Brazil isolates itself – and threatens to drag South America with it

The loss of soft power will cost Brazil, and thus all of South America, dearly. It will take decades to make up for this loss of confidence.

by Alexander Busch, Latin America correspondent for Handelsblatt and Neue Zürcher Zeitung


For a long time, soft power was a term that only political scientists could understand. The US publicist Joseph Nye coined the term. It means when a country exerts influence in the world without using economic or military power. For a long time, Brazil deliberately used its soft power: its democratic governments expanded their influence with negotiating skills and diplomacy. At times, Brazil played in a higher league in world politics than the country would have been accorded in terms of economic power or threat potential: In the climate debate, in free trade, in the enforcement of human rights, in poverty reduction, in global health policy, even in the world financial crisis of 2008, Brazil sat at the table of the great powers. Because Brazil talked to everyone and got along with everyone, it had influence. This soft power perfectly complemented its increasingly important role as a supplier of raw materials, agricultural products and energy in the global economy. Brazil was also a globally admired cultural and sporting nation, a much sought-after destination for travel and living for many people worldwide.

But that’s over. Brazil’s reputation in the world has never been as bad as it is now. This began with the major corruption scandals that spread from Brazil to the whole of Latin America and, in retrospect, put the left-wing governments under Lula and Dilma Rousseff in a bad light. The election of the right-wing populist Bolsonaro as president has accelerated the decline: His constant attacks on democracy, his chaotic governance, the ongoing economic crisis and now, above all, the poor management of the Corona crisis, which has made the country the world’s number two in terms of infections and deaths – all this has made Brazil a global pariah. Without allies, without sympathies. It will take decades to rebuild that trust.

How high the costs of this loss of soft power will be can be guessed. A few days ago, 29 banks and global funds sent an open letter to the Brazilian government. Together they manage assets worth 3.75 trillion US dollars. They expressed their concern about the increase in the clearing of the Amazon and the reduction of environmental and human rights policies. The financial players are thus reacting to the pressure they are receiving from their shareholders. For them, environmentally sound agricultural policy, the protection of the rainforest, of minorities and indigenous peoples or gender policy is the basis for investments in Brazil – otherwise they are simply withdrawing their capital.

The damage will not be limited to Brazil. Because the country unites half the population, area and economic power of South America, the other states on the continent will also suffer from the loss of Brazilian soft power.

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