Brazil – The Fragility of Soft Power

Photo: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Reuters, via The Telegraph

By Kathryn Hillegass, Columnist

The Zika virus is the latest plague in a series of bad press that is quickly eroding public confidence in the Dilma administration and inhibiting Brazil’s chances of assuming a more influential role in the international community. For many security professionals, Latin America has long taken a back seat to more volatile regions of the world. However, Brazil remains the eighth largest economy in the world and the dominant actor in South America, and will continue to be the target of international scrutiny through the end of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro[i]. As Brazil continues to struggle for power and influence outside of South America, it seems to be testing the limits of a foreign policy built on soft power.

Brazil has staked its international reputation on policies of non-intervention and multilateralism, deliberately abstaining from the use of coercive force. Brazil leveraged its growing financial and social capital in the 2000s to assert itself as a world power, despite its relative weakness as a traditional military power. The country’s self-ascribed preference for soft power over hard power gained traction throughout the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), particularly as it capitalized on the growing unpopularity of the Bush administration’s military intervention in Iraq. Brazil seeks to leverage its internationally appealing culture to serve as a global negotiator and maintain an autonomous foreign policy.[ii] Brazil’s relative resilience to the 2008 financial crisis, Lula’s successful anti-poverty program, Bolsa Familia, and its leadership in green energy continued to engender goodwill and influence worldwide. By 2009, Brazil won bids for hosting both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, a clear affirmation of its burgeoning role on the world stage.[iii] By the end of Lula’s second term in office, Brazil’s ascendency appeared so credible it began lobbying for a seat as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Soft power seemed to be the emerging currency of the 21st century and Brazil was its rising star.

However, just as the 2008 crisis exposed the vulnerability of the financial markets, Brazil’s relatively swift fall from grace reveals the fragility of a foreign policy based almost exclusively on soft power. The enduring value of soft power is further threatened when the nation’s image is intimately tied with the charisma of its leader, as it was under Lula. The election of Dilma Rousseff in 2010 was considered a referendum on the performance of Lula and the Worker’s Party. However, Dilma never possessed the personal appeal of her predecessor, and when the nation faced economic disaster, she proved unable to build trust and unify the nation.[iv] Even the beloved Lula may not have been able to survive the mounting opposition, which took advantage of the spotlight created by the World Cup to organize nationwide demonstrations protesting corruption, lack of social services, and police brutality.[v]

Miraculously, Dilma survived 2014 despite Brazil’s embarrassing fourth place finish at the World Cup in June and a narrow margin of victory in October’s contentious runoff election. What began as a slow erosion of Dilma’s popularity and Brazil’s soft power quickly turned into an all-out landslide. The federal investigation into Petrobras exposed the largest corruption scandal in Brazil’s sordid history. This prompted two of the three major credit agencies to downgrade Brazil’s debt to junk status, sending the already shrinking economy into a downward spiral.[vi] On top of it, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus a public health emergency just six months before the Olympics are set to begin. Whenever Dilma tells us not to worry, Brazil’s soft power starts to feel a whole lot softer.

If Brazil’s soft power strategy has failed to deliver global power status, should Brazil consider reinvesting in more traditional forms of hard power? Fortunately, Brazil’s geostrategic position affords it a high degree of physical security, providing little incentive to over-invest in its military. However, there are two security related issues where Brazil may one day take a more leading role on the world stage: urban policing and counterterrorism.

Over the past five years, Brazil has launched one of the largest experiments in urban policing and community development the world has ever seen. As the world’s megacities grow in both quantity and size over the next several decades[vii], Brazilian security forces may have a tactical model worth exporting. This model relies on significant information operations and public awareness prior to occupying a previously ungoverned space, a highly trained police unit that conducts this initial entry operation, followed by the establishment of more conventional dismounted presence patrols. The conventional police force quickly establishes relationships with the community and maintains as least aggressive posture as possible.

Although Rio de Janeiro’s favela pacification program is still fraught with skepticism and controversy, organizations such as the US military stand to learn a great deal about maneuver, communications, and logistics in dense urban areas from the experiences of the Brazilian security forces. If Brazil is able to develop a sustainable model for providing social services in Rio’s poorest communities, continues to deny safe havens to drug traffickers, and resources the program beyond the Olympics, then the US military may be able to draw lessons from these approaches to apply to its counterinsurgency/nation-building doctrine.

In terms of counterterrorism, Brazil’s strategy is truly unique — deny, deny, deny. Brazil has routinely denied it has a terrorist problem within its borders, despite evidence of Islamic terrorist groups in the tri-border region.[viii] As simple as that sounds, it appears to be working. Until it doesn’t. However, the longer the strategy works, particularly after hosting two of the world’s biggest sporting events, the more compelling non-intervention and non-acknowledgment becomes. Obviously, the United States could not adapt this strategy wholesale because of its markedly different history of intervention in the Middle East, but perhaps a strategy of publicly denying any attention or resources to fight terrorism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy worthy of public debate.

With just one year down in Dilma’s four year term, the next three years promise to be an agonizing slog toward any possibility of redemption. Will Brazil’s next President be able to restore the nation’s image as a global leader rather than a global loser? Will soft power ever be enough to give Brazil a seat at the table? Although it may take a generation for Brazil to find answers to these questions, we can at least rest assured that this August they will throw one heck of a party. Don’t forget the bug spray.

[i] “World’s largest economies,” CNN Money, February 11, 2016, accessed on February 15, 2015,

[ii] Glasser, Susan, “The Soft-Power Power,” Foreign Policy, November 28, 2010, accessed on February 18, 2016,

[iii] Hanson, Stephanie, “Brazil on the International Stage,” Council of Foreign Relations, July 2, 2012, accessed on February 15, 2016,

[iv] Ristovic, Aleksandra, “Brazil’s Soft Power and Dilma’s Dilemma,” USC Center on Public Diplomacy, April – May 2012, accessed on February 15, 2016,

[v] “The Streets Erupt,” The Economist, June 18, 2013, accessed February 15, 2016,

[vi] Rapoza, Kenneth, “Politics To Blame For Brazil’s New Junk Bond Status,” Forbes, December 16, 2015, accessed on February 15, 2016,

[vii] “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” National Intelligence Council, 2012, accessed on February 15, 2016,, p. 28.

[viii] “Terrorism in Brazil,” The Brazil Business, accessed February 15, 2016,

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