administration, Bolsonaro has in Trump an important ally in the international arena. However, things will certainly change when President-elect Joe Biden takes office in the United States. Much like Geisel and Carter, we can expect a weakening of US-Brazilian relations, and the country will face harsher criticism abroad.


(1) Green, James N. We Cannot Remain Silent – opposition to the Brazilian military dictatorship in the United States. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

(2) Airgram, Embassy Rio de Janeiro to the Department of State, 23.04.1964. Pol 2-1 Joint Weekas Brazil. Political & Defense. Box 1932. Central Foreign Policy Files 1964-66, RG 59 General Records of the Department of State. NARA – College Park, MD.

(3) Green, 2010

(4) Bernardi, Bruno Boti. Silence, hindrances and omissions: the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights and the Brazilian military dictatorship. The International Journal of Human Rights, 2017

(5) Spektor, Matias. Kissinger e o Brasil. Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 2009.

(6) Reis, Daniel Arao. Ditadura e democracia no Brasil: Do golpe de 1964 à Constituição de 1988. Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 2014.

(7) Araújo, Ernesto. Trump e o Ocidente. Cadernos de Política Exterior. Ano III, número 6, 2017.

(8) Leia a íntegra do discurso de Bolsonaro na ONU. Folha de São Paulo, 24.09.2019

National security neglect and the defence sector in Brazil

Raphael C. Lima, PhD candidate in War Studies at King’s College London

Peterson F. Silva, Professor at the Brazilian War College (Escola Superior de Guerra, Ministry of Defence)

Gunther Rudzit, Associate Professor of International Relations at ESPM and Professor at the Brazilian Air Force University (UNIFA)

Brazilian army deployment to guarantee law and order – GLO operation. (Photo: Brazilian Army)

Making sense of the security apparatus in contemporary Brazil is a complex issue. Nowadays, people may find snapshots of Brazilian security agencies’ actions through the news. Examples are varied: armed bank robbers violently storming small Brazilian cities; civilians killed by ‘stray bullets’; Brazilian Armed Forces fighting environmental crimes in the Amazon region; Brazilian institutions hit by cyberattacks; the Federal Police’s constant operations against money laundry and political corruption; Armed Forces repressing border crimes; militias expanding control in Rio de Janeiro; and police officers killing and being killed on Brazilian streets. But why do we need to analyse and understand roles, missions and coordination between different security agencies?

Organising security forces is a necessary challenge for contemporary democracies. After all, a failure to define specific roles to security forces and not providing them with effective resources and limits can lead to grave social problems, human rights violations, inefficient use of resources, and ineffective use of force. This is especially important in the contemporary world. The nature of security threats has gone beyond traditional state-to-states and demands larger cooperation and integration among military branches, police forces, gendarmery forces, and intelligence services. Providing political direction and management of these issues is what the literature calls national security policymaking. That is, ‘the process of maintaining, coordinating and employing the assets of the security sector so that they contribute optimally to the nation’s strategic goals’ (Chuter 2011, p.13).

This national security policymaking activity coordinates and gives a larger common direction to three main axes of a state’s national security policy: intelligence, defence, and public safety (Figure 1). This is a process of policy engineering that can be comprised of two main elements. First, national security documents—a National Security Policy or Strategy (e.g., France, U.S., Spain and UK strategies)—capable of providing general guidelines for the whole security apparatus. However, only having a strategy is not enough. There must also be effective national security institutions who are responsible for putting together strategies and directions for the whole security sector (e.g., the U.S. and the UK National Security Councils, and France Stratégie). That is, cross-sector permanent organisations with permanent specialised civilian personnel that can coordinate and provide major guidelines. Once these are put in place, then, this larger policy instructs the three main axes of a national security policy, defence, intelligence, and public safety.

Understanding this complex mosaic of security agencies and missions may seem complex in a Brazilian contemporary environment. Especially in a domestic security environment with high levels of social violence—violent death rate of 27.5 per 100,000, rising paramilitary groups in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and organised criminal organisations, such as the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital—PCC) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho—CV), going global and operating in Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru. Nowadays, these issues have become more complicated by the Venezuelan crisis that has spurred global geopolitical competition between the U.S., China, and Russia in Brazil’s vicinity. South America is no longer a region distant from great power politics and thus military diplomacy and capabilities become important resources.

However, Brazil lacks a clear and structured national security strategy or clear cross-sector definitions. Quite the opposite, one may see more and more military officers acting in defence and intelligence leadership positions without the presence of institutionalised civilian roles; a military expenditure characterized by approximately 79% assigned to Personnel costs and 13% to Equipment in 2019; bureaucratic struggles between military service branches; fragile controls and oversight mechanisms in defence, intelligence, and public safety; and growing examples of Armed Forces deployed in public safety.

Not having effective national security policymaking may have negative effects on security policies. In the case of post-authoritarian states, traditional problems of civil-military relations—such a democratic controls over the armed forces, civilianisation of the defence sector, creating effective political directions, engaging society and the parliament in security and defence topics—might be worsened when internal security threats rise. This seems to be the case of Brazil. What is the effect of not having civilianised and effective national security policymaking to the defence sector in the country? What is the relationship between fragile coordination among security agencies, weak democratic controls, and the growing military engagement in public safety? Our recent article published in the journal Defence Studies aimed to address this question.

We argued that, since democratisation in 1985, civilian elites have neglected national security policymaking and the military has since maintained several military prerogatives. Instead, as internal security challenges grew in complexity, civilian political elites pushed the military to deal with public safety, border security, and national security policymaking. The military, in turn, resisted defence reforms that challenged their prerogatives. Additionally, political elites delegated civilian posts to the Armed Forces in defence, public safety and intelligence, instead of engaging in broader reforms.

Our study shows that this led to a vicious cycle of military dependency, which deteriorated the already fragile political controls over the Armed Forces, inhibited defence reforms, and increased the military role in the state and society. This ultimately led to the resurgence of the military in the political arena. To reach this conclusion, we analysed the three axes of a national security policy—intelligence, public safety, and defence.

We noted that Brazil has had an un-concluded national security policymaking process. The larger cross-national coordination process at the Federal level has never come to fruition and did not move beyond specific ad hoc efforts, such as the Strategic Border Plans, and the security coordination during the international events held in the country. Regarding the Intelligence sector, Brazil did build a civilian agency, the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (ABIN), in 1999. Yet, ABIN has been subject to military gatekeeping since it is directly subordinate to the Institutional Security Cabinet (GSI/PR), a Ministry-level organisation led by Army Generals since 1985 and that does not have to be approved by Senate hearings. The public safety area has also contributed to this in process. In general, Brazilian police forces have a low law enforcement capacity and are very fragmented. Corruption, lack of basic supplies and equipment for policing activities, low effectiveness, and police strikes are very common problems.

Instead of broader reforms and coordination, civilians aimed to solve these crises by slowly pushing the military to deal with internal security problems. From border crime repression to temporary domestic deployments to guarantee law and order (GLO operations)—that grew in time and scope over time (table 1)—, the Armed Forces have been expanding their involvement in internal affairs. These new missions and domestic military deployments have affected the results of defence reforms. In general, civilians did not engage on broad reforms that tacked military prerogatives and most reforms put forward were those that favoured previous military agendas. As a result, the military maintained large political spaces for the armed forces within defence policymaking such as publishing the new defence strategies, defining budget priorities, occupying key ministerial posts etc. A key example is that the position of Minister of Defence has been occupied by Retired Army Generals since 2016.

Over time, the combination of expanded roles in public safety and ineffective reforms inhibited defence reforms that have challenged military prerogatives—e.g., civilian careers in the Ministry of Defence or reducing the powers of the Military Commanders. As we argue, there is no power vacuum. As civilians neglected national security policymaking and delegated more and more posts to military officers in public safety and defence, the military expanded their role in these areas and occupied spaces. This ultimately led to the weakening of the already fragile democratic controls (table 2).

This, of course, is not a process set in stone and can be overcome. We consider that Brazilian civilian elites can move beyond this national security neglect and engage on proper national security policymaking. A few important first steps would be (1) to publish an effective national security strategy; (2) to create civilianised and institutionalised national security council/committee capable of providing political direction to security policies and coordinating cross-sectorial efforts; and (3) to create permanent civilian positions to the Minister of Defence and aim to improve military effectiveness; (4) to increase democratic controls of the defence sector, engaging parliament and other government agencies. Together these can be important initial steps to make sense of the security apparatus and start organising roles and missions between different security agencies.


Chuter, D. 2011. Governing & Managing the Defence Sector. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies.

Tribunal de Contas da União. 2020. Memorando N. 57/2020-Segecex. Brasília: Tribunal de Contas da União.

More details:

No power vacuum: national security neglect and the defence sector in Brazil
Defence Studies

Raphael C. Lima , Peterson F. Silva & Gunther Rudzit (2020)

The image of Brazil as a country on the fence

Daniel Buarque
Ph.D. Candidate in International Relations at the KBI

Former US President Barack Obama and his family tour the Christ the Redeemer statue in 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

While the international image of Brazil is traditionally associated with popular stereotypes such as football and beaches (Buarque, 2019), the country’s methods of diplomacy provoke a different perception abroad. Although Brazilian diplomats are praised for their competence, Brazil is still usually seen by the rest of the world as a country that remains “on the fence” and avoids taking sides in international disputes.

This view, regarding Brazil, was the focus of a recent paper published by Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional (RPBI). Focusing on the perceptions held by British diplomats, the study developed argued that the British diplomats perceive Brazil as a country that seems to want to be “friends with everyone” and, thus, avoids taking sides on any international disputes. It remains “on the fence” in important issues, which in turn may hinder the legitimacy of its bid for a stronger voice in global politics. These arguments were developed during the research that I conducted during my Ph.D. as a student on the Joint International Relations programme at King’s College London and the University of São Paulo.

The paper ‘A country on the fence: the United Kingdom’s perceptions on the status and international agenda of Brazil’ is based on the analysis of interviews with six British diplomats who served in Brazil and who discuss their perception of the international agenda of the country.

The idea of someone being on the fence is often used to represent indecisiveness. However, in the case of Brazil, the external perception is not that the country is undecided, but that it is unwilling to support one side or another so as to avoid commitment. Offering a position of neutrality is, in fact, just a way of not becoming too involved. It is based on the “unwillingness of Brazil to intervene on one side or the other”, as one of the members of the FCDO interviewed explained (Buarque, 2020).

The image of Brazil as a country unwilling to take sides and remain “on the fence”, however, goes beyond the perception of British diplomats. In his recently released book A Promised Land, former US President Barack Obama uses a similar idea to describe Brazil. According to Obama, the country generally avoided taking sides in international disputes.

The description, which repeats the idea that Brazil remains on the fence, was made while the former president described the decision to launch a military intervention in Libya. Obama made the decision to act whilst he was traveling in Brazil, in March 2011, as part of a “tour designed to boost the United States’ image”. This image had been damaged by the war in Iraq, the war on drugs, and policies such as ones regarding Cuba. According to Obama, this non-involvement attitude of Brazil’s, made his decision even more difficult to make, particularly as he was in the country.

“Under any circumstances, launching a military action while visiting another country posed a problem. The fact that Brazil generally tried to avoid taking sides in international disputes—and had abstained in the Security Council vote on the Libya intervention—only made matters worse.” (Obama, 2020, p661).

According to Sean Burges, Senior Instructor at Carleton University, this avoidance of taking sides is seen as a problem by many who observe the actions of Brazilian diplomacy; ‘Brazilian foreign policymakers want to position their country as a leader, but are almost pathologically averse to explicitly stating this role or accepting the implicit responsibilities’ (Burges, 2017 p.19)

Brazil has this image of being uncommitted to any specific position in international affairs. This makes it appear unwilling to take a side or to want to make any decisions. This action is seen as a problem because Brazil aspires to play a leading role in the world and countries that are actually great powers are states that have to make decisions and take sides. “If you are going to be a world power, being the 5th, 6th largest economy in the world and want the political influence to go with that, you need to be prepared to take sides”, said one of the British diplomats interviewed for the paper mentioned above.


Buarque, D. (2019). Brazil Is Not (Perceived as) a Serious Country: Exposing Gaps between the External Images and the International Ambitions of the Nation. Brasiliana: Journal for Brazilian Studies8(1-2), 285-314. 

Buarque, D. (2020). A country on the fence: United Kingdom’s perceptions of the status and international agenda of Brazil. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional63(1), e012. Epub September 07, 2020.

Burges, S. W. (2017). Brazil in the world: the international relations of a South American giant. Manchester University Press.

Obama, B. (2020). A Promised Land. Crown.

Perspectives on the South Atlantic Webinar

On Monday 7th – Tuesday 8th December 2020, the Brazil Institute at King’s College London and the International Relations Institute of the University of São Paulo will be jointly hosting a virtual webinar entitled ‘Perspectives on the South Atlantic’. It will comprise of three open panels and an executive panel focusing on different aspects of defence and security relating to the South Atlantic region.

The three open panels will be distributed over two consecutive days:

1) Peace in the South Atlantic
This panel will discuss peace initiatives and cooperation in the South Atlantic region. It will focus on the ZOPACAS (Zone of Peace and Cooperation of the South Atlantic); multilateralism and bi-continental cooperation.

2) Maritime Security Challenges and Brazilian projection in the Gulf of Guinea
This panel will discuss the maritime security challenges rising in the Gulf of Guinea region (piracy, illicit traffics, illegal fishing, environmental crimes among others) and mining the stability of the South Atlantic space, analysing Brazilian intervention through a combined security-development approach.

3) Antarctica and the Southern Ocean
This panel looks to elaborate on the relevance of the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic region in its interrelations with the South Atlantic, attempting to reflect on the present and future relevance of the region for Brazil.

Click here to see the links below for more information and panelists, and click here to register: