Regional public goods in South America have been usually defined in the negative, mostly as the avoidance of harmful externalities. No country has been capable of either forcing or buying off its neighbors, so potential hegemons have traditionally been external. The balance of force among the two historical powers, namely Argentina and Brazil, was even until the 1980s. Mutual distrust and common external threats prevented them from building a joint security architecture. In recent decades, however, the balance of power has tilted towards Brazil, and by the 2000s it became evident that bipolarity was no longer an apt description of the regional state of affairs. Only then did Brazil start to invest in the creation of a governance framework to stabilize the region and keep extra-regional powers away. Yet, structural limitations and instrumental constraints have limited its efforts. South America is still a peaceful but increasingly divergent sub-region.
Brazil’s home region has two peculiarities: first, its boundaries are fuzzy; second, its inner core has been characterized by a long period of interstate peace. The region’s boundaries are fuzzy because Brazil has moved them over time: from encompassing all of the Western Hemisphere, to just Latin America, and finally at present to simply the South American subcontinent. More significantly, its inner core – namely South America – has been peaceful given the absence of interstate war between major powers since 1883, and altogether since 1942. Enduring peace has led to high politics being conducted through diplomatic rather than military means; its fuzziness means that region-building remains an instrument at the service of national strategies rather than a regional goal per se, as no intrinsic region exists.
Brazil often struggles to meet the necessary capabilities and steady strategy to project its power to the region and beyond. Its governments have oscillated between investing in region-building and pursuing global strategies, depending on the policy area and changing domestic preferences. Where possible, Brazil seeks to participate in established networks – either regional or global – in order to access resources and new markets. Multilateralism has been traditionally the preferred option, with minilateralism lately becoming a close second – and regionalism standing as one subset thereof. While bilateralism is seen as an exception or last resort, unilateralism is officially abhorred.
Brazil’s behavior varies across the different dimensions of regional security governance. It is proactive in regards to assurance and prevention, mostly reactive in regards to protection, and rather inactive – with a few marginal exceptions – in regards to compellence. In all dimensions, though, it has been a rather stingy contributor, whether its investment is measured by comparison with other contributors’ or as a proportion of national GDP. Brazil’s dominant strategies depend on two factors: risk and cost. As these factors grow, the country’s propensity to intervene abroad recedes. The redefinition of its home region – from the Americas through Latin America to South America – has pursued the goal of reducing both the risks and costs of Brazilian regional activism, while providing a platform from which to launch its more muscled – but still low-cost – international activism.
Brasilia’s preference for non-coercive means, which is based on its soft power structure and non-interventionist traditions, has biased the country’s role in regional security governance. It no longer support US co-responsibility in South America, but it is not ready to assume the US previous role if hard power is required. On the contrary, Brazil sustains the legitimacy of its regional role by contrasting it with historical US interventionism. Burden-sharing is thus asserted as more “democratic” and respectful of national sovereignty, although the burden Brazil is prepared to share is lower than what its neighbors might deem necessary. Brazil can afford to be a reluctant regional power because its rise, with all its tensions and dilemmas, does not take place in a regional system but in a regional society, where concertación, a midway institution between diplomacy and great power management, is accepted as the prevailing diplomatic practice. Since Brazil’s rise has been accompanied by a parallel emergence of other South American countries, its stance in the region has not changed as much as it has on the global scene. The regional distribution of power has not varied greatly, so neither have the mechanisms to manage inter-state relations.
In sum, Brazil’s low, late and soft investment in regional security governance is explained by a combination of low regional threats, insufficient national capabilities, a legalistic culture of dispute settlement, and the participation in transgovernmental networks that substitute for, or subtly underpin, interstate cooperation and regional institutions. If the region continues to neither pose a threat nor stand as an asset, it should not be expected that Brazil upgrade its investment in regional security governance – diplomatic rhetoric and official treaties notwithstanding.
The article Managing Security in a Zone of Peace: Brazil´s Soft Approach to Regional Governance is published in the issue 1/2017 (Volume 60 – N.1) of the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional – RBPI.