Editor’s Note: This article is Part IV of “When Pawns Become Queens,” a four-part series that seeks to explain how less powerful states are able to rise to prominence in international politics. To start from the beginning of the series, please read When Pawns Become Queens: Becoming a Global Power.
In this article series, the WPBQ Team highlighted the non-traditional metrics that allow countries to play an outsized role in international politics. While geography, access to strategic resources, asymmetric power capabilities, forging a shared identity, moral authority, and strategic positioning can allow states without traditional forms of power to punch above their weight on the international stage, there are other instances where “pawns” were unable to translate their non-traditional forms of power, thus remaining “pawns” in international politics. The Non-Aligned Movement provided a platform for the Global South to chart a distinct path from the United States and the Soviet Union, but failed to achieve anything substantial. During World War II, Poland failed to translate its strategic geographic location and instead, the USSR and Nazi Germany carved up the nation through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. While there are various cases of nations that failed to translate their advantages into global might, perhaps none has been as tragic as Brazil. In the 1930s and 1940s Brazil wielded many of these alternative forms of power, but was unable to attain the great power status that it desired. Why didn’t these characteristics allow for Brazil’s rise? And what lessons can we glean from this case?
As political tensions in Europe intensified and the Axis powers began to consolidate, the nations of the Americas faced the option of siding with one of the European divisions or remaining neutral in the conflict. Brazil chose to play Nazi Germany off of the United States and the besieged Great Britain in an attempt to ensure the best possible position for themselves following the war. This Machiavellian diplomatic approach provided Brazil the ability to seek concessions from both sides of the conflict in Europe as well as from the United States. Brazil was able to strengthen its negotiating position by leaning into U.S. efforts to promote a Pan‑American identity as well Argentine efforts to promote a Pan-Latin Identity. Both of these attempts to develop a shared identity sought to include Brazil within the in-group. As such, Brazil was able to both play the two conflicting attempts at developing shared identity, as they had done in the broader Axis vs. Allies divisions.
As World War II came to an end and the horrors of the Holocaust came to light, Brazil suddenly found itself in a position of moral superiority over many of the Great Powers of the time. These horrors highlighted the ethno-racial animosity of the Nazi Regime and the need to establish a Human Rights regime. Latin America had an opportunity to speak on this issue. Starting in the 1920s, intellectuals in Latin America had started questioning racial hierarchies and emphasizing the unique nature of race relations in the region. In Brazil, discussions surrounding the nation’s “Racial Democracy” would claim that Brazil did not suffer from the racial animosity that was evident in other countries and that the races could live in harmony. Although Brazil’s racial democracy remains a myth, global changes allowed Brazil to speak with perceived moral authority on the subject of discrimination and human rights.
The ideational underpinnings of Brazilian power in the 1930s were also coupled with important material factors. One of the key assets that allowed the Brazilian government to effectively play the global political landscape in the 1930s was its geography. Given the available technology at the time, Brazil’s geographic proximity to Africa was key to U.S. forces entering the European Theatre. Access to strategic war materials further bolstered Brazil’s importance in international politics at the time. Specifically, Brazil was one of the top producers of rubber, a valuable material at the time for military production. Having rubber made Brazil a valuable addition to the Allied effort as well as an important trading partner while Brazil remained neutral. This provided Brazil with the space to maneuver in international politics and allowed them to develop sectors of their economy while prices for rubber were high.
During this time, Brazil also sought to transform its lower levels of military might into international prestige. One of the key ways that Brazil did this was by quickly allying themselves with the Allies following the attacks on Pearl Harbor. In fact, in addition to the support that Brazil’s geography offered the Allies, Brazil was the only Latin American country to send national troops to fight in the European Theater: the Smoking Cobras. Although Brazil’s military might was substantially smaller than that of any of the Axis powers or of the primary Allies, sending troops allowed Brazil to claim membership in the fighting force of the Allies, thus increasing their international prestige.
Despite the fact that Brazil was in a position in which it was able to wield various forms of non-traditional power, it was unable to leverage its position into one of international prestige in the long term. As WWII came to an end, Brazil’s position was no longer as privileged as it had once been; the nation could no seek concessions by playing Nazi Germany and Argentina off of the United States, news of Nazi war criminals escaping to Brazil undermined the countries moral authority, the Brazilian Bulge no longer represented a strategic geographic “trampoline” into Europe, and Malaysian and synthetic rubber soon reduced Brazil’s market share. Furthermore, Brazil’s attempts to play both sides in the lead up to the war had created suspicions and resentment on the part of the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. Brazilian attempts at attaining a Permanent Seat on the United Nations Security Council as the organization developed in the final years of WWII epitomize Brazil’s desire to gain a larger long term role in international politics. Although Franklin Delano Roosevelt lobbied on behalf of Brazil’s position, the distrust of Brazil by the other Allies and FDR’s own death, killed this Brazilian dream.
“Brazil is the country of the future and always will be.”
This phrase is regularly used to explain Brazil’s aspirations and shortcomings to attaining great power status in the world. Overall, many “pawns” remain “pawns” and are unable to translate the availability of strategic tools into influence in international politics. Although there are factors that allow pawns in international politics to play an important role in global affairs and even become queens, these factors are still reliant on specific strategic contexts and leveraging them at the right moment. Brazil’s attempted rise to Great Power status in the aftermath of World War II highlights these challenges. Small states should learn from the experience of Brazil and be mindful about the pitfalls and inherent limitations in overplaying non-traditional capabilities.
*The WPBQ team consists of a group of young scholars from Florida International University (FIU) who are interested in the role of lesser powers in the International System. The team members responsible for this article series are listed below.
Bibek Chand, PhD, is Visiting Instructor of International Relations at FIU. Bibek’s research focuses on foreign policy, international security, and geopolitics. His specific interests include the international relations of small states, the role of buffer states in international security, and Sino-Indian interactions in the Asia-Pacific. Follow Bibek on Twitter @bibekcnp.
Yang Gyu Kim is a Fulbright Scholar and a Ph.D. Candidate in International Relations at FIU. He completed his BA and MA in International Relations at Seoul National University in South Korea and worked as a research fellow at the East Asia Institute. His research focuses on coercive diplomacy, power transition, and Northeast Asia.
Adam Ratzlaff is a Ph.D. student in International Relations at FIU and Staff Writer for Charged Affairs. Prior to coming to FIU, he conducted research on Latin American public and foreign policy for a number of groups including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. He holds an MA from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Follow him on Twitter @adam_ratzlaff.
Lana Shehadeh is a Ph.D. student in International Relations at FIU concentrating on the study of rentier economies in the Middle East. Prior to this, she worked as a Senior Researcher for the BBC Media Action where she led research projects in the Middle East. She holds an MA in International Development from American University. Follow her on Twitter @Lana_Shehadeh.