Brazil's International Identity: From Colonial to Global Times

Finnish Institute of International Affairs · 11.01.2016 15:00 - 17:00

This seminar will examine the evolution of Brazil’s international identity and position. First, it will take a historical perspective on Brazil’s relationship with South America. For a long time, Brazil did not view itself as an integral part of the region. Lately, however, Brazil has started to pursue a policy of engagement with its South American neighbours. The seminar will explore the roots and genesis of pan-Americanism and the way it has affected Brazil’s international agency. Secondly, the seminar will look at Brazil’s evolving position and role within the global system. Brazil has often been thought of as a bridge country between the North and South. Yet, recently it has been turning more towards the Global South. What is Brazil’s international identity, how has it been evolving and what sort of international agency can we expect from it in the near future?


Lauri Tähtinen, Post-Doctoral Researcher, University of Helsinki

Lauri Tähtinen is an Academy of Finland Post-Doctoral Researcher with the Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights at the University of Helsinki as well as a Lecturer on History and Literature at Harvard University. He earned his PhD in History from the University of Cambridge and has held research appointments at Brown University and the European University Institute, Florence. 

Renzo Nery, Assistant Professor, Pontifical Catholic University of Goiás

Renzo Nery works as an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of Goiás. He is pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at the State University of Campinas, Brazil, and he currently works as a DAAD scholarship researcher at the Freie Universität, Berlin. 

Mikael Wigell, Senior Research Fellow, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Mikael Wigell works as a Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. He also currently holds a Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship with the Academy of Finland. He earned his PhD from the London School of Economics and has held a Visiting Research Fellowship at the Torcuato di Tella University, Buenos Aires. 

Chair: Jyrki Kallio, Senior Research Fellow, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Summary: Brazil’s International Identity: From Colonial to Global Times

The seminar was opened by its chair Jyrki Kallio who stressed the importance of the topic and welcomed speakers and audience. The keynote speaker of the seminar, Renzo Nery concentrated his presentation on explaining how Brazil’s identity has formed during the history.  He stressed how Brazil has been an anthropological experiment, in which different ethnicities have gathered together, and have had to make the shift from colonial state to pro-national state and then to nationalist state.

According to Nery, Brazilian legendary diplomat Barão do Rio Branco captured the essence of Brazilian international identity well when stating that on the map Brazil has many neighbouring countries but that Brazil and its neighbours communicate with each other only through Europe and the US. Nery further stressed how Brazil has been criticised for its lack of interest in leading regional integration. This lack of interest is due to historical reasons, according to Nery, for example to the civilization movement which built the states of Brazil so that they would be facing the sea rather than their neighbouring countries inland.

Nery explained how it has been possible to talk about Brazil as a distinct political entity, rather than a colonial state, since 1808, before it got independent in 1822. Between 1826 and 1889 Brazil was invited to the Inter-American meetings, but Brazil worked to undermine this Inter-American movement at the time. Nery then explained how there are two kinds of narratives in which the inter-American movement can be portrayed: either by Latin Americanism or Pan-Americanism (including North America).  In his opinion, Pan-Americanism ended up winning because it was more successful from a political and economic stand point. The movement itself can be understood in two different ways: 1) as a complete failure (there was an idea to create a continent-wide federation of states, but this was never realized); 2) as a success because it helped create a Latin American identity.  

Lauri Tähtinen started by asking if Brazil has blown it by which he referred to the economic situation of the country. Yet, according to him, what we rather should be asking is why this question is asked this way and the kind of answer we are expecting. In the background there is the issue about North-South versus South-South trade relations. There is a tendency to think that Brazil is out in the world pursuing its interests – which may be true – but according to Tähtinen, there is also a flip side, which says that Brazil might be doing something else that pursuing its immediate economic interests. This something else might be for example pursuing its own values. Tähtinen stressed that even though Brazil has never really lived up to European or Northern American standards, the assumption nevertheless seems to be that Brazil is striving to uphold these Western standards and that it would be in accordance with Brazilian identity and something which Brazil is expected to follow. In Tähtinen’s opinion, such a view is misleading as there can also be a very strong alternative normative basis for Brazil’s actions and identity, so that it might for instance be very important for Brazil to relate itself to China, for example.

According to Tähtinen, throughout history, Brazil has often been seen as a land of the future, both by foreigners and the Brazilians themselves. Here he referred to famous authors such as Stefan Zweig and Gilberto Freyre and their conceptualizations of Brazil as holding special properties as a racial democracy. 

But in Tähtinen’s opinion, this discourse about Brazil as a land of the future has not served Brazilian purposes, but instead it has been a projection of the hopes of the outsiders, that Brazil would turn out in a certain way and provide a model to other countries.

Mikael Wigell, in his remarks, stressed how Brazilian regional and international identity has been ambivalent. He explained how during most of the Cold War Brazil had applied the strategy of regional detachment, meaning that it did not actually engage that much with the region. This strategy started to change in the 1990’s, and recently Brazil has become regionally more active. But the ambivalence is still very visible in Brazil’s regional conduct. On the one hand, Brazil has been talking about South America as a distinct region from which it has been trying to exclude the US and pave way for its own regional leadership, but, on the other hand, when push comes to shovel, it has not been willing to really invest in this leadership role and regional integration. Politically, Brazil has been quite passive in for instance mediating crises in the region, not wanting to be seen as meddling in other countries internal affairs. Not willing to spend political and economic capital in regional leadership or tie itself down to regional institutions, Brazil has then also had difficulties gaining regional followers and scholars have been speaking about ”a leader without followers”.  

According to Wigell, Brazil’s ambivalent regional identity, reflected in its split attitude towards regional activism, largely follows the political right-left divide, which was on display in its recent elections. The  political left emphasise the importance of the region and cherishes the geopolitical reasons for Brazil to engage in the region and invest in leadership. It wants to focus on Brazil’s role as a gate-keeper in the region, balancing against the US and forming a Southern region based on solidarity. The political right, by contrast, largely considers the region a burden. Here, geoeconomics is more important, seeing Brazil’s economic interests bound to the OECD and the importance of Brazil’s trade relations with the US and EU.  In Wigell’s view, a similar kind of ambivalence can be noted in Brazil’s global identity, which again is reflected in the political left-right divide. The political right wants for Brazil to engage more with the North, while the political left favours close engagement with the BRICS and the Global South.

In summarizing his talk, Wigell explained how the ambivalence that seems to characterize Brazil’s engagement both at the regional and global levels, has its basis in Brazil’s split identity. He argued that while it was unlikely for the left and the right to find any consensus on Brazil’s future direction, what they could perhaps agree on would be for Brazil to take the role as a bridge builder. Unable to decide which way to take, regional engagement or detachment, or North or South, act as a bridge country would perhaps be something that they could both agree on and for which there are certain traditions in Brazilian history and identity.