Diplomacy | Monocle

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michel temer

Politician, lawyer and writer


Brazil is home to the world’s largest Lebanese diaspora and the devastating explosion in Beirut in August prompted a strong reaction. Michel Temer, the South American country’s former president, is a first-generation Lebanese-Brazilian and was the chief of a humanitarian delegation sent to Beirut. He tells us about the ties between the two countries, and the role Brazil can play in the recovery.

What is your personal connection with Lebanon?
My parents were born in Lebanon, were married there and had their first three children there. They came to Brazil and had five other kids; I am the youngest. Look at my career: lawyer, prosecutor and politician, reaching the presidency. It shows how Brazilians are receptive towards foreigners. That’s unique: someone from a first-generation [immigrant background] reaching the highest political position in the country.

How strong is the Lebanese influence in Brazil?
There are about 10 million Brazilians with Lebanese ancestry. It started after the visit of Dom Pedro II [the emperor of Brazil] to Lebanon [in the 1800s]. The Lebanese adapt and create roots wherever they go and in Brazil it was no different. Lebanese food is very popular, for example; there are no Brazilian states without a Lebanese restaurant. On my visits to Lebanon their presidents [would joke] that I was more a president of Lebanon than they were, as we have 10 million descendants in Brazil [Lebanon’s population is 6.85 million].

Tell us a bit more about Brazil’s humanitarian mission to Beirut.
President Bolsonaro made a very civilised gesture, asking me to be in charge of the humanitarian and diplomatic mission to Beirut. In Brazil it’s not common for the sitting president to ask this of former presidents. First, we delivered six tonnes of food and medicine, then I went to visit the [site] of the accident and saw the destruction of the port. This is just the beginning: we want to help Lebanon politically, as a mediator. The Lebanese-Brazilian community sent [donations] via ship – tonnes of medicine and food. So the mission is certainly not over after my visit.

Can Brazil have an important role diplomatically, like France?
I think so, because Brazil is welcome and well-liked in Lebanon. President Bolsonaro mentioned our mission in Lebanon in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September. It would be natural for Brazil to be involved, and I also told the president to ask our diplomatic forces to keep contact with France, so that we can work together with Lebanon; both countries have close ties. Hopefully we can also help with internal talks and, perhaps, with internal pacification too.

Swiss role

switzerland — mediation

Should the US seek to revive a nuclear deal with Iran in 2021, it will be partly thanks to Switzerland that Iran remains a willing partner. The Alpine nation has been a mediator between the US and Iran for decades. In September, Switzerland’s foreign minister Ignazio Cassis met Hassan Rouhani in Tehran to mark 100 years of diplomatic ties with Iran and in 2020 Bern brokered a deal to keep humanitarian aid flowing into Iran in spite of US sanctions.

Switzerland’s military neutrality makes it a natural broker between nations but the position is also about maintaining a tradition and expertise that carry across governments. “Peace promotion as part of foreign policy is deeply rooted [in Swiss governance],” says David Lanz, co-head of mediation at Swisspeace, an independent institute that brings together civil society groups and works with the Swiss government. “One of the goals in the Swiss constitution is to promote peace. It’s not something that one foreign minister will do because he or she finds it attractive. It’s something that’s permanent.” 

diplomatic spat of the month

Not a piece of cake

We take a closer look at a case of diplomacy that has gone wrong. 


Who vs who: China vs Taiwan

What it’s about: A cake. Specifically, a cake decorated with the Taiwanese flag served at a reception held by Taiwan’s trade office in Suva, Fiji. According to Taiwan, two diplomats from the Chinese embassy presented themselves uninvited and began pestering guests. The ensuing unpleasantness saw at least one Taiwanese official requiring hospital treatment.

What it’s really about: Like all disputes between China and Taiwan, which could fill a regular column on their own, it’s really about the fact that China thinks Taiwan is a temporarily rogue province of China, and Taiwan increasingly does not.

Likely resolution: Best-case scenario is the resentful status quo being maintained until everyone loses interest. Worst-case scenario is if China’s recently stepped-up military posturing in Taiwan’s direction is, in fact, a rehearsal. 

Images: Shutterstock

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