Senator Jose Serra’s appointment as foreign minister has raised expectations for dramatic changes in Brazilian foreign policy. Supporters of the interim government of Michel Temer foresee Serra pursuing a more pragmatic, interest-driven diplomatic agenda than his recent predecessors. They look forward to greater attention to economic goals, specifically the expansion of trade and investment, and to bolstering of ties with the US, Europe, and other traditional allies and partners.  Opponents of the new government also anticipate a shift in direction—but one that is harmful to Brazil. They see the nation veering away from its long-standing independence and growing global leadership, and once again accepting a secondary role in world affairs.

The former governor and mayor of Sao Paulo and twice runner up in presidential elections, Serra is unquestionably one of Brazil’s most powerful and hardworking political figures. He has not been shy about his intention to overhaul Brazil’s regional and international policies, despite the unusual situation of his government, which is still struggling to establish its credibility and uncertain about its duration.

His inaugural address set forth ten guidelines that would shape a fresh approach. They start off by rejecting the policies and programs of the Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva governments, stating that “diplomacy would reflect the interests and values of the nation, not the ideological preferences of a single party.”  Serra’s task is now to set forth the concrete goals of Brazil’s new foreign policy and specify plans for achieving them.

To be sure, Serra quickly provided a forceful reminder that a new government was in charge. Less than a week after taking over the foreign ministry, he issued a sharp rebuke to six Latin American nations which had denounced Dilma’s ouster as a coup d’état. Five of the countries (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba, and Nicaragua) were associates in ALBA, the fervently anti-US, left populist alliance; the sixth was El Salvador. All of them had previously enjoyed close relations with Brazil. Still, this is hardly a new policy course. No Brazilian government would quietly accept an attack on its legitimacy and legality. 

Palácio do Itamaraty, the headquarters of the Ministry of External Relations of Brazil.

Palácio do Itamaraty, the headquarters of the Ministry of External Relations of Brazil located in the national capital of Brasília.

Many in Brazil and beyond are looking to the new government to assume a more active, consistent role in advancing human rights and democracy—particularly in Latin America, where the rule of law has been  flagging in many places.  This would mean taking on the ALBA governments not for their criticism of political developments in Brazil, but for their behavior at home, which has been widely condemned as barely democratic and hostile to press freedom, judicial independence, and due process.  

Serra’s first guideline stated that Brazil would “defend democracy, freedom and human rights in whatever country or political regime.” His commitment was qualified, however, by his pledge to “respect the principle of non-interference.” Here is where more detail and clarity are needed to distinguish Serra’s approach from that of his predecessors. Which values take precedence—non-intervention or human rights and democratic practices—and under what conditions? Is Brazil now prepared to take meaningful steps to address the sharp deterioration of democracy in Venezuela or Cuba’s continuing rights violations?

Although Venezuela was high on the agenda of Serra’s first overseas trip to Brazil’s southern neighbor, Argentina, the two governments settled on a rather tepid response to the Bolivarian Republic’s deepening crisis. Their agreement to work together to foster dialogue between government and opposition echoes the earlier frustrated efforts of other governments, multilateral institutions, and private groups. It will surely not be enough for the two countries to simply distance themselves from Venezuela, or gingerly offer to mediate a dialogue between conflicting factions.  To be fair, however, no one else has yet come up with a workable proposal to advance Venezuela toward a solution. Punitive measures—suspension from the Mercosul trade pact, other economic sanctions, invocation of the inter-American Democratic Charter, for instance—seem unlikely to accomplish much either.

Today, Brazil’s most vital national interest is economic recovery from its prolonged recession. On that score, Serra’s proposals to revamp his country’s international commercial ties are especially welcome. He is right to underscore the need to modernize and extensively repair Mercosul, Brazil’s trade pact with Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela, which has become dysfunctional and, many think, a dead weight on the economies of its members.  

Is Brazil now prepared to take meaningful steps to address the sharp deterioration of democracy in Venezuela or Cuba’s continuing rights violations?

The Brazilian economy would also benefit from his other proposals—the completion of ongoing Mercosul negotiations with the EU; new trade deals with the US and Mexico, which over many years have proved elusive; and an association of some sort with the Pacific Alliance, a forward looking trade arrangement that brings together four of Latin America’s most well-managed economies. Serra also wisely reaffirms Brazil’s extensive commitments to its major commercial partners in Asia—particularly to China, its largest market in the world, but also to Japan and India.

Serra’s proposals to establish a more robust global economic presence are attractive. But new trade agreements cannot be rushed. Just to set the framework for negotiations will take time. The first challenge for Brazil is to curb the country’s high barriers to foreign trade and investment. Serra mistakenly claims that, outside of tariffs, these barriers hardly exist, calling Brazil “the most open” nation in the world. But few trade analysts would agree with him, in the face of such obstacles as low cost credit for Brazilian firms, price controls and subsidies, local content restrictions, loose regulation of intellectual property, and Brazil’s notoriously unfriendly business climate.

On other issues, the new minister has recommitted the country to long-held priorities of Brazilian diplomacy—for instance, to give special attention to environmental matters and assume leadership on climate change negotiations, develop constructive actions for peace and conflict avoidance, and help reform international organizations—but with little detail on how Brazil intends to proceed. His silence on nuclear proliferation is regrettable.  Brazil today, despite its current political and economic travails, is among the most powerful and influential countries in the world without nuclear armaments. There is little question it could play a critical role in the global non-proliferation efforts, but in recent years may have contributed to a weakening of these efforts by its support for Iran’s nuclear program and rejection of intrusive inspections.

Still, Jose Serra has made a good start. He has shown he knows the issues, understands that Brazil needs to reorient some key policies, and has made first rate appointments to Brazil’s most important foreign embassies. He now needs to spell out the government’s goals and plans to pursue them. As part of an interim government, whose legitimacy is still being questioned and term in office uncertain, he will need to define a short list of priorities and keep his attention targeted on them. There is just so much Serra can accomplish.  Expectations should be kept in check.