The Middle East Channel

Lula arrives on the Mideast scene

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Latin America was for the most part a very ordinary visit with allies and a chance to firm up relationships with newly elected presidents in Costa Rica, Uruguay and Chile.  But when she arrived in Brazil, the agenda expanded to encompass bilateral, regional and global issues – from ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Latin America was for the most part a very ordinary visit with allies and a chance to firm up relationships with newly elected presidents in Costa Rica, Uruguay and Chile.  But when she arrived in Brazil, the agenda expanded to encompass bilateral, regional and global issues – from regional security –  Brazilian leadership in the U.N. Stabilizing Mission in Haiti – to energy and trade, as well as Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the U.S. hopes to thwart them.  The kinds of discussions that are reserved for global powers.

For those who follow Latin America, the visit (postponed in part to Senate delays in confirming the administration’s Western Hemisphere team) was overdue.  For a growing number of common allies in the hemisphere, the South American giant has supplanted the United States as the indispensable country.  But more than Clinton’s visit to Brazil, it is Lula’s foray into the geo-political cauldron of the Middle East that indicates, as the Inter-American Dialogue’s Michael Shifter noted this week, that "the country of the future" has arrived.

Lula’s visit to Jerusalem and environs had all the trappings of a visit by a major power. But it was a bit different, too. The president crisscrossed between Israel and the Palestinian territories, spoke at the Knesset, and visited the Holocaust Memorial of Yad Vashem. But perhaps emboldened by the recent U.S. confrontation of Israel on settlements, he was not timid: after laying a wreath at Yasir Arafat’s tomb, he called for a halt to Israeli settlement construction and decried Israeli violence against Gaza’s civilian population and the Israelis’ separation barrier. Of the Palestinians he only demanded that "brave steps" be taken toward peace. Apparently the Israelis didn’t consider Lula out of line. (Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman did boycott the President’s speech to the Knesset, but anyone who follows Israeli politics knows that Lula can only be thankful for that.)

In fact, at Lula’s request, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to biennial talks between their governments, and more frequent meetings of economists from both countries.

And while business is surely a major motivation for this visit and the forthcoming trips to Iran and Syria, Lula and Brazil are also staking out a global role in which they bear the responsibility that comes with power — including for peacemaking. The world, the president said, needs "the intervention of new elements, and we can help with this."

Lula is right: the world does need "new elements" to solve problems. As he said following his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, "There is nothing in this world that cannot be fixed."  This is no off-handed comment, and Brazil’s ascendancy is not a result of Lula star quality.  Lula is following a tradition of leadership that now spans decades in guiding Latin America’s richest and most populous country in an effort to drive pragmatic cooperation and peaceful compromise throughout the region.  As its role in keeping the peace in Haiti before the massive earthquake indicates, they enjoy the trust of neighbors near and far. 

And now Brazil has upped the ante with a forward-leaning mediation role on Iran, and Middle East peace as well.  This is only to the good.  With the other BRIC countries and the G-20 taking on a more significant role in world affairs (look for example at the discussions around climate change in Copenhagen a few months ago), we should welcome Brazil as a serious peacemaker.  Not that Lula will have a huge impact immediately.  But the Quartet formula is evolving and may in time fade away.  And the U.S. hoped for role as ‘honest broker’ is very much hamstrung by a Congress that has a different definition of that term.  So, as time goes on, why shouldn’t Brazil – in the U.S. view a wholly more reliable partner than either China or Russia – play a prominent role?  During Mrs. Clinton’s visit, she and Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim signed accords on women’s advancement, economic development, health care, social inclusion and climate change.  And adding domestic support for Brazil’s responsible outreach in the region, there are nearly ten million Brazilians of Arab descent, and a small but very vibrant minority of Brazilian Jews too.

Brazil is an indispensable ally, and one to whom the U.S. can’t dictate, as their resistance to support sanctions against Iran indicates. But they have a tremendous amount to offer the United States on issues of global security and peace. The world is getting complicated just in time.

Tom Garofalo is a consultant for the New America Foundation’s U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative and blogs at the Havana Note.

 

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