Brazil is South America’s emerging power. It is the largest and most populous country in the continent; and it benefits from a favourable geographic position, important natural resources and a growing economy. As such, it is taking a more active international role both in the region and beyond. Yet, it must also face notable challenges; notably corruption, criminality, inequality and others; all of which may undermine its rise as a great power.
Geography and Brazil’s rise
Like any other country, Brazil’s geopolitics can be examined as a combination of three factors: dimension, configuration and position.
Brazil covers a total area of about 8,515,000 square kilometres, making of it the 5th country in the world in terms of size. This puts Brazil in a favourable position to dominate the continent, as it can access any region with relative ease. Similarly, its 7,500 kilometres-long coastline on the Atlantic Ocean enables Brazil to easily project its power abroad and to engage in lucrative maritime trade.
In terms of configuration, Brazil’s territory can roughly be divided in two parts. The north-west is centred on the Amazon river basin and its vast rainforest, the largest in the world and a real treasure in terms of biodiversity. The south-east is made up of ridges and mountain ranges crossed by the Parana river. As a matter of facts, watercourses are an important feature in Brazil’s geography: the country has a complex hydrographic system that brings significant benefits to electric power generation and agriculture, which is also favoured by Brazil’s warm climate. Most of Brazil’s 208 million citizens, the majority of which are young people, live in the cities along the coast. This has resulted into vast metropolis where economic prosperity meets overcrowded slums.
But position is Brazil’s most important characteristic. It borders ten nations, meaning all the countries in South America except Ecuador and Chile. None of its neighbours represents a real threat, and not only because relations are generally good: Brazil is simply more powerful than any of them. Even Argentina, the second most influent country in the continent, cannot seriously challenge Brazil’s supremacy due to a worse geopolitical and economic situation. Other states are not a real matter of concern; yet, they are important for Brazil’s own geopolitical ambitions. Brazil wants to extend its influence westwards to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans so to unlock its innermost territories, become the centre of coast-to-coast trade and increase its regional influence. To reach this objective, Brazil needs to keep the URAPABOL area in its sphere of influence. This zone takes its name after the three states composing it: Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. They are seen as South America’s geopolitical pivot, meaning that the power who controls them can extend its influence over all the continent and obtain a dominant position. Moreover, the URAPABOL states were also seen as useful buffer zone against foreign threats and Argentina in particular; even though today the likelihood of a war is really remote. For these reasons, Brazil is attentive to maintain a solid political, economic and demographic presence in these three countries. But Brazil’s is also located along the Atlantic’s coasts, meaning that it can easily reach the large American and European markets to the North; as well as Africa with its natural resources and many fast-growing economies. So, Brazil also wants to become a naval power to boost its economy and develop its Navy to project its power abroad.
Brazil’s economic & military outlook
Apart from geography, Brazil also has natural resources, a considerable economic potential and important military means.
Brazil is certainly South America’s leading economy, but its outlook is made of mixed figures. This year, its GDP is projected to reach 1.9 thousand billion dollars, which goes to 3.5 thousand in terms of Purchasing Power Parity. The expected growth rate is of 2.4% in current prices. Brazil was at the 9th place on the list of the world’s largest economies in 2018, and it is expected to reach the 5th position by 2050. Its per capita GDP will stand around 16.7 thousand dollars in 2019, a relatively low figure to be combined with an unequal distribution of wealth. After years of high inflation, the price growth seems to have stabilized at around 3.5%. The debt of the central government is on the rise, amounting to almost 79% of the GDP in 2017, Along with a slight budget deficit of around 1%, this trend can become problematic in the long term. Unemployment affects 10.7% of the population today, and 4% of Brazilians lived below the poverty line in 2016. The trade balance has been in constant surplus for years, sustained by agriculture and manufacturing exports. As a matter of fact, Brazil is a true agronomic giant and its industry is also developing in many sectors. In addition, it also hosts significant hydrocarbon and mineral reserves, and is a leading producer of biogas. However, this has negative environmental consequences: huge swathes of the Amazon rainforest have been cut to grow the crops required for producing biogas; and also for other reasons like timber production. Brazil has nuclear reactors for energy generation and infrastructures are being improved, but much work remains to be done.
This overview shows that Brazil is indeed an emerging country, but like other economies in analogous conditions it has still considerable challenges to deal with. Corruption, poverty and inequality continue affecting its economy. This has important repercussions on the country’s political life, since similar matters are a cause of social unrest and high crime rates. In fact, Jair Bolsonaro has been elected President largely out of promises of tackling corruption, reforming the economy and crushing criminality.
Brazil is the main power in South America also in military terms. It spends regularly more than 1.32% of its GDP on defence, and it possesses large and well-equipped armed forces who remain politically influential. The Army includes, among others, specialized units for jungle warfare and a vast park of vehicles. It also maintains the Strategic Rapid Action Force, ready to be deployed anywhere in the country at a short notice. In recent years, due to better relations with Argentina and in accordance to its strategy to extend its power westwards, it has relocated many units in the Amazon area. The Air Force operates fighters, cargos and airborne warning & control planes. But the Navy is the most notable component of the Brazilian military, as it is a powerful mean of power projection. Today, it includes diesel-electric submarines, landing ships and a helicopter carrier plus naval aviation and marines; and it also plans to deploy a nuclear-powered attack submarine by 2025. Finally, Brazil also possesses a considerable defence industry and carries on its own space program.
Brazil’s foreign relations
Brazil’s foreign policy is largely based on multilateralism. It maintains pretty good relations with its neighbours, and it is a member of the main regional bodies like the Organization of American States, the Union of South American Nations and the Southern Common Market; where it plays an important role in promoting integration. It provides economic aid to developing countries, notably African ones; but this is also motivated by economic interests, like accessing resources and opening new markets for Brazilian firms. It also takes part to UN missions and promotes the enlargement of the UN Security Council. Moreover, it is a member of the informal BRICS group along with Russia, India, China and South Africa; and it keeps cooperating with all of them all while maintaining good ties with the US and with European countries.
Now that Bolsonaro is President, US-Brazil relations will receive a boost: Bolsonaro is openly pro-American and share many similar views with Trump: they oppose immigration, they are close to Christian and conservative groups, they promise to crush criminality and fight terrorism, they are favourable to death penalty, they support the rights of gun owners, their economic policy focuses on privatization and deregulation at home while protecting their industry from foreign competition by introducing tariffs, they criticize authoritarian regimes and are very friendly towards Israel and other pro-US states like Japan or South Korea, and they are hostile to foreign (and especially Chinese) economic penetration in their countries. Since Brazil is the main power in South America and the only one capable of countering US supremacy to some degree, Bolsonaro’s election is a gift for America: it virtually ensures that Brazil will remain friendly and that it will oppose rival powers like China and Russia. Both of them are indeed expanding their presence in South America to access resources and to subtract the area from American influence, but now their efforts risk being thwarted. Nevertheless, China remains a central economic partner for Brazil, and along with Russia it will continue to extend its presence in South America. Brazil, on its part, will maintain its multilateral approach to diversify its partnerships, maximize its benefits and increase its global influence.
Brazil is South America’s main power and its influence in international affairs will certainly increase in the future. Yet, its economic growth is not as spectacular as China’s or India’s; and it has to face many challenges like poverty and inequality, environmental degradation, corruption and social unrest. All such factors will limit its geopolitical role. But Brazil, is that contrarily to other emerging countries, it is not involved in rivalries with other states and it is not challenging the existing international order. Instead, it focuses on multilateralism and mutually-beneficial cooperation. This is probably the most remarkable aspect of Brazil’s rise: at least by now, it looks that it will be peaceful and not destabilizing.