The Limits of Brazilian Soft Power

The Limits of Brazilian Soft Power

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The painful rout of Brazil’s soccer team by Germany may be a metaphor for the deeper political losses that Brazil has experienced in the past year.

Last summer students were marching down the streets of major cities like Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, and Sao Paulo protesting higher transport costs.

These demonstrations, coupled with public outcries about the cost of hosting a World Cup and an Olympics in 2016 marked a turning point in the Brazilian success story. It demonstrated a deep mistrust of government, and a crisis of legitimacy that had not been evident since the impeachment of President Collor in 1992.

Brazil’s economy

The discovery of pre-salt oil off the Brazil’s coast only seven years ago in 2007 seemed to mark the emergence of Brazil as a formidable economic force, with former President Lula stating that God was a Brazilian.

And when Brazil’s economy surpassed that of the United Kingdom in 2010 it seemed that this country of 197 million was destined for greater things. Unfortunately, this good fortune was short-lived.

Today expectations for a new oil boom have not been met as the national oil company, Petrobras, fights off high debt and competition from other global producers.

The demands of a rising middle class coupled with a global economic downturn in 2008 took its toll on the nation. Reduced spending for social services, and oil that was more difficult to extract than originally believed, delayed the long-awaited prosperity that so many Brazilians thought was within reach.

President Dilma Rousseff, the hand-chosen successor of Lula and heir to the Labor Party machine, started sinking lower in the polls as Brazilians expressed their frustration at what was perceived as a lack of concern for ordinary citizen well-being.

Rousseff is up for re-election this October.

In the weeks before the first kickoff strikes by taxis and public workers threatened the impending games.

On a visit to Rio de Janeiro in late May there were few signs that a World Cup was even about to take place. The ubiquitous T-shirt vendors on the Copacabana hardly had World Cup merchandise for sale.

Tourists canceled their travel plans, and an impending gloom was palpable when the conversation turned to the upcoming World Cup games. It was a nation divided over this 11 billion dollar investment in sports arenas that so polarized the population that still hovers on the cusp of economic inequality.

It was not until the first victory of Brazil over Croatia on June 15th that the mood lightened as the national soccer holiday began and the big national party got underway. Yesterday’s game, however, dispelled any joy for the previous victory of Chile in the first round.

For Brazil soccer is a form of soft power. Rather than using military might Brazil relied on its prowess at soccer to promote its global agenda as a rising international player. Projecting one’s national image through sports is not a new strategy, but for Brazil it was THE strategy.

In a nation that has prided itself on using its soft power alone to achieve global leadership, the tremendous loss in the World Cup was more than just a sporting event. It was also a loss of international prestige that underscored the limits of soft power in today’s complex world.

Whether the events of Tuesday’s match with Germany results in Brazil’s government examining its own place in the world remains to be seen. President Rousseff certainly expressed the collective sadness of the nation when she tweeted “Brazil, get up, shake the dust off, get back on your feet.”

But what will this mean for Brazil? Will Brazil push to rebuild its image by building up its hard security capacity? Will its citizens reject the protectionist trade model of the ruling labor party for a more open and expansive commercial system? Will Brazilians work harder to develop its economy so that its rising middle class gains access to greater education and economic opportunities?

For a country that staked its political future on projecting soft power by using the World Cup as a means of promoting national unity, that decision now appears to have been misplaced. Brazil must now assume the risk of letting its citizens decide how best to create a nation that provides opportunities for all with greater public security and less inequality for those who really want to create a zone of peace in South America. The elections of October 2014 take on greater significance in light of this shattered identity.

Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Scholar-in-Residence at American University School of International Service in Washington, D.C.