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From the quest for autonomy to the dual break: structural and agential changes in Brazil’s foreign policy during the 21st century, an interview with Sergio Caballero and Diego Crescentino by Sara Rodrigues

The Brazilian foreign policy and the Brazilian diplomacy are characterized by a certain continuity which translates into tendencies that are followed from one government to the next one. One such tendency is the pursue of the objective of autonomy, which has been the target of discussion in the Brazilian and international community.

In their article From the quest for autonomy to the dual break: structural and agential changes in Brazil’s foreign policy during the 21st century, published in Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional – RBPI  (Vol. 63, n. 1 – 2020), the authors Sergio Caballero and Diego Crescentino contribute to this debate by analyzing the concept of autonomy in relation to the agency-structure debate. Furthermore, they examine Brazil’s foreign policy regarding the objective of autonomy during the government of President Bolsonaro. The authors were interviewed by Sara Rodrigues, a member of the promotion staff of RBPI, regarding their views on topics related to their research.

One very interesting point that you discuss in the article is that the concept of autonomy in the Brazilian foreign policy should be understood in terms of break instead of continuity since it has been defined differently by the presidents that Brazil has had so far. Having that in mind, how do you think researchers of Brazilian foreign policy should understand the notion of autonomy when it is used by the diplomatic discourse? As a concept that has lost its meaning or, on the contrary, as a concept has gained many meanings and therefore is constantly challenging researchers?

The concept of autonomy is still very useful and, indeed, it has been considered as one of the main Latin American contributions to the analysis of international relations. Having said that, the autonomy narrative (in this case, elaborated by the diplomats as well as by the Brasilia School scholars) must be assessed through the critical approaches à la Cox in order to unveil the relations of power. Thus, if the autonomy discourse is used to reify the idea of continuity and to reinforce Itamaraty’s coherence, criticisms and the necessity to further accountability will be expected. To sum up, understanding this concept as a compass of Brazilian foreign policy is accurate, but it is also fruitful to enter the debate around autonomy, as it enables us to tackle the main rationales developed in order to deploy such an important public policy as foreign policy is.

As you explain, the foreign policy of the Bolsonaro administration has a limited interpretation of the international structure that surrounds Brazil which results in a decrease of the Brazilian international presence. Do you believe that such narrow understanding may be read as an indicator of a lack of dialogue between the current administration and the academic Brazilian community and, as a consequence, an example of the relevance of such dialogue between scholars and those working in the government?

Bolsonaro’s administration does dialogue, but just with one small sector of the academia closed to their ideological postulates. Notably certain schools of thought who were already part of the epistemic community and the decision-makers, such as those supporting an Americanist perspective, have gained momentum under the current administration.

Nevertheless, the lack of a general and more comprehensive dialogue is symptomatic of how scholars have been portrayed and perceived as an antagonist and a rival by Bolsonaro’s inner circle. Although links between scholars and practitioners should be fluid and constant as both are working on the same subject but from a different place, this has not been the case these years. To sum up, the “problem” with the assessment of autonomy in Brazilian Foreign Policy is a certain self-satisfying perception, and this worked as a trigger for us to revisit the concept and to update some of its implications.

The Brazilian foreign policy follows certain tendencies that are kept from one government to the other with some fluctuations. Nevertheless, the current administration seems to be marked by a deeper break in foreign policy due to its alignment with the US and its distancing from other global powers and Latin America. Do you believe that this political strategy may have a long-term impact on how Brazilian diplomacy is perceived by the international community?

As we argued in our paper it is a massive and deep break that goes beyond the individuals who are currently in office. In other words, actors such as Trump or Bolsonaro are not the cause of change, but one visible consequence, even if afterward they have reinforced some of the structural features of this break (increasing disaffection, the crisis of globalization, trade protectionism, reactionary nationalism…). The coming presidents could try to overcome this “agential break” but the structural changes take more time and are rather more resilient.

And regarding the perception of Brazil, there is no doubt that its international reputation and prestige has been severely eroded. Although international legitimacy held during Lula’s years will not probably be achieved again, it is coherent and plausible to think that Brazil will remain the regional power. In fact, while Brazilian shrinkage as a regional leader has been taking place, no one else has challenged to assume this position, apart from the timid attempts of Macri while negotiating the Mercosur-EU agreement. The key element will be to unravel how deep is the structural break that we have pointed out in our paper. Unfortunately, we have to remember that destroying and burning bridges has always been faster –and easier- than weaving agreements and cementing the pillars of mutual trust.

Read the article

Caballero, Sergio, & Crescentino, Diego. (2020). From the quest for autonomy to the dual break: structural and agential changes in Brazil’s foreign policy during the 21st century. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 63(1), e011. Epub August 24, 2020.https://doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329202000111

About the authors

Sergio Caballero, Universidad de Deusto Facultad de Ciencias Sociales y Humanas, International Relations, Bilbao, Spain.

Diego Crescentino, Autonomous University of Madrid, Historia, Madrid, Spain.

Sara Rodrigues, University of Brasilia, Institute of International Relations, Brasília, Brazil

How to cite this interview

Cite this article as: Editoria Mundorama, "From the quest for autonomy to the dual break: structural and agential changes in Brazil’s foreign policy during the 21st century, an interview with Sergio Caballero and Diego Crescentino by Sara Rodrigues," in Revista Mundorama, 28/08/2020, https://mundorama.net/?p=27610.


Professor e pesquisador da área de política externa brasileira do Instituto de Relações Internacionais da Universidade de Brasília (iREL-UnB). É editor da Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional - RBPI (http://www.scielo.br/rbpi) e de Meridiano 47 (http://www.meridiano47.info). Pesquisador do Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq).