Let Us In

Why Barack Obama must support Brazil's drive for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.


When U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Brazil later this month, Brazilians will expect him to make a statement supporting our country’s inclusion in a reformed U.N. Security Council, as he did regarding India’s inclusion in November. It would be a disappointment if Obama does not endorse our drive for a permanent seat on the world’s premier international security body — not just because Brazil deserves a seat but because the council’s very legitimacy depends on the inclusion of emerging powers.

Let’s take first the simple reality of global power today, which is no longer reflected in the membership of the current council. It’s vitally important that developing economies be part of this global body, and it is only natural that Brazil, which is now among the eight largest economies in the world, should be included. If the Brazilian economy is already as big as that of Britain or France — and ours has room to grow while these others do not — why should they be there and not us? Or India, which has more than 1 billion people? And why not a single African country? Reform is not a question of ambition of this or that country, but rather a question of the Security Council needing to be representative of the world community.

This is not only a question of making our global institutions as democratic and representative as possible. It’s not about a feel-good quest for diverse representation. Reforming the Security Council is vital if the body’s decisions are to be taken seriously worldwide. If the council is seen as the coterie of only a few great powers, its decisions are not likely to be respected or received with enthusiasm — to the detriment of all. Of course, one limiting factor is that the present permanent five, veto-wielding powers on the council are very jealous of their privileges; they don’t want to share them.

Yet we emerging powers have much to offer. First, we will bring new perspectives. Take, for example, the Middle East. We will not come with magic solutions — nobody has magic solutions — but we will have fresh ideas, and Brazil is an interlocutor that is able to talk to everyone. In the same month in 2009, for example, we received the president of Israel, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and the president of Iran. How many other countries are able to receive visits from these three presidents in just a matter of weeks? It was a demonstration of how well-positioned Brazil is to hold dialogue with countries with different perspectives.

Why can Brazil open doors when today’s Security Council cannot? Part of it has to do with our country’s pluralistic background — the cultural and racial mixture of our society. But it’s also simply because we are a developing country. A perfect example came last year when Iran rejected a Western proposal under which the country’s uranium would be shipped abroad for enrichment up to energy-grade (not weapons-grade) levels. Coming from the West, the agreement met hard resistance from Tehran on everything from its timing to the quantity of uranium required. But when Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and I brought Tehran the same basic agreement, we both spoke from the perspective of fellow developing countries that can understand the problems of other developing countries; everyone is on the same level.

At the same time, Brazil plain and simply has influence. In November, when we decided to recognize a Palestinian state, immediately another eight or 10 Latin American countries did the same. Even some European countries are moving toward having a new kind of relationship with Palestine. To ignore the fact that Brazil has clout in the world would be foolish.

Take Brazil’s relationship with Africa. We are one of the few non-African countries that can carry an influence in political discussions on that continent. Five years ago in Guinea-Bissau, when that country faced a huge political crisis, we spoke to Senegal and other countries in the region. They told us that Brazil was welcome to join the mediation, while other countries were not. During my term as foreign minister, I even mentioned this fact to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arguing that our unique relationship with African countries creates areas for cooperation with the United States — at a time when other countries, namely China, are very much present in Africa.

Many corners of the global system already reflect the new geopolitical reality. Brazil is at the center of international trade negotiations. In financial matters, we are a leader in the G-20. We were instrumental in reforming the International Monetary Fund’s quota system, together with the other BRIC countries. At the end of the 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen, it was Obama, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the leaders of China, India, and South Africa who came to a final accord. In all these areas, it’s already accepted that Brazil is a leader. It is only in the area of peace and security that we are not.

During my eight years as foreign minister, I worked tirelessly to change that. Our strategy was twofold: to try to work within the United Nations, but at the same time to push for reform from the outside. We drew lessons from another big example of recent change to the multilateral system: IMF reform. There would never have been change in the quota system if pressure had come only from within the IMF; it was really the G-20’s pushing that provoked the change. Likewise with the United Nations, we can begin some kinds of reforms from the outside, for example by also holding G-20 meetings for foreign rather than just finance ministers. (Now that I am no longer foreign minister, I can say this because I am not pleading on own behalf!) Building these informal groups will help push along change to formal institutions within the United Nations.

Obama’s support of India’s candidacy for a permanent Security Council seat was a good step. We in Brazil agree with Obama; we have a very close relationship with India. With India, the United States is motivated by its rivalry with China, its interests in Asia, Afghanistan, and so on. But how could you have India and not Brazil? How could you have one more Asian country — because Japan would probably also have to join if India did — and not one each from Latin America and Africa? How can you give a prize to a country that decided to go nuclear and deny the same to a country that did not? Brazil could have developed atomic weapons — we have the capacity to process uranium — but we chose to write in our Constitution that nuclear energy should be used only for peaceful purposes. We should not be penalized for that.

I know reform will be very difficult. But I also know that it is an absolute must, and it’s a must because otherwise the Security Council will grow progressively less relevant. Of course, reform will take time, though maybe not as long as we think. If you had asked me before the financial crisis of 2008 how long it would take for the G-7 to become the G-20, I would have said maybe 10 years. But it took less than one. I hope we don’t need to have a similar crisis, this time in the area of security, to provoke the Security Council to act. What’s happening today in the Arab world should be a wake-up call: No single country in the world is capable of dealing with this situation; they are not capable of even analyzing it. The more the world listens to others who have good relationships in the region, the more choices and options we will have.

Having lived all these years and seeing so many things change, I do think it’s possible. Reforming the global security system is the question of world governance in the coming years. Brazil, for one, is up to the challenge.

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