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In March, Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and Celso Amorim, his foreign minister of six years, boarded a flight in Brasília bound for a tour of Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan. It was the first time a Brazilian leader had been to the region since the country’s emperor Dom Pedro II headed there in 1876. In May, the duo will be notching up the air miles again when they drop in on President ­Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

Meanwhile, in Brasília, they have been laying on the hospitality for a revolving door of global players including US secretary of state Hillary Clinton who, when she came by in March, failed to secure Brazil’s backing for new sanctions against Iran and its nuclear programme. And Ahmadinejad was here too – his visit was hailed by the Iranian media as “a serious defeat for the Zionists”.

It’s clear Brazil has become an intriguing player on the world’s diplomatic stage, flexing its youthful muscles and using its elbows to gently nudge the old powers, especially the US, out of its way when needed. It’s also been backing up this new confidence with an unprecedented embassy-building boom and an expansion of its diplomatic corps. But what does it want from all this?

For some western commentators (and middle-class Brazilians), the country is moving too close to Iran, Venezuela and China and neglecting important traditional trading partners (read the US and Israel) as, for political reasons, it attempts to rewire the global diplomatic channels via the capitals of emergent nations. Others think Brazil is simply looking for the respect that this flourishing resource-rich nation deserves and its promotion of new alliances is a refreshing counter­balance to American might. What everyone is sure about is that Brazil wants to be listened to and its key ambition is to win a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. One European diplomat in Brasília tells Monocle over coffee that everything Brazil does must be seen in this light.

The people charting the nation’s new diplomatic course are based in the Ministry of External Relations or the Itamaraty Palace as everyone calls it – it takes its name from the ministry’s old home in Rio de Janeiro, when that city was the capital. Designed by the now 102-year-old Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, the “new” palace is larger than any of the other neighbouring ministries in Brasília and so is its power – all other ministries bow to its will. Energy and trade ministries often only run their briefs at a national level, so when Brazil sent its team to the Copenhagen climate change conference they answered to Itamaraty.

The ministry also has a certain freedom from the political machine as staff are career civil diplomats, including Amorim (although everyone assumes his closeness to Lula means he’ll depart when the president leaves office in January).

Jovial ambassador Gilberto Fonseca-Guimarães de Moura (you keep the title of ambassador even when you return to base in Brasília) is the director of the Department of Inter-regional Mechanisms, which puts him in charge of relations in everything from science to social affairs with a long list of acronyms and abbreviations. Perhaps the most important of these are Brazil’s links with the RIC parts of brIC (ie Russia, India and China), IBSA (that’s India, Brazil and South Africa) and ASPA (Summit of South American-Arab Countries).

In his neat office in the ministry, he talks with pride about his job and of the numerous events, conferences and working groups he is involved with. “It’s a new world and we are building up something fresh. We are not replacing important bilateral relations but are creating a new inter-regional diplomacy,” says Moura.

His department is also involved in promoting Brazil’s Arab heritage – the country says that it has 12 million people with Arab roots: 10 million from Lebanon, two million from Syria. (He also says the country has 150,000 Jewish people and that all get along.) The ­department recently helped stage a celebration of the 130th anniversary of Arabs arriving in Brazil. “The Portuguese and Spanish could not have got here without Arab navigation technology,” I am told.

That attitude should please the country’s friends in the Middle East (on his tour there, Lula said it was time to talk to Hamas, that Israel’s settlement programme was blowing out “the candle of hope” and that he would seek a free trade agreement with the Palestinian National Authority). But Moura seems more ­excited about practical matters, from environmental projects to finding ways of getting cheaper desalification plants. “We feel very at ease with the world,” he says.

It’s also clear new bonds are being forged when I squeeze into the book-lined office of Antonio Augusto Martins Cesar, head of division of Africa I, and make the most of the sweet espressos he has served. On a map behind his desk, Cesar points out his special area of interest that starts at Congo-Brazzaville and runs north to Morocco, taking in the full sweep of West Africa. Once a desert for Brazilian missions, under Lula it has seen an embassy boom – Bamako, Malabo and Lomé are all now home to Brazilian diplomats (in Brasília it helps to have an atlas to hand when you get details of your new posting). Sierre Leone could be next.

Cesar says that new diplomatic ties were first tightened with those nations where there were cultural links (including Portuguese-speaking countries such as Angola, which is home to 30,000 Brazilians) but that Brazil is welcomed everywhere on the continent because “people look at us as a country that had similar situations and problems but that could overcome them”. But sceptics think these new embassies are just a way of garnering extra votes if that UN seat ever becomes available (many western countries would also back Brazil along with the other members of the G4 grouping – Germany, India and Japan – becoming permanent members of the Security Council). But like most people we meet in the ministry, Cesar simply seems interested in making new connections, not grubby day-to-day politics (although he says those connections might be better if airlines would establish a few more Brazil-Africa flights).

The chic Mariana Moscardo de Souza is busy fielding calls from her boss when we head to see how the nation is using its soft power. “Only diplomats are moved by trade agreements,” jokes De Souza who heads a division for promoting Brazilian culture. She has a point. Unlike economic debates, getting the public engaged with Brazilian culture is not a hard task – from music to football, the world is open to Brazilian soft power. Put simply, the world likes Brazilians and what they stand for. “I started working in the cultural sector just as it became an important subject for the ministry, to have weight and occupy a special part of the political agenda,” she says.

De Souza works with Brazilian embassies and consulates, helping them shape their cultural calendars in everything from music to architecture. One of the most successful moves from the ministry has been Amrik, a travelling photography show celebrating Arab culture in South America that has visited Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Brazil has become skilled at using its rich culture to make useful friends.

A few days later in Rio de Janeiro I meet Raul Juste Lores at the Livraria da Travessa bookshop in Ipanema. He’s in the city for a few days before taking up his new job as economics and business editor for Brazil’s leading newspaper, Folha de S. Paulo. For the past two years he’s been the Beijing correspondent, living for real the BRIC link. But he’s both intrigued and sceptical about these new bonds, especially BRIC, a term that was coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill but has taken on a life of its own.

“BRIC has become a reality even though it’s a very shallow concept. But it’s been helped along by the global crisis that has pushed these countries forwards as the power of the US, EU and Japan has shrunk. I saw this develop when I was in China. At the beginning of my time there, nobody senior in the communist party wanted to be interviewed by me – I might as well have been from a Bolivian paper – but after two years they were ­offering me all sorts of interviews because they wanted access to Brazil,” he says.

As to the role Brazil is playing, Lores says Lula has pushed the economy to the right and foreign policy to the left. He notes a real desire “to reshape the world” and also sees anti-US sentiment at play. And, insists Lores, this plays well in a country where many people have a long and deep distrust of America. “In the Second World War, Brazil sent thousands of troops to fight but after the war it was totally neglected by the US while the other allies were helped economically. Then the US supported Brazil’s military dictators. People remember this.”

Yet while the Itamaraty Palace may have played its cards with panache, Lores thinks Lula has made blunders such as when he suggested the clashes on Tehran’s streets after the disputed presidential election were just like rival football fans having a scrap, and when he seemed to compare Cuban dissidents to common criminals and that going on hunger strike should not be a pretext for release from jail (one diplomat at the ministry counters that people, especially outside of Brazil, forget that Fidel Castro was a real hero for many Brazilians during the years of military dictatorship and that even if they know he’s gone bad, they will never hit out at him).

“Lula is far from an international ­affairs expert. He is just incredibly charismatic and smart. But sometimes he ends up saying the wrong things – what he said about Cuba was pornographic – but people forgive him his mistakes,” says Lores. Post-Lula, you wonder if anyone else would get away with such statements. On the phone from Washington, Michael Shifter, the president of the Andean Programme at the Inter-American Dialogue and a Latin American commentator, gives his take on Brazil’s new diplomacy. “It’s an expression of a deeper quest for greatness on the world stage. A seat on the Security Council is one very clear aim but there is also an intention to establish themselves as a global power. To show that they have arrived.”

But he sees hurdles ahead. What might happen after Lula steps down, that the Itamaraty Palace can only be bullish as long as the economy is strong and, intriguingly, that several Latin American nations are cautious of Brazil. “They’re scared the US will withdraw and let Brazil run all foreign policy. They want to multiply their options, they don’t want to be subject to the will of Brazil.”

Alethea Pennati Migita deals with an entertaining side of Brazil’s new place in the world. She’s a protocol secretary at the Itamaraty Palace, another role that’s had a complete shake-up under Lula. The president does not endure state dinners and instead insists on buffet lunches. This all matters for Migita because the Itamaraty Palace hosts all state visits – the president pops over from his palace. And as Brasília becomes a must-go-to capital for global leaders, these events become ever more frequent.

“We have 10 heads of state coming next month,” says Migita. And it seems that presidents and monarchs cope very well with being given a plate and told to help themselves to lunch (for once they get to eat what they want). And anyhow, as Migita says, “it goes really well with the president’s approach”. It is also a suitable metaphor for the palace’s new diplomacy: perhaps troubling for traditionalists, oddly refreshing for others, certainly breaking a few rules. But all done with a Brazilian flair that ultimately should leave few people feeling threatened.

Look who’s here

As part of Brazil’s expanding diplomatic reach, in 2005 North Korea opened its embassy in Brasília.

It’s hard to know how the Brazilian diplomat who got the call in 2009 to go to Pyongyang felt but his North Korean counterpart must surely have done a jig on the spot. The embassy in Brasília is a glowing white house that could have been designed for a Malibu beach. Tucked away in a quiet residential street, it has a double garage and a garden planted with palm trees. And neighbours can stop by and inspect a glass cabinet displaying pictures of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il carrying out in-depth factory inspections.

But it’s not just the North Koreans who have come to town under Lula. Also new on the Brasília diplomatic block are Mauritania, Qatar, Tanzania, Albania, Burkina Faso, Nepal, East Timor and Slovenia. In total, almost 40 embassies have opened in the Brazilian capital under Lula’s period of diplomatic wooing.

How to be a Brazilian diplomat

Brasília’s Rio Branco Institute is run by the Itamaraty Palace and trains all of Brazil’s diplomats. There are currently 1,400 around the world, up from 1,000 when Lula came to power in 2002. And instead of turning out 25 diplomats a year as it did back then, the institute now produces over 100. Founded in 1945, the institute is named after the Baron of Rio Branco, recognised as the founder of Brazilian diplomacy. Georges Lamazière, the director general and a former ambassador to Denmark, says that the growth of the school is a reflection of “the intensification of our international role and more active foreign policy and our expansion in Africa where we are more present than before”.

Niemeyer’s Itamaraty Palace

The ministry is in fact three buildings, linked by walkways.

The internal and surrounding gardens were designed by Burle Marx, the same man who landscaped much of Rio de Janeiro.

The palace is home to one of the largest art collections in Brazil. The most famous sculpture is ‘Meteoro’, carved from a block of Carrera marble, and represents the interlocking continents.

The ministry has its own barbers as well as a small news kiosk and canteens. Itamaraty is still largely decorated as it was when it first opened. Equally old-school is the modest level of security.

Lula a go-go

The president has become used to buckling up for some shuttle diplomacy. Here’s where he’s been since January 2009.

2009:
Arroyo Concepción, Bolivia
Maracaibo, Venezuela
Washington
New York
Viña del Mar, Chile
Doha
Paris
London
Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
Buenos Aires
Riyadh
Beijing
Istanbul
Ankara
San Salvador
Guatemala City
San José, Costa Rica
Geneva
Yekaterinburg
Astana
Tripoli and Sirte
Paris
Rome and L’Aquila, Italy
Asunción
Quito
Chimoré and Cochabamba, Bolivia
Bariloche, Argentina
New York
Pittsburgh
Isla Margarita, Venezuela
Copenhagen
Brussels
Stockholm
Caracas
London
Paris
Rome
Lisbon and Estoril
Kiev
Berlin
Hamburg
Montevideo
Lima
Copenhagen

2010
Cancún
Havana
Port-au-Prince
San Salvador
Montevideo
Santiago
Jerusalem
Bethlehem
Ramallah
Amman

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