David Rothkopf

The world’s best foreign minister

This may have been the best month for Brazil since about June 1494. That’s when the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed granting Portugal everything in the new world east of an imaginary line that was declared to exist 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands. This ensured that what was to become Brazil would ...


This may have been the best month for Brazil since about June 1494. That’s when the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed granting Portugal everything in the new world east of an imaginary line that was declared to exist 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands. This ensured that what was to become Brazil would be Portuguese and thus develop a culture and identity very different from the rest of Spanish Latin America. This guaranteed the world would have samba, churrasco, “The Girl from Ipanema,” and through some incredibly fortuitous if twisted chain of events, Gisele Bundchen

While it took Brazil sometime to live up to the backhanded maxim that it was “the country of tomorrow and always would be,” there is little doubt that tomorrow has arrived for the country even if much work remains to be done to overcome its serious social challenges and tap its extraordinary economic potential.

The evidence that something new and important was happening in Brazil began to build years ago, when then President Cardoso engineered a shift to economic orthodoxy that stabilized a country racked by cycles of boom and bust and mind-blowing inflation. It has gained momentum however, throughout the extraordinary term of the country’s current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Some of that momentum is due to Lula’s commitment to preserving the economic foundations laid by Cardoso, a courageous political move for a lifelong labor leader from the opposition Workers Party. Some of it is due to luck, a changing global energy paradigm that helped make Brazil’s 30 years of investment in biofuels start to pay off in important new ways, massive discoveries of oil off Brazil’s coast and growing demand from Asia that has enabled Brazil to become a world agricultural export leader and assume the role of “breadbasket of Asia.” But much of it is due to great skill on the part of Brazil’s leaders in seizing a moment that many of their predecessors likely would have fumbled.

Of those leaders, much of the credit goes to President Lula who has become a bit of a rock star on the international scene, harnessing energy, drive, charisma, uncanny intuition, and common sense so effectively that his lack of formal education has hardly been an impediment. Some goes to other members of his team, such as his chief of staff Dilma Rousseff, a former energy minister who has become a very tough chief of staff and a possible successor to Lula. But I believe a large amount of it ought to go to Celso Amorim, who has masterminded a transformation of Brazil’s role in the world that is almost unprecedented in modern history. He has been Lula’s foreign minister since 2003 (he also served in the same role in the 1990s) but I think there is a fair case to be made that he is currently the world’s most successful foreign minister.

It is impossible to pinpoint just one turning point in Amorim’s efforts to transform Brazil from a lumbering regional power of dubious international clout into one of the most important players on the world stage, acknowledged by global consensus to play an unprecedented leading role. It may have come when he played a central role helping to engineer a pushback by emerging countries against a business-as-usual power play by the U.S. and Europe during the Cancun trade talks in 2003. It might have been the canny way the Brazilians have used issues such as their biofuels leadership to forge new dialogues and influence either with the United States or with other emerging powers. It certainly involved his embrace of the idea of transforming the BRICs from acronym to important geopolitical collaboration, working with his counterparts in Russia, India and China to institutionalize the dialogue between the countries and to coordinate their messages. (Arguably the BRIC helped most by this alliance is Brazil. Russia, China and India all earn places at the table due to military capabilities, population size, economic clout or resources. Brazil has all these things…but less than the others.) It also involved countless other things from the Brazil’s deepened and tightened ties with countries like China, it’s promotion of both investment flows and a reputation for being comparatively secure in the face of global economic reversals, the comfort level America’s new President has with his Brazilian counterpart — even extending to encouraging them to play a role as a conduit to, for example, the Iranians. Agree or not with their every move in places like Honduras or in the OAS on Cuba, Brazil has also continued to play an important regional role even as it is clear its focus has shifted to the global stage.

Nothing illustrates how far Brazil has come or how effective the Lula-Amorim team has been than the events of the past few weeks. First, the countries of the world cashier the G8 and embrace the G20, guaranteeing Brazil a permanent place at the most important table in the world. Next, Brazil becomes the first country in South America to be awarded the right to host the Olympics. Yesterday’s FT carried news that “Asia and Brazil lead rise in consumer confidence”, a reflection on the reputation that the government has effectively sold (with the bulk of the credit going to a resurgent Brazilian private sector.) And this week’s stories out of the IMF-World Bank meeting in Istanbul show a further institutionalization of Brazil’s new role with agreement to change the structure of the International Monetary Fund. According to today’s Washington Post: “The nations also preliminarily agreed to reshape the fund’s voting structure, promising a blueprint for giving more clout to emerging giants like Brazil and China by January 2011.”

Not a bad few days work. And while it’s Brazil’s Finance Ministry you’ll find at IMF-World Bank Meetings, the undisputed architect of this remarkable transformation of Brazil’s role in Amorim.

Much work remains to be done, of course. Part of it has to do with the new role that has been shaped. Brazil wants a permanent place on the U.N. Security Council and more of a leadership role in other international institutions. It may well earn these, but it will have to maintain its growth and stability to get there. Further, Brazil seems inclined to minimize regional threats such as those posed by Venezuela (Brazilians tend to look down their nose at their neighbors to the north almost as much as they do toward their Argentine friends to the south … and thus they under-estimate the ability of men like Hugo Chavez to do too much damage.) And they have an election coming up that may change the cast of players and of course, that can alter the current trajectory in any number of ways — good and bad.

But it is hard to think of another foreign minister who has so effectively orchestrated such a meaningful transformation of his country’s international role. And that’s why if I were asked today to cast a ballot, my vote for world’s best foreign minister would likely go to Santos’ native son, Celso Amorim.

One note on yesterday’s post: I received a note late yesterday from a spokesperson for the British Embassy taking issue with my assertion that the British Ambassador had joked that he wasn’t getting much attention from the Obama administration. The thrust of their point was that “the Embassy denies categorically that the Ambassador made these remarks, even in jest, and that in our view the relationship between the UK and USA remains as close as ever — whatever the noises off by febrile commentators in the media.” While I stand by my story, their email to me on this was so civil and well-argued that I felt it only fair to pass on their views. I would take the “febrile commentators” point personally, but I had a flu shot only yesterday so they can’t possibly mean me.


David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf