Brazil and Mexico Are Tired of Being Global Good Guys

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Latin American leaders have been famously demure about calling out the transgressions of their peers. Leave it to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to rile up the club of diffident caballeros.

Only three regional heads of state showed up in Caracas for Maduro’s inauguration last Thursday. Paraguay broke off diplomatic relations with Venezuela, Peru placed Maduro on a list of personae non gratae and, in a rare display of neighborly resolve, 19 member nations of the Organization of American States (OAS) agreed not to recognize Maduro’s new mandate due to his government’s “negligence to meet the fundamental Inter-American standards of human rights and democracy.”

So, score one for hemispheric diplomacy and the clout of the international liberal order? Not quite yet. Eschewing Maduro, whose calamitous mismanagement and repression have left electoral democracy, the rule of law and the oil-rich economy in shambles, is important. And autocratic Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega could be the OAS’s next target for reprimand. Yet galvanizing the Americas to cooperate through cross-border institutions and hew to international agreements looks to be a steeper challenge in the coming years.

Undoubtedly, global governance and multilateralism have sunk to new lows, thanks in large part to the unilateral navel-gazing of U.S. President Donald Trump. But stakes are high in Latin America, where chronic economic under-performance and a sudden diplomatic solipsism have diminished the region’s international cachet just when it’s most needed. “We’re at a low point for Latin American integration. The region is more fragmented than ever,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, told me. “It’s not that countries are going to the left or to the right. They’re just going the wrong way. The problem is, as multilateralism weakens, so does Latin America.”

Consider its two biggest economic powers, Brazil and Mexico. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has toned down his nationalist campaign rhetoric, and he opted to renegotiate instead of junk the North American Free Trade Agreement. Yet he’s no internationalist. In an abrupt shift, Mexico broke with its neighbors and abstained from the OAS resolution on Venezuela, earning Lopez Obrador the sobriquet of Maduro’s “enabler.”

Not that Lopez Obrador shares affinities with Maduro: his diffidence seemed calibrated more to keep leftist factions of his ruling coalition at heel and to protect against eventual diplomatic blowback. “There’s a familiar complicity in play,” said former Mexican diplomat Jorge Guajardo. “The idea is: I’ll overlook your human rights issues and I expect you to do the same.”

Mexico’s inward turn is a throwback to another era when national governments minded their own business and expected others to return the favor. Too often the region’s strongmen and autocrats have invoked similar doctrine to lend a legal sheen to fiat and excess. Look no further than Guatemala, where President Jimmy Morales has announced his country will withdraw from a United Nations anti-corruption commission rather than continue hosting its panel of investigators.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s recoil from world affairs is more ideologically explicit. In his first few days in office, he canceled plans for Brazil to host the 2019 United Nations Conference on climate change — a “Marxist hoax,” according to Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo — and downgraded the foreign ministry’s environmental authority. Nor will Brazil have anything more to do with “globalism,” the candied term Araujo employs for the institutions of global governance and multilateral oversight he abhors.

So, even as Venezuelan refugees stream into northern Brazil, the government announced its withdrawal from a 160-nation U.N. compact on international migration. In that sense, Brazil’s laudable reprimand of Venezuela at the OAS looked less like a vote for regional solidarity than a wink not so much at the United States but at Trump, whose “America First” exhortations Bolsonaro has lavishly praised and sought to replicate. How else to explain that even as he quit the U.N. migration compact, purportedly to safeguard national sovereignty, Bolsonaro also floated hosting a U.S. military base, a suggestion that goes down like ipecac among the country’s military brass ?

Foreign policy experts caution that such moves don’t necessarily spell a retreat from the world stage. “New governments have the right to err,” said former Brazilian diplomat Marcos Azambuja. Yet hyper-nationalism brings risks in a region with little to show for its global ambitions.

For all the current disdain, Brazil, Mexico and its neighbors have been beneficiaries and occasionally protagonists of multilateral institutions. Latin American diplomats and jurists contributed to creating the United Nations, influenced the Bretton Woods monetary system and helped modernize human rights after the military dictators fell.

Brazilians head up the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Trade Organization. Latin American nations have been some of the most vigorous participants in the WTO’s dispute filings from 1995 to 2017, led by Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. Brazil is recognized as one of the most successful users of the WTO’s settlement mechanism.

True, Latin leaders often grouse about being junior partners at the global policy table, but they are arguably far better off with a back seat than having none. “International law has provided Latin Americans some shield to more powerful states, whether it’s creditors in gunboats or at the U.N.,” said Tom Long, a scholar of international relations at the University of Warwick. “In all, the post-Cold War system has served Latin America well, helping the transition to democracy and to turn back some threats.”

The region´s sweeping crackdown on corruption would have been much harder to prosecute without global cooperation and wide ranging anti-graft measures, such as the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. “The global order was not imposed on us. We helped create and shape it,” said Azambuja. “I hope Brazil continues to respect its commitments and avoid foreign policy adventures.”

What´s more, there’s more work to be done to shape the system to Latin America’s advantage. “No doubt, the multilateral system today is flawed and incomplete, starting with the WTO. Agriculture subsidies were left out of the Doha Round of talks, and Brazil is an agricultural power,” said Jose Alfredo Graca Lima, of Brazil´s Center for International Relations. “Trade is a crucial instrument to help us grow, fight poverty and correct our historical inequalities.”

That lacuna ought to be a reason for reforming multilateralism and not abandoning it. “The U.S. might be able to afford going it alone, but Brazil has never gained through isolation,” Graca Lima said. Bolsonaro would do well to keep that in mind later this month when he debuts at the World Economic Forum, the signature summit of globalists in Davos, Switzerland — where Trump will not show.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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