The Multilateralist

Dilma Rousseff’s Hollow Discontent

Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff kicked off this year’s General Assembly session by directly criticizing the United States for alleged snooping on the electronic communications of Brazilian government officials, businesses and citizens. Coming on the heels of the cancellation of a planned state visit to Washington, Rousseff’s challenge to the United States won headlines around the ...

Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff kicked off this year's General Assembly session by directly criticizing the United States for alleged snooping on the electronic communications of Brazilian government officials, businesses and citizens. Coming on the heels of the cancellation of a planned state visit to Washington, Rousseff's challenge to the United States won headlines around the world.

The rest of Rousseff's speech received much less attention, which is unfortunate. By through what she said and what she didn't, it shed light on how Brazil sees itself fitting into the multilateral architecture. The NSA scandal will blow over soon enough, but that deeper question of how emerging powers like Brazil fit is here to stay.

Rousseff spoke at length about the shortcomings and inequities of the current world order. She warned that the International Monetary Fund must at long last complete reforms to give emerging powers greater say, and she  lamented that the Security Council has still not reformed its antiquated membership structure. This is all pretty standard stuff from Brazilian leaders, who have repeatedly argued that multilateral institutions need revamping. 

Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff kicked off this year’s General Assembly session by directly criticizing the United States for alleged snooping on the electronic communications of Brazilian government officials, businesses and citizens. Coming on the heels of the cancellation of a planned state visit to Washington, Rousseff’s challenge to the United States won headlines around the world.

The rest of Rousseff’s speech received much less attention, which is unfortunate. By through what she said and what she didn’t, it shed light on how Brazil sees itself fitting into the multilateral architecture. The NSA scandal will blow over soon enough, but that deeper question of how emerging powers like Brazil fit is here to stay.

Rousseff spoke at length about the shortcomings and inequities of the current world order. She warned that the International Monetary Fund must at long last complete reforms to give emerging powers greater say, and she  lamented that the Security Council has still not reformed its antiquated membership structure. This is all pretty standard stuff from Brazilian leaders, who have repeatedly argued that multilateral institutions need revamping. 

Rousseff then pivoted to some of the challenges that the Council faces–including Syria and the Middle East peace process. One might think that a leading aspirant to a permanent Council seat would offer substantive thoughts on how those crises should be addressed. How important is the norm against chemical weapons use? Is it ever legitimate to use force without Council authorization? Brazil’s position on those questions could be influential. Its officials have often articulated a vision of world order that relies less on coercion than dialogue. But Rousseff steered well clear of that sensitive ground. Instead, she strained to link Brazil’s push for a permanent seat to the broad discontent with the Council’s performance on Syria: 

The limited representation of the UN Security Council is an issue of grave concern, considering the challenges posed by the 21 st century.The immense difficulty in offering a solution to the Syrian crisis and the paralysis in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exemplify this concern.In dealing with important issues, the recurring polarization between permanent members generates a dangerous paralysis.

We must provide the Council with voices that are at once independent and constructive. Only the expansion of the number of permanent and non permanent members and the inclusion of developing countries in both categories will correct the Council’s deficit of representation and legitimacy.

But legitimacy to do what? And why should we expect the addition of new voices to alleviate the tension between the existing veto-holders? Brazilian officials lean heavily on concepts like legitimacy to push their case for greater voice but rarely explain how that voice will improve global governance. With the world’s leaders watching, Rousseff had a chance to weigh in on a developing crisis; she opted instead to go after the NSA.  

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist
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