International Relations

Middle powers: to be or not to be altruistic. Brazil as a case study

Sophia Luiza Zaia (2016), London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc International Relations. 

Middle powers have been attributed much of a “good international citizen” role and identity in the international system, however foreign policy goals and interests are usually vested in such benign designations.This paper will argue, with the example of Brazilian foreign policy, that the extent of Middle powers’ interest maximization in its international endeavours is, if not total, then at least very much substantial. This paper will be divided into two sections. Section one will define what Middle powers are. Section two will explain further the role of emerging Middle Powers with the example of Brazil.

I/ State type: Middle Powers

Examining foreign policy behavior through a state type analysis is difficult on the account that any form of categorisation will, inevitably, exclude many states and their particular cases. Nevertheless, this approach can be useful for understanding states and their distinct historical processes, which explain much of their functions and foreign policy decisions. James N. Rosenau grapples with different state types. The scholar observes three approaches to making different state types: their physical size, level of economic development and the nature of political system (ROSENAU, 1966). Cooper et al identified four different definitions of ‘Middle Power’ that have been used in the foreign policy analysis literature: size, state geography, normative view and behavioural definition (COOPER et al, 1993). However, definitions based on position, physical size or economic/military capabilities are weak for understanding Middle Powermanship; because they are theoretically problematic, they deliver “few, if any, common patterns of behavior as to how a group of middle or intermediate powers will behave internationally (HURREL apud BEHRINGER, 2013). Furthermore, the type of power resources that states classified as ‘Middle Powers’ possess can vary greatly and they are frequently confronted with different regional and domestic security concerns in distinct contexts (BEHRINGER, 2013). Therefore, the behavioural definition could be best suited for comprehending Middle powers as it focuses on what type of diplomatic behaviour they have or could have and it pays attention to particular styles of behaviour in international politics (COOPER et al, 1993). In regards to the main question, states’ interests can shape and define states’ behaviour, vice-versa. If Middle powers are defined by their common behaviours, would maximization of interests just be an obvious, and the most reasonable, response to the behaviour of other powers in the international system?

According Eduard Jordaan, Middle powers are states that are intermediary in terms of international power, capacity and influence “(…) and demonstrate a propensity to promote cohesion and stability in the world system” (JORDAAN, 2003). Countries such as Australia, Canada, Norway and Sweden have been consensually included in the Middle power categorization; more recently, Argentina, Brazil, Nigeria, Malaysia, South Africa and Turkey have also been attributed with the Middle power classification however historical, political and socio-economic differences among these states has prompted Jordaan to

distinguish traditional and emerging Middle powers in order to explain why similar countries take different foreign policy behaviours, which will be further addressed in this work. Jordaan defends that both traditional and emerging Middle powers are legitimisers of the world orders as they hold privileged positions in the global economy and regional political economies, respectively. Middle powers perpetuate the status quo as they have no capacity to engage in deep global changes in times of international instability.

Cooper contends that it is possible to identify Middle powers by how they conduct foreign policy: they seek multilateral solutions to international issues, while advocating for compromise in international arrangements and institutions and choose to be, generally speaking, part of the solution to international issues (COOPER, 2011). Middle powers work towards global stability, controllability and predictability by supporting norm-building and working within multilateral institutions in order to maximize opportunities for global issues; they invest in rule governed international behaviour, by using of soft power techniques in order to compensate for the lack of hard power as sources of leverage (COOPER, 2011; DODGE, 2015). In the case of emerging Middle powers, Chris Alden and Garth Le Pere argue that emerging powers have been able to employ a new rhetoric for “Southern solidarity” to obtain resources and market share in developing countries previously dominated by core economies (ALDEN and LE PERE, 2009). The scholars contend that this discourse of mutual empowerment is a clear indicator of counter-hegemonic projects of Middle powers aimed at the established distribution of power in the international system.

This essay argues that although Middle powers are perceived as “altruistic” or “benign”, their role as conveyor of solutions for international problems does inevitably carry with it self-interested motives, however other countries will also benefit from these

endeavours, rendering them valuable for the international community. Why do superpowers, and even great powers, often use of coercive economic and/or military means to maximize their interests and influence? Because they can. Middle powers, albeit quite possibly a tautological concept, will behave in ways to maximize their interests in the scope that they are able to, which is, as aforementioned, through international multilateral arrangements. This essay will focus on emerging Middle powers, more specifically, Brazil, and how it tries to challenge the international status quo through South-South cooperation, even though its motives are also self-interested as it does not have enough tangible power to shift the prevailing balance of power and because it depends on and benefits from it as well. However Brazil, particularly in the presidency of Lula, sought to increase the autonomy in its foreign policy strategy, by diversifying its partnerships with Southern and regional players that shared with Brazil common goals and frequently common identities.

II/ Emerging Middle Powermanship and Brazilian interests

Cooper et al identify three different patterns of Middle powers’ behaviour: they are ‘catalysts’ in respects to diplomatic efforts and for the promotion of global issues; they are ‘facilitators’, as a technique for leadership, to build coalitions on specific issues, using these as means of leveraging power and they are ‘managers’ within their regions to promote and/or enforce institution and norm- building. Middle powers pursue what is called “niche diplomacy”, they concentrate resources in specific areas (economic security, social and environmental policy and human rights) due to discrepancies between their structural capabilities and technical and entrepreneurial abilities, where they are

“(…) able to generate returns worth having rather than trying to cover the field” (COOPER et al, 1993).

Jordaan distinguishes between traditional and emerging Middle powers. Traditional Middle powers (e.g. Sweden and Canada) are stable democracies and have attained their status quo during the Cold War, when their security concerns were that of collateral military threats posed by the bipolar context. In turn, emerging Middle powers (e.g. South Africa, Brazil), differ from traditional ones in that they are semi peripheral states, materially significantly different from each other, have recently undergone democratization processes and enjoy substantial regional influence, therefore are more likely to form coalitions. In terms of emerging Middle powers’ behaviour, they opt for a non-radical stance on the international system, are inclined to a strong regional orientation and are more likely to participate in regional integration dynamics, while attempting to be regionally influential as a means of differentiating themselves from existing weak states in their surroundings (JORDAAN, 2003).

Chris Alden and Marco Antonio Vieira contend that in the aftermath of the Cold War, the conduct of both developed and developing states was underlined by the crisis of legitimacy facing international institutions. The scholars argue that for developed countries the question of legitimacy is seen through issues of activism and state-invested interests, whereas for developing and emerging countries the issue is rooted less in activism and interest than it is in structural concerns. The drive for reforms of international institutions did not wane with the end of the Cold War, it became a new source for controversy in the North-South fora. For instance, the focus on structural reforms remains with the UN Security Council and its limited permanent membership and veto privileges (ALDEN and VIEIRA, 2005). Jordaan defends that emerging Middle powers, however, prefer a reformist to a fundamental reform of global structures, because they hold competitive advantages in comparison to peripheral economies, especially the ones in their geographical proximity thus benefiting from this preponderance. The scholar defends that the “perceived neutrality” of emerging Middle Powers stems from their strength and association within their region, which in turn shields them from being perceived solely as hegemonic proxies. Emerging Middle powers are able to mediate between more limited interests of peripheral states in their region and system-wide hegemonic demands, as they are regarded from outside of their region as being relatively neutral due to their regional significance and the constituency they are seemingly represent, as well as their strong link and, in the case of Brazil, close ties with the core. More importantly, as Jordaan argues “Ironically, by performing middle-power tasks, emerging middle powers seek to construct and identity more removed from the regions that give them their relative international visibility and influence” (JORDAAN, 2003).


Brazil’s most recent foreign policy of Luis Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva (2003-2011) is a clear example of a country exercising emerging Middle powermanship through multilateral engagement with the international community and South-South cooperation, while seeking to maximize its own interest and participation in the international arena. Tullo Vigevani and Gabriel Cepaluni explain that Lula adopted an “autonomy through diversification” strategy for Brazilian foreign policy: the country adhered to international norms and principles through South-South alliances and regional partnerships, and, more interestingly, gave special attention to multilateral agreements with non-traditional partners (e.g. China, Asia-Pacific, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Middle East). The

autonomy through diversification strategy led Brazil to pursue its insertion in liberal international regimes as a means to counter pose the agenda of certain developed countries, more specifically the United States. The scholar explains that by using its significant recognition as a (somewhat) key economic player (for trade and economics arrangements) in multilateral diversified agreements, Brazil’s objective was to simultaneously contribute to the reduction of asymmetries, in terms of distribution of power, in the international sphere, while increasing its bargaining and negotiating capabilities with the political and economic core. Brazil censured, especially during the Doha Rounds, unilateral policies adopted by more powerful countries, such as the US. Vigevani et al contend that although Brazil conferred priority in its foreign policy during the Lula administration to maximizing its negotiation leverage with developed countries, particularly within the Group Twenty international forum, Brazil did not promote any radical ruptures in its relations with the US and European Union (VIGEVANI and CEPALUNI, 2011). For instance, in 2007 Brazil and the US signed a technological cooperation agreement for the production of biofuel, such as ethanol and biodiesel. Under the agreement, the US reduced its importation tariff on Brazilian ethanol (GAZETA DO POVO, 2007).

André da Silva explains that despite their greater participation in the global agenda, Brazil still cannot afford to be guided solely by its own orientation. On the one hand Brazil seeks to be recognized as immune to US pressures in its own region, however, on the other hand, it is still in the interest of the South American giant to maintain a positive dialogue with the US, aimed at a greater Brazilian participation in climate change debates and reforms in international institutions (SILVA, 2011). According to the Vigevani et al, Brazil upholds the strengthening of bilateral and multilateral relations as a means to boost its influence in international political and economic negotiations. Alden and Vieira explain that Brazil’s focus on trilateral arrangements and its participation in the India, Brazil and South Africa Trilateral Forum (IBAS, 2003) is part Lula’s foreign policy characteristic of autonomy through diversification as well as the “paradigmatic resilience” in Brazilian foreign policy, that is, foreign policy paradigms (such as the autonomy through diversification) that were implemented in the past still permeate current Brazilian foreign policy. The Brazilian foreign policy interest in trilateralism is formalised through cooperation between regional leaders (or who perceives themselves as such) who combine their material and ideational assets “(…) to achieve clear national interests in multilateral fora of negotiation” (ALDEN and VIEIRA, 2005).


In terms of sub-regional influence, Batista Jr. explains that Brazil does not necessarily need other South American countries to pursue its socioeconomic and political goals, even if its neighbours eventually (re)align with the US, as many of them see Brazilian advances, particularly in the economic and financial sector, as a form of regional imperialism. However, the scholar argues, the process of regional integration (e.g. MERCOSUR AND UNASUR) is advantageous for Brazil as it reinforces the potential of Brazilian goals, domestically and internationally, and it strengthens Brazil’s image in the eyes of the international community as a regional leader. Therefore, it is in Brazil’s interests to champion a dynamic and cohesive pole for South America as it enhances Brazil’s international position (BATISTA JR., 2008).

Additionally, in relation to Brazil’s role as a Middle power while pursuing the maximization of its interests, Vigevani and Cepaluni argue that Lula’s foreign policy of diversification did not solely indicate the search for alternative relations

with other states, but also implied the ability of Brazil to intervene in matters which do not concern its immediate interests (VIGEVANI and CEPALUNI, 2011). Herein, it is well known that Brazil has had a longstanding aspiration in its foreign policy to become a permanent member in the UN Security Council, as a means to be recognized as an important international player (ALDEN and VIEIRA, 2005). In 2004, Brazil accepted the UN invitation to lead, with personnel and military deployment, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Brazilian perceived the Mission as a real opportunity to project itself internationally and to take on the regional leader role. Additionally, Brasília saw MINUSTAH as an opportunity for it to plead for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, albeit an incessantly unsuccessful attempt. Suzelei Mathias observes that to lead the military branch in MINUSTAH, was a way for Brazil to demonstrate that it deserved to be treated as a leader, despite regional resistance, and that it had moral and even economic conditions to be a leader (MATHIAS apud GOMBATA, 2014; GOMBATA, 2014). It is clear to see however, that Brazilian motives in Haiti and MINUSTAH were not only vested in moral inclinations, but political as well as Brazil wishes and attempts to be a key player in the global geopolitical chess board.

Therefore, Brazilian foreign policy can be identified as that of an emerging Middle power, as analysed in the Lula case study; Brazil has sought a regional and international approach of a “good international citizen”, however, as by Jordaan’s definition, it continues to be a legitimizer of the international system, particularly in its relation with the United States. Brazil has attempted to timidly confront the core through its leadership within South-South multilateral institutions (MERCOSUR, UNASUR, ALADI) and to be a voice for developing states’ concerns, however the reform Brazil has advocated has not been fundamental as Brazil itself not only depends and benefits from the established international system, but its efforts are a clear, although perhaps aimless, attempt of being part of the established core.



This paper revealed that even though other countries, both developing and developed, in the international system may benefit from Middle powers’ activities, middlepowermanship is not devoid of self-interest. It is in the interest of Brazilian post-Cold War foreign policy, not only during Lula’s administration, to promote South-South cooperation, however this effort towards collective interests is, evidently, determined by more individual self-interested goals.Therefore, Middle powers are equally invested in seeking their own interests, just as much as Super, Great and Small powers. However, the constant altruistic identity attributed to Middle powers should be revisited, because either as a result of structural demands, domestic bureaucratic pressures or cognitive preferences of decision makers, interests are, most frequently, what drive Middle power foreign policy forward.



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