In this interview, Celso Amorim, former Brazilian foreign minister, discusses changes in
global governance and their likely impact on international cooperation. He critically reflects
on his experiences in positioning Brazil on the world stage and democratising human rights. And
he considers whether the influence of Brazil and other Southern states is likely to continue
Rio de Janeiro, 20 August 2018
Outside, resentment festered in the deep tracks of modernity’s march. Inside, Celso
Amorim sat back on his sofa, coddling a copy of E. V. Rieu’s English translation of
The Iliad. ‘Sometimes I seek asylum in classical antiquity.’
There are surely more tranquil sites of refuge than Homer’s Troy. But it is perhaps
fitting that Amorim should find comfort in a foundational tale of great power struggle. He has
worked in foreign service for most of the last fifty years. He is the most decorated living
As we began discussing international affairs and strategy, Amorim’s speech assumed a
calm, professorial cadence. ‘Global disorder’ undermines international cooperation,
he suggested soberly. And there is a need to rescue human rights discourse, despite the hypocrisy
and selectivity of its liberal proponents.
Amorim leant forward when I brought up Brazil’s recent withdrawal from the world stage.
As foreign minister throughout the two presidential terms of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva,
from 2003 to 2011, he guided Brazil to a position of protagonism in multilateral negotiations. He
is convinced that the country will fulfil its potential as a major global power that can
influence other states with a democratic and egalitarian vision. But he also recognises
A framed photo of Amorim and Lula perched on the top shelf of an eclectic bookcase, both men
smiling widely. The following day, Amorim would travel to the southern Brazilian city of
Curitiba, where he would visit Lula in prison. And he would receive news of a declaration by the
UN Committee on Human Rights that the former president should be allowed to run in the
forthcoming election. ‘We have conditions to do great things,’ he said to me when
we met, ‘but of course we need a legitimate government.’ It is far from clear that
the election, only weeks away, can deliver this.
Juliano Fiori: You first served as Brazilian foreign minister in the early 1990s.
Between then and now, what has been the principal change in the conduct of international
Celso Amorim: For me, the most important change to note is that, for the first
time in modern history, the major global power – I am of course referring to the US
– doesn’t have a project for the world. It is evident that the US has always
defended its own interests, but it always imagined or at least presented its interests –
I’m not casting a value judgement here – as linked to a project for the world.
Following the Second World War, it was the Americans who assumed primary responsibility for the
creation of the international system, starting with Roosevelt. Some international institutions
were accessible to all states, others, like the GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade],
were only for the capitalist world. There was an order, which, in theory, combined Western
democracy with a more-or-less regulated capitalism: the so-called liberal order – although
perhaps ‘liberal’ isn’t the most precise term, either in political or
economic terms. There were of course other characteristics. The promotion of human rights became
one, for example, albeit selective. When South Korea was still under dictatorship, we would ask
‘What about South Korea? Shouldn’t it also be expected to respect human
rights?’ But regardless of hypocrisy and selectivity, there was a general acceptance that
there existed this kind of order, in which the US broadly set the terms. At the ILO
[International Labour Organisation], the US refused to sign many of the conventions, but it
demanded that other countries sign. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this order
This was the world I encountered when I was appointed foreign minister for the first time, by
[Brazilian President] Itamar Franco, just after the Gulf War. US hegemony was almost
incontestable. The US of course still faced certain political challenges, but the concepts
guiding international relations at this time, authored by the US, were dominant. We would hear
about ‘reaching out’ and, later, Obama’s formulation ‘leading from
behind’, but always leading.
Returning to the main change we see today… of course, there are forces that have been
working for a long time… Trump arrives and says: ‘No, I don’t want a global
order. I prefer global disorder.’ I am referring here only to what is manifest; I have not
yet been able to analyse this change deeply. Things were not totally orderly before, but there
were certain rules. Brazil could win a case against the US on cotton production – they
didn’t completely stick to it but they had to compensate a bit. Today, without doubt, if
we tried the same thing, the US would tell us to go to hell.
JF: Many liberal commentators, defenders of the liberal order, have struggled to
separate Trump’s character from White House strategy…
CA: People say, ‘Trump is mad’. I am not sure there is method to his
madness, but there are objectives. There is a strategy. Trump seeks to deconstruct the existing
order and anything that might limit American power, even institutions created by the US.
This change in strategy happens at a moment when rivals are on the rise. Russia perhaps
doesn’t want to be a world leader, but it wants to affirm its regional position. And
China, yes, has another plan for the world, which it develops with subtlety, in specific
negotiations, always prepared to accept otherness.
JF: What are the likely implications of this new US strategy for international
cooperation and multilateralism?
CA: Well, it is a difficult moment for international cooperation. It is possible
to argue that the liberalism of the old order was a veneer that permitted a form of capitalist
domination. But, regardless, many people benefited from this veneer. There were opportunities for
organisations like UNICEF and Save the Children. And for Brazil, too. When I was foreign
minister, I was able to establish triangular cooperation programmes with the US in Africa and in
the Caribbean. In my recent book [Acting Globally], there is a photo of me with
Condoleezza Rice and an ambassador from Guinea-Bissau – it didn’t result in
anything, but there were good intentions. Today, I don’t see something like that
Veneer or not, international cooperation is suffering and will suffer much more. Perhaps there
is a pendulum effect. Maybe the liberal order had reached its maximum point and Trump is saying
that things need to go in the other direction because certain American interests were not being
But Obama also made many mistakes with respect to multilateralism. A significant one was to
give less attention to the WTO [the World Trade Organisation]. He focused much more on the
Trans-Pacific Partnership than global agreements. The Republicans also invested in the FTAA [Free
Trade Area of the Americas], but, in my opinion, there was more commitment to economic
multilateralism under Bush than under Obama.
With another Republican president, the pendulum might have swung back anyway, but it is
swinging fast with Trump. Now, I am not sure which sectors of American society or the American
establishment this can benefit. For large corporations, finance capital and, principally,
information technology companies, multilateralism is more useful, is it not? Sure, these
companies faced some rules, but they grew most of all during this period of globalisation with
increased multilateral cooperation.
Things are more chaotic now. It is partly a result of the financial crisis. This affected
employment in the US and living standards. In a similar way to Mussolini, who was a more
sophisticated person, Trump appealed to the blue-collar worker. He perceived that sectors
connected to an old-style capitalism were being marginalised by globalisation.
JF: So what role will humanitarian ideas and human rights – so prominent in
the 1990s in particular – play in international affairs?
CA: I think we need to rescue this discourse. Recognising its partiality and
inconsistency, I never thought that we should destroy it but rather strengthen it. The Universal
Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council was a Brazilian idea! Even before the government of
[President Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva], when I was foreign minister, Brazil, recognising
partiality in the application of human rights rules, didn’t seek to undermine them but
rather universalise them, make them truer. So, for the periodic review, we proposed that there
should be a global report on the state of human rights in the world, with chapters on each
country, rather than separate country reports.
Now, I am not sure who is going to rescue this discourse. Interestingly, in some areas, it
might be the BRICS that end up as champions of multilateralism. Brazil played an important role
in the BRICS, promoted multilateralism and human rights and challenged protectionism.
Unfortunately, today, Brazil isn’t exporting a single idea. But when we have a legitimate
government once again, Brazil will work on these things and on South–South
JF: The human rights and humanitarian movements have often been seen as vectors of
Western influence – expressions of soft power – not only because of their practices
but also because of the cultural origins of their ideals…
CA: … Which is not necessarily a bad thing. I was Brazilian representative
to the UN in Geneva twice. Although I gave most attention to trade negotiations, I was very
involved with the UN Commission on Human Rights. I used to say that La Rochefoucauld’s
famous phrase should be inscribed on the door: ‘Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to
virtue.’ And, sure, there was a lot of hypocrisy, but we could use the commission
positively. We went in knowing what lay behind the ‘lofty ideals’, but we decided
to work for them nonetheless.
JF: But there seems to have been a tension between the two main agendas through
which the Lula government projected Brazilian power: on the one hand, the diffusion of power in
the international system, the construction of a more democratic global order; and, on the other,
the promotion of an ethical order associated explicitly with human rights, which included the
fight against hunger – the product of a policy of ‘non-indifference’, to use
CA: Sure, there was. And I was often criticised. But in fact many of the critiques
came from outside Brazil and were to do with the way we approached human rights – to do
with our good relations with Iran, for example. There was a tension, but I don’t think
there was an ontological contradiction. I think it is possible to work for a more democratic
order – diffusing power, creating a more stable balance of power – while
strengthening and democratising certain value systems. Doing so in a cooperative way, too. People
might say it was just Brazil trying to extend its power and join the [UN] Security Council. But,
in projecting soft power, I believe we were also promoting positive things: South–South
cooperation, for example. At the ILO, it was Brazil that really initiated South–South
cooperation, with Lula’s attendance. Today, it is China that does most South–South
cooperation. Even though China too has its own interests, this is a good thing. You don’t
rely just on one country.
It was precisely because of the approach we took, that we could talk with and influence
countries, that some looked down upon. With Iran, we didn’t interfere with its internal
affairs. After we negotiated the Tehran Declaration – which is discussed at length in my
recent book – we gained proximity to the Iranian government. Then in mid 2010, the case of
Sakineh [Mohammadi Ashtiani], who was going to be stoned for adultery, became worldwide news.
Lula suggested to the Iranian government that Brazil could offer Sakineh asylum. I then met with
Iranian President Ahmadinejad in New York at his request, during the [general debate of the UN]
General Assembly. The first thing he did was tell me what was being done about Sakineh’s
situation. He was extremely concerned about Brazil’s opinion on the matter.
So, often what matters is how you deal with threats to human rights, what type of action you
take, what is your method. In other words, whether you do things through threats and punishment
or through cooperation.
JF: You’ve often referred to a ‘dialectic’ between national
interest and solidarity. The innovation of Brazilian foreign policy during Lula’s
Workers’ Party government is perhaps most notable in the practice of balancing these
motivations. Nonetheless, other governments had previously promoted the idea of compatibility
between interests and values, most notably the New Labour government in Britain, with its
‘ethical foreign policy’, articulated by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. What
differentiated the Workers’ Party approach from the New Labour approach?
CA: I am sure it is easier for someone on the outside to judge that than for me to
do so. But why did I often talk about ‘non-indifference’? It wasn’t a
qualification. It was a complement to ‘non-intervention’. In other words, where are
the limits? I never thought to ‘bomb them into democracy’, first of all because we
didn’t have the bombs. But I certainly wasn’t in favour of that idea, in any case.
Nor was I in favour of imposing on other countries through economic power.
At the same time, we always sought to be guided in our politics by values. In our relations
with South American countries. When we were in Haiti. Was everything perfect? I don’t
know. Sometimes things don’t go exactly as you want.
I’ve often spoken about the role of generosity in foreign policy. It might sound
naïve but I don’t think it is. Generosity requires a capacity to think about your
interests in the long term. Generosity in foreign policy doesn’t mean doing everything
that other countries want but it means addressing just demands. For example, we had tough
negotiations with Bolivia and with Paraguay, which were fiercely criticised in Brazil. But the
demands of both governments seemed just. I mean, if I was in their position, I would have made
the same demands. They were just from their perspective and tolerable from ours. In the case of
Bolivia [following the nationalisation of the country’s gas reserves], we were flexible
and this helped us maintain good relations. In the end, [the Brazilian oil and gas company]
Petrobras remained in Bolivia, despite its initial complaints. In the case of Paraguay, to
maintain peaceful relations we made concessions in relation to payment for electricity from the
So it isn’t about being nice. It is about seeing where there is mutual interest in the
long run. And if something is good for South America in general, it will be good for us.
JF: [Brazilian musician and writer] Chico [Buarque] said of Lula that he
‘speaks neither fawningly with Washington, nor discourteously with Bolivia and
CA: Chico summed things up marvellously, in a way that everyone could understand.
But if we think in strategic terms, this approach is in our interests. It is in our interests
that we maintain pacific relations. Sure, there are limits. If we had done everything that
Paraguay wanted… we accepted about a four-fold increase in the price of electricity; they
wanted a ten-fold increase! That would have created a real problem for Brazil.
JF: You mentioned Haiti. In 2004, Brazil took on military leadership of MINUSTAH
[the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti]. What strategic importance did you give to this? And how
do you respond to criticisms? There have been reports of rape and violence committed by MINUSTAH
soldiers, for example. Didn’t Brazil end up acting like any other regional hegemon,
projecting power in its sphere of influence through the use of force and justifying this with
expressions of humanitarian concern?
CA: I’d say that, clearly, it was a moment of affirmation of Brazilian
power – a moment to show that Brazil was prepared to use certain types of force. But,
first of all, it is necessary to remember that the mission in Haiti was not a Brazilian
initiative. It wasn’t just an operation authorised by the UN; it was an operation
of the UN. It was blue helmets who were there – different from Iraq or
interventions of that nature.
Much of the criticism has come from the Brazilian Left. I think the more structural critique,
about whether it was right to be there, is debatable. Firstly, [Haitian President Jean-Bertrand]
Aristide was practising violence, supporting militias. Secondly, the country was heading for
chaos, possibly military rule again. The UN operation re-established a certain order. We were
reluctant to participate in the operation at first, precisely because it involved military
action. But once the UN was already there, we agreed to participate in the re-establishment of
order, as part of a democratic project.
There was a crucial moment, when [René] Préval was elected. He wasn’t
viewed entirely favourably by the US. They might have bet against him, which would have led to
chaos. Brazil had no prejudice against Préval and nothing to gain from him either. When
this moment arrived, after speaking with Lula and [Chilean President Ricardo] Lagos –
because Chile had troops in Haiti and the civilian head of MINUSTAH was Chilean, so it was
important that we were aligned – I said to Condoleezza Rice: ‘Brazilian troops
won’t shoot at civilians.’ People were on the streets and there was a lot of
tension, but the Americans wanted a second round. Despite electoral fraud affecting him
negatively, Préval was on 48.5 per cent, the second-placed candidate on 10 or 11 per cent.
Rice said to me, ‘Let’s have a second round and he will win.’ But we
weren’t in Switzerland. Things weren’t so simple. People were already protesting,
breaking hotels. The Americans became scared and the electoral council made a pronouncement,
bringing Préval to power.
The way his successor came to power wasn’t positive. But, by then, Lula’s
government had come to an end, I was no longer foreign minister and, under [Brazilian President
Dilma] Rousseff, there were other priorities: problems with Mercosur, etc. I am not trying to
excuse myself. I think Brazil should have been more present in Haiti at this moment. It was after
the earthquake [of January 2011]. The US played a bigger role, particularly through the Clinton
Foundation. Bill Clinton was like a viceroy. Imagine! He was the husband of the US Secretary of
State, he was a former president and he had been named as the UN Secretary-General’s
special envoy to Haiti. He had immense power. This reduced the role of Brazil somewhat, too.
I think we did the right thing in Haiti overall. It isn’t possible to resolve
Haiti’s problems right now. I was appointed by the OAS [Organisation of American States,]
as the head of the election-observer mission for Haiti . I spoke with one of the
candidates, a radical, who was against MINUSTAH. There was a lot of violence at the time. I asked
him, ‘But what do you want? Do you want MINUSTAH to leave?’ He said, ‘No,
not now.’ The alternative was that militias took control.
The elections happened. The deeper problems of Haiti continue. It is difficult to say how
successful we were there. It certainly wasn’t a total success. But we sought to give our
presence a more humanitarian character, for it not to be exclusively military. Some people even
spoke of it as a different type of peace operation. But, sure, it wasn’t perfect. There
were errors, too.
JF: A last question. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, Brazil
became a protagonist in multilateral negotiations, pushing for changes at the WTO, reform of the
UN Security Council. It was instrumental in the formation of new negotiating blocs: the G20, G3,
G4, the BRICS. It didn’t just take positions on matters of peace and security, cooperation
and human rights: it also proposed changes to international norms and architecture. You mentioned
the Universal Periodic Review; later on, it proposed the ‘Responsibility while
Protecting’. It was a driving force in the movements to strengthen South–South
cooperation and South American integration. Brazil’s influence seemed to be on an upward
trajectory. Western commentators, including liberal conservatives, sang Brazil’s praises.
In 2009, Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf referred to you as the
‘world’s best foreign minister’. In 2010, Fareed Zakaria wrote in
The Washington Post: ‘Today [Brazil] is a stable democracy with
impressive fiscal management, a roaring economy and a wildly popular president. Its foreign
policy reflects this confidence and a desire to break free of its older constraints.’ Now,
less than a decade later, weeks before a general election, Brazilian democracy is not at all
stable, the country is experiencing one of its worst ever economic crises, the current presidency
has a 3 per cent approval rating and there isn’t a foreign policy to speak of.
How does Brazil fit into this new ‘global disorder’? Confusion in the inter-state
system arguably creates opportunities, especially for Southern states. What role might Brazil
play in defining whatever global order is to come next?
CA: Right now, Brazil is very badly placed. But I think this moment will pass. I
am confident of this. I used to say this during the military dictatorship: ‘I am a
pessimist in the short-term and an optimist in the long-term.’ This phrase is, today,
relevant to the way I think about Brazil. The question is how far away is long-term, thinking in
existential terms for each one of us. But from a geopolitical perspective, I would say that
Brazil does have… I don’t speak of destiny… but Brazil does have the
conditions to make a positive contribution to the world. It is a big country, with a big economy,
a big population and abundant natural resources. It is half of the South American continent and
it has borders with almost all South American countries. It has a historical relationship with
Africa, which was more recently recovered. Brazil is well received in Africa. The [late Kenyan]
professor Calestous Juma once said that ‘For every African problem, there is a Brazilian
solution.’ This is of course an exaggeration, but Brazil is generally well received in
So we have potential to make a positive contribution – more than many other countries.
We don’t face any serious external threats. India, for example, has an ongoing conflict
with Pakistan, and it has had confrontations with China. South Africa doesn’t have the
size, nor is it well located geographically.
There is going to be a seminar on democracy in the coming weeks, motivated by Lula’s
situation. The seminar was the suggestion of Dominique de Villepin, who was French foreign
minister and prime minister during the government of [President Jacques] Chirac. Villepin is a
republican in the French sense, a democrat, but he isn’t a man of the Left. He recently
said to me, ‘The world misses Brazil,’ because Brazil was bringing a soft power
that isn’t only for its own benefit. As soon as we put our house in order… sure, it
is clear that we need to stop cutting down the Amazon, stop killing indigenous people, which
still happens, even if less than twenty years ago… but if we put our house in order,
relatively, in social terms primarily, we have conditions to do great things. We don’t
have atomic weapons, but we have technological capacity that allows for global projection. But of
course we need a legitimate government – and, sure, for me, the ideal thing would be for
Lula to be voted in as president again. If directed well, Brazil has huge potential. We need to
shake off our inferiority complex. Even under military rule, with that problematic way of seeing
things, we had good foreign ministers: [Antonio Francisco Azeredo da] Silveira, during the
government of [General Ernesto] Geisel, was probably the most notable.
We need to lose that tendency to put ourselves down. When people criticise me, saying Brazil
was trying to do more than it could actually do, I tell them, ‘Much of the time, it
wasn’t Brazil offering to do things. We were called upon by other countries.’
I’m not a megalomaniac, but there are plenty of ‘nanomaniacs’ out there.
Brazil was called to Annapolis [for the Middle East peace conference, in 2007]; it didn’t
invite itself. Brazil was called upon by Iran and by Obama [to negotiate a nuclear deal]; Obama
then changed his mind, but it was him who asked us originally. We participated in the creation of
the BRICS. Why did Chirac and then [his successor, Nicolas] Sarkozy always want to associate
themselves with Brazil, whether on issues of climate change or other issues?
We can do important things. Each period of history has its specific characteristics, its
advantages and disadvantages. We also shouldn’t be under any illusions that Brazil can
impose a new global order, not least because it will never be a dominant power. We don’t
have the conditions to dominate others politically and economically. And this perhaps allows for
a more egalitarian vision of the world.
Celso Amorim was Brazil’s foreign minister from 1993 to 1994 and 2003 to 2010. An
English translation of his most recent book was published in 2017: Acting Globally:
Memoirs of Brazil’s Assertive Foreign Policy (Lanham, MD: Rowman &
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