Hilary Clinton’s trip to Latin America this week has ended in disappointment after Brazil’s president, Lula da Silva, rejected U.S. pleas to support tougher sanctions on Iran. This firm stance in the face of Western pressure is not simply meant to be a slap in the face to U.S. diplomacy. Rather, it symbolizes a geopolitical power shift where an increasingly important Brazil seeks a central space for itself on the world stage – as a superpower with an equal status to other global giants.

Brazil’s rise has taken many pundits by surprise. Having previously occupied the hinterland of international politics, the country’s state-owned energy company, Petrobras made startling discoveries of large oil fields in 2007 and 2008 that are expected to turn the country into one of the biggest oil producers in the world. Since then, Brazil has been able to enjoy a high degree of economic prosperity and independence, as well as the respect of other nations. The change in fortune has been aided by the leadership of President Lula. His brand of pragmatism has endeared his nation to many political actors of all stripes. Lula’s left-wing social policies, implementing hunger eradication programs and increasing family welfare benefits, have been coupled with economic policies that remained friendly to markets and financial institutions. The president has also lavished money to strengthen Brazil’s military, spending $32 billion last year alone on submarines, helicopters and fighter jets.

Brazil’s rise to the world stage has occurred without the habitual resentment and confrontation experienced by other growing powers. This is due in no short measure to the fact that Lula’s pragmatism extends to his foreign relations. Within Latin America, Brazil is looked upon admirably by those on the Left and Right and is a dominant yet unobtrusive regional power. In spite of a close friendship with U.S. bêtes noires Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, Lula enjoyed a positive relationship with the Bush administration. Brazil also manages to straddle the global ideological divide, maintaining good relations with nations as diverse as Iran, China and Russia. At last year’s G20 meeting, President Obama referred to Lula as “my man”, calling him “the most popular politician on earth.” In recent years, Brazil has sought a more important role in global diplomacy. Last year’s coup in Honduras saw Brazil become Latin America’s spokesman as it campaigned (albeit unsuccessfully) for the reinstatement of Manuel Zelaya. The earthquake in Haiti has galvanized Brazil as it looks to play the protagonist in the reconstruction of the country, rather than allowing the U.S. to take the lead as usually happens. Brazil is also campaigning for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council that would position next to China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. Brazil has even signalled its desire to play an active role in the Middle East peace process, with its foreign minister claiming that Brazil can help to move the negotiations in the right direction.

Although the Brazilian brand seems to be riding high, its continued evolution into a bona fide superpower will depend a lot on its next leader. After two terms, Lula must step down as leader this year and Brazil’s choice of successor is less than inspiring. Lula has backed his chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, to take the helm but she lacks the charisma and popular appeal of her superior. Leading the polls is the conservative José Serra, current governor of Sao Paolo. His election as president would almost certainly see the undoing of much of Lula’s legacy, and it is unlikely that Serra would experience the adulation at home and abroad enjoyed by Lula.

Nevertheless, if the axiom holds that U.S. power is on the wane, then Brazil can continue to rise unchallenged in the U.S.’s own “backyard”. Its pushback against the Obama administration on Iranian sanctions is symptomatic of a country attempting to escape the shadow long cast by its northern neighbor. As the country prepares to host the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, Brazil will not need to work too hard to stay in the global spotlight.

Michael Collins, March 2009