Is Brazil the next cop on the beat in Africa? The Pentagon seems to hope so

Any action Brazil takes in Africa should be based on peaceful cooperation and not military escalation.

Robert Gates, James Cartwright, William Ward, Carter Ham
AFRICOM General William Ward (centre R) said that its number one 'theatre-wide goal' was combating terrorism [AP]

New York, NY – Behind the scenes, US diplomats are reportedly becoming very leery about Brazil’s rise on the world stage. An exporting dynamo with a growing middle class, Brazil has recently sought a greater role in global affairs and is discombobulating Washington in the process. Classified US diplomatic cables recently disclosed by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks underscore such geopolitical tensions.

In Lima, for instance, US ambassador to Peru Curtis Struble wrote that Washington was enmeshed in an “undeclared contest” with Brazil for political influence in the Andean region. Back in the US meanwhile, right-wing hawks at the Brookings Institution view Brazil’s rise with trepidation, remarking gloomily that the country “appears determined to position itself as the Latin American hegemon as it deepens its investment in various schemes of regional political and economic integration that pointedly exclude the United States”.

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Whatever its long term reservations about Brazil, however, Washington has apparently come round to the view that it needs the South American nation’s help in the here and now. Speaking at the Brazilian War College in Rio de Janeiro recently, US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta remarked, “This is a relationship, the United States and Brazil… between two global powers, and we welcome Brazil’s growing strength. We support Brazil as a global leader, and seek closer defence cooperation because we believe that a stronger and more globally engaged Brazil will help enhance international security for all of us.”

Looking for help in Africa

Facing budgetary constrictions and overstretched resources, the Pentagon knows that it cannot effectively patrol the entire globe on its own. If anything, Obama’s recent military “pivot” to East Asia, which is apparently aimed at constraining the rise of China, opens up other gaps in Washington’s international reach. According to an interesting article in World Politics Review, “Since the attacks of September 11, US Marines have taken the lead in training African partner nations for counterterrorism operations. With the US looking to station more of its Marines in Asia, even as terrorist groups flourish in Africa, Washington needs others to perform this role. Once again, the Obama administration sees Brazil as a viable candidate.”

Panetta said he wants Brazil to play a larger role in training African security forces… to improve African militaries and carry out joint training and exercises.

Already, the US and Brazil have conducted joint maritime security exercises near Africa. “The most obvious roles for the Brazilian military,” notes World Politics Review, “are in hemispheric security and patrolling the Atlantic Ocean. The latter is especially crucial as Washington stations more of its shrinking fleet in the Pacific.”

Panetta, however, would like the collaboration to go even further. Recently, Washington has grown increasingly concerned about the growth of al-Qaeda linked groups operating in chaotic African states. Speaking to his military counterparts in Rio, Panetta said he wants Brazil to play a larger role in training African security forces. Panetta hopes that Brazil can work with Washington to improve African militaries and carry out joint training and exercises.

Specifically, Pentagon officials say that Brazil might help train African military forces in maritime drug interdiction. The traffickers, officials say, are now shipping narcotics from South America, through Central America and across the Atlantic to Europe via North Africa.

Panetta’s cultural sell

In making his case before military leaders in Rio, Panetta emphasized Brazil’s long held ties to Africa. Historically, Brazil was the largest destination of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and today a sizable portion of the country’s population is of African descent. Indeed, Brazil maintains cultural ties with the so-called Lusophone African nations of Angola, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Príncipe, Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau.

While it’s unclear whether Panetta’s PR strategy will ultimately succeed, WikiLeaks cables suggest that some within the Brazilian political elite want to redirect Brazilian foreign policy toward Africa, or at least to devote some modest attention to the continent. As early as 2004, the US Embassy in Brasilia noted that the Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva administration planned to “refocus its foreign policy to place greater emphasis on Africa”. The new Brazilian leader, the Americans remarked, emphasised HIV/AIDS relief and additionally helped to train health workers, extend literacy programmes and establish vocational training in Lusophone nations.

According to the US Embassy in Brasilia, Lula stressed “Brazil’s deep historical and cultural ties to the continent and the commonality of interests”. Such a policy, the Embassy continued, “Stems from President Lula’s desire to demonstrate Brazil’s leadership as an advocate for Third World issues and in global trade interests, which in turn will bolster Brazil’s bid for a permanent UN Security Council seat.”

The US Embassy in Brasilia believed that the speech ‘was inended as red meat for his leftist base meant to mark clear breaks from Western interests’.

Lula on the African stage

Hoping to solidify African ties, Lula travelled to Sao Tome and Principe, Gabon and Cape Verde early in his first term. The principal rationale for the trip was to attend a summit meeting of the so-called Portuguese speaking countries, otherwise known as Comunidades dos Paises de Lingua Portuguesa or CPLP. While in Cape Verde, Lula sought “to highlight Brazil’s long-standing social and economic ties and assistance programmes with the island”. Later that year, Lula also wrote off more than US $300 million in debt to Mozambique, and did everything in his power to “raise the profile” of a Guinea Bissau political crisis within the CPLP.

In a speech, Lula characterised the foreign policy of his predecessors as “intellectually submissive and overly oriented towards the United States and Europe”. Lula added that even after it gained independence in 1822, Brazil continued to exhibit an unfortunate “colonial mindset”. In contrast to earlier administrations, the president continued, Brazil’s relations with Africa were now built on mutual respect.

The US Embassy in Brasilia believed that the speech “was intended as red meat for his leftist base meant to mark clear breaks from Western interests”. Lula’s remarks about the “continued colonisation of Brazil” reflected a genuine mindset, “felt by not just Lula, but by Deputy Foreign Minister Samuel Pinheiro Guimaraes, and to a lesser extent Foreign Minister Celso Amorim – that is highly sensitive to perceived personal slights and defensive about Brazil not being considered an equal in the world stage”. 

Brazil’s Africa focus: muddled and confused

Despite Lula’s innovative foreign policy, however, there’s some reason to doubt Brazil’s long term commitment to Africa. Indeed, if the Pentagon truly believes that Brazil will become a valuable US partner in the region then it might want to read Washington’s own diplomatic correspondence. To be sure, Brazil has collaborated with the US in certain respects, for example by supporting a joint parliamentary capacity building programme in Guinea Bissau. However, on many other fronts Brasilia has fallen short.

“Continuing their blistering critique, diplomats vented that Brasilia was merely interested in currying favour amongst African nations so as to shore up its own bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Take for example Brazil’s commerce with Lusophone countries, which has surely lagged. Indeed, during his junkets to West Africa, Lula only travelled with a handful of businessmen in tow. Such a posture contrasted starkly with Brazilian missions to China in which hundreds of investors participated. Speaking confidentially to the Americans, African diplomats from non-Lusophone countries complained that “many issues of concern between their governments and Brazil – particularly those involving the World Trade Organisation – are conducted in New York or Geneva, leaving their embassies out of the loop”.

As evidence of Brasilia’s lack of concern toward Africa, the diplomats “cited the dearth, difficulty and expense of flights between Brazil and Africa. Except for flights to Johannesburg and Luanda (not noted as a aviation hub), the diplomats could identify no direct service between Brazil and Africa. Instead, travelers had to transit Europe at great cost and significant delay.”

Continuing their blistering critique, diplomats vented that Brasilia was merely interested in currying favour amongst African nations so as to shore up its own bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Brazil, they complained bitterly, was “more concerned with counting heads for UNSC reform… than in being a champion of Africa’s interests, supporting African peacekeeping or augmenting trade.”

A wider Brazilian military role in Africa?

Despite these shortcomings, there is no denying that Brazil is an up and coming military player, a reality which the Pentagon surely has come to recognise. Quietly, the South American nation has been building up its armed forces. Hoping to join the ranks of the world’s most prominent military players, Brazil seeks to acquire nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers. Other priorities include satellite capability, particularly through a space launch, and cybernetics.

Again, however, it’s unclear whether such a buildup will translate into increased military involvement in Africa. Brazil has provided logistics and human resources for a peacekeeping effort in Angola, but according to WikiLeaks documents the South American giant has shown scant interest in other African nations.

[AFRICOM] Vice-Admiral Robert Moeller said that protecting ‘the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market’ was one of AFRICOM’s ‘guiding principles’.”

Speaking to the Americans, diplomats from strife-torn Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo complained that Brazil had not demonstrated any effort to engage. Indeed, officials from Brasilia’s Foreign Ministry confessed that official interest “in participating in a Cote d’Ivoire peace keeping operation had been eclipsed by Haiti [where Brazil had committed over one thousand peacekeepers]”.

Stay away from AFRICOM

If Brazil does take up Panetta’s lead, the South American nation might find itself embroiled with the likes of AFRICOM, a new US military command set up for Africa and headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. According to AFRICOM’s frequent press releases, the command is primarily focused on community relations and capacity building projects like rescue and firefighting training for African sailors, construction of schools and similar projects.

It sounds benign enough, but the declarations made by AFRICOM personnel may belie the command’s own mission statement. General William “Kip” Ward, who commands AFRICOM, declared that “AFRICOM’s number one theatre-wide goal” was combating terrorism, and his deputy, Vice-Admiral Robert Moeller, said that protecting “the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market” was one of AFRICOM’s “guiding principles”, citing “oil disruption”, “terrorism” and the “growing influence” of China as major “challenges” to US interests in Africa.

The US now gets more than 15 per cent of its oil from Africa, and by 2015 that figure is expected to grow to a whopping 25 per cent. One US commander in the African theater, Captain John Nowell, conceded to the Christian Science Monitor that “we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t in US interests”. According to the publication, “the US is wary” of China’s continued investments in Africa, and AFRICOM has fuelled suspicions in the region that the US is “simply about securing resources, countering China’s growing influence in Africa and extending the war on terror”.

One umbrella group, Resist AFRICOM, believes that in the long-run the military command will only serve to destabilise the continent. “For all the talk of it being a new, innovative engagement,” the group says, “AFRICOM may simply serve to protect unpopular regimes that are friendly to US interests while Africa slips further into poverty, as was the case during the Cold War.” In order to foster security and stability, the group argues, the US should adopt a non-military and civilian approach to the region’s affairs.

Brazil’s place on the African stage

Perhaps, given Brazil’s voracious energy needs, the South American nation might conclude that it has no other choice but to patrol African waters. Indeed, Brazil’s own long-term energy profile could grow in the region: according to WikiLeaks documents, Lula himself brought officials from the state-run energy giant Petrobras on his Africa junkets. The company is now engaged in deepwater petroleum exploration, and the Brazilian Navy will probably play a role in protecting these investments.

Nevertheless, given all of the controversy about the US role in Africa, Brazil should firmly reject Panetta’s calls for closer military collaboration in the region. This doesn’t mean that Brazil should outright withdraw from Africa, and if anything the WikiLeaks documents serve to highlight the many shortcomings of the South American giant’s foreign policy on the continent. Hopefully, Brazil will become more engaged in Africa in the long-term, not less. Such engagement should be predicated on peaceful cooperation, however, and not military escalation.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.

For a full archive of Nikolas Kozloff’s articles on Brazil detailing the South American nation’s rise on the world stage, click here.

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