Page last updated at 08:20 GMT, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Brazil emerges as a leading exponent of 'soft power'

By Robin Lustig
The World Tonight, Rio de Janeiro

Take a nation that is at peace with itself and with all of its 10 neighbours. Add a strong and stable economy, with a charismatic, democratically-elected leader and huge untapped oil reserves, and what do you have? Brazil.

A child waving a Brazilian flag
Brazilian society is divided, but the gap between rich and poor is narrowing

A country that, in the eyes of its leaders oozes self-confidence and likes to think of itself as ideally placed to demonstrate to the world the benefits of "soft power".

And if you want a definition of soft power, here is one from Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Amorim: "It is the use of culture and civilisation, not threats. It is a belief in dialogue, not force."

I met the foreign minister in Rio de Janeiro's elegant 19th Century Itamaraty Palace, which until the capital moved to Brasilia in 1960, was the home of the foreign ministry.

"Two things above all have contributed to Brazil's emergence as a leading exponent of soft power. First, the world has changed, and second, Brazil has changed," he told me.

The world is no longer frozen in the grip of two nuclear-armed super powers.

The emerging BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) nations are now learning to flex their muscles, and here at least, that means more self-confidence.

As one leading academic put it to me: "We know now that God is Brazilian."

Slave legacy

Celso Amorim
Brazil's great skill is to be friends with everyone
Celso Amorim
Foreign Minister

Brazil believes it deserves a permanent place on the United Nations Security Council.

It plays a leading role in several UN peace-keeping operations - and it believes that in Haiti, where it commands the UN forces, it can make use of its own experience as a multi-cultural nation.

About half of Brazil's population is classified as either black or of mixed race.

It is a direct result of the slave trade, when Portuguese colonialists shipped an estimated three million slaves from west and central Africa across the Atlantic to work on sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations.

Most of the Portuguese settlers were single men, unlike in the United States, where the early settlers often came as family groups.

There was a lot of mixing between the two groups, and with the indigenous Indian population.

But over time, despite huge economic differences, a common sense of Brazilian-ness developed.

Brazilian society is still deeply divided between the rich and the poor, even though the gap is narrowing.

To be white usually means being better educated, and better off, than if you are black.

Even so, there is much less tension between the different groups than in the US or in many European nations.

World champions

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is in his final year in office, has just completed a trip to the Middle East, where he talked to Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians.

In May, he will head to Tehran, to talk to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

How does he do it? How does he manage to stay on good terms with Washington on the one side, and some of the governments it is most suspicious of - Venezuela, Iran, China - on the other?

"That is Brazil's great skill - to be friends with everyone," says Celso Amorim.

And what will happen when Lula stands down at the end of the year?

The foreign minister smiles, and uses an image from football: "Once we had Pele," he says. "But even without him, we are still world champions."

The World Tonight is broadcast on Radio 4 at 2200 GMT, Monday to Friday or catch-up on BBC iPlayer

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