A new perspective on the grand strategy of the patron of Brazilian diplomacy – an interview with João Paulo Alsina Jr. 

This article addresses Baron of Rio-Branco’s grand strategy during his term as Brazil’s Minister of External Relations and the role played in this context by the naval reorganization program (1904-1910). The ensuing case study aimed to determine domestic and international constraints that affected the latter, as well as the worldview of the patron of Brazilian diplomacy regarding military power’s instrumentality to foreign policy – taking into account Rio-Branco’s unwavering support of the naval program. The article’s conclusion rejects idealized versions of the legacy of Rio-Branco while it affirms the continued relevance of his belief in the centrality of military power for Brazil’s sovereign integration into the international system.

The paper now published in Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional  (RBPI Vol. 57 – July/Dec– 2014) is entitled “Rio Branco, grand strategy and naval power” and addresses Baron of Rio-Branco’s grand strategy during his term as Brazil’s Minister of External Relations and the role played in this context by the naval reorganization program (1904-1910). João Paulo Alsina Jr. gave an interview about his research to Matheus Freitas Rocha Bastos, member of the Laboratory of Analysis in International Relations of the University of Brasília and Priscilla de Almeida Nogueira da Gama, member of the Editorial Team of RBPI.

Por Matheus Freitas Rocha Bastos e Priscilla de Almeida Nogueira da Gama

1. In your article you use the concept of “grand strategy”. How do you think it can be used as a useful operational concept to understand the baron of Rio-Branco’s foreign policy?

The concept of grand strategy is useful inasmuch as one bears in mind that Rio-Branco enjoyed considerable autonomy to implement the national foreign policy during the First Republic. In dealing with a historical period in which war and all things military were closely intertwined with international relations, it seemed to me adequate to approach the naval programs of 1904 and 1906 in the broader context of Brazil’s grand strategy – a conceptual frame that encompasses political, economic and military aspects. As central components of any grand strategy we will find foreign and defense policies as well as their articulation. Being interested in the way the Patron of Brazilian diplomacy faced the articulation of the above mentioned policies, It was only natural for me to utilize grand strategy as a tool to understand how the naval buildup was connected to Rio-Branco’s world view and foreign policy.

2. What were the political consequences of the naval programs of 1904 and 1906 regarding the regional relations, especially with Argentina?

 Both naval programs exacerbated political tensions already existent. We should not overlook regional rivalries and disputes for hegemony, in all respects similar to what was going on in the European theater, prevalent during the beginning of the 20th century. This is especially true concerning the relations between Brazil – the biggest and most populated country of South America – and Argentina – the subcontinent’s richest and fastest growing economy at the time. Both nations strove for regional hegemony and the widespread Mahanian ideology was instrumental in convincing national elites of the pressing need for achieving naval supremacy in South America. Not only did policymakers in Rio and Buenos Aires consider the possibility of war between the two countries, but also the need to possess powerful fleets capable of representing an obstacle to aggressive moves from imperialist powers. At the end of the day, Admiral Alexandrino’s naval program – which was unflinchingly supported by Rio-Branco –  based on huge all-big-gun battleships (dreadnoughts) set in motion a short but intense naval competition in the Southern Cone. Much of what is depicted by officialist historians as proofs of Rio-Branco’s peace loving behavior corresponds to his attempts to assuage Argentina in order to stop Buenos Aires from waging preventive war against a defenseless Brazil. From Rio’s perspective, it was crucial to hold Argentina still up to the arrival of the new fleet from England, in 1910.

3. In what aspect did the officialism presented in the Brazilian historiography interfere in the vision of  the role of Paranhos Jr. when it comes to the naval programs’ (1904/1906) implementation? What would be the “unofficial” version, if any?

Actually, there are only a handful of articles and books dealing specifically with the relations between the naval programs and Rio-Branco’s grand strategy. The so-called officialist historiography interferes with an adequate evaluation of the foreign policy implemented by Rio-Branco in many respects. For instance, by downplaying the centrality of military power for Brazil during Paranhos Jr.’s tenure as Minister of External Relations. There is no such thing as an official and a unofficial version of history in the singular. There are multiple versions of history, some critical and some uncritical. The latter are the ones criticized by me. Most important of all for a truly critical historiography is the search for truth above anything else and lack of reverential awe when investing against officially sanctioned versions of history.

 4. What can be learned from the period you analyze in your article (1902/1912), specifically if one bears in mind the relations between civilians and the military?

The period analyzed in my article is very rich in terms of the possibilities it provides for reflection. First, it suggests that Brazilians do not possess in their DNA genes which prevent them from reacting robustly to external military threats. Second, it puts into question official narratives that purport Brazil as a sort of international peaceful exception: a country “intrinsically” predisposed to reject almost any use of force, be it direct or indirect, in its relationship with other nations. Third, it pays heed to the great importance Rio-Branco attributed to the enhancement of Brazilian military capabilities. Fourth, it shows that the Patron of Brazilian diplomacy was not by any means a “pacifist” but a Bismarckian statesman deeply concerned with the acquisition of military power in order to better defend Brazilian interests and deter threats against our country. Fifth, it demonstrates how imperfect civil-military relations were during the period analyzed and how these imperfections had tangible consequences in terms of the exacerbation of differences between Brazil and Argentina. In a certain sense, my article suggests that we should abandon stereotyped versions of our diplomatic history in favor of a little more nuance and complexity.

Read the article: ALSINA JR., João Paulo. Rio Branco, grand strategy and naval power. Rev. bras. polít. int.,  Brasília ,  v. 57, n. 2, Dec.  2014 .   Available from <http://www.scielo.br/article_plus.php?pid=S0034-73292014000200009&tlng=en&lng=en>. access on  21  Feb.  2015.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201400302.

Contact

Brazilian Ministry of External Relations, Brasília, DF, Brazil (joao.alsina@itamaraty.gov.br)

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