As of today, David Rothkopf’s blog will be replaced by a weekly column. For the next few weeks, his column will also appear in this space.
While America's halting path toward accepting the world's new multipolar reality involves a step backward for every step forward, an exceptionalist violation of sovereignty for every bit of teamwork in places like Libya, other countries are actively working to establish new rules for all nations to follow in the new era.
Among those at the forefront of this effort are Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her highly regarded foreign minister, Antonio Patriota. He was in New York last week to advance this effort at the United Nations, and we sat down for lunch together.
The challenge facing Rousseff and Patriota as public servants is a daunting one. Each follows in the footsteps of a formidable predecessor. Admittedly, Rousseff's challenge is much greater and indeed, to many, seems almost insurmountable. She succeeds two presidents who were arguably the most important in her country's modern history, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who is credited with stabilizing the country's economy after years of volatility, and her immediate predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, not only her mentor but one of a tiny handful of the world's most important leaders of the past decade. But Patriota's predecessor, Celso Amorim, was also formidable, extremely influential, and a fixture on the Brazilian and international scenes. The bar was set high for her entire administration.
Nonetheless, after over a year in office, despite facing great domestic and international challenges, Rousseff has already earned a higher popularity rating than did Lula at a similar point in his tenure. And Patriota is quietly and, in the eyes of close observers, with great deftness, building on Amorim's groundbreaking work to establish Brazil as a leader among the world's major powers.
"We have a great advantage," notes Patriota. "We have no real enemies, no battles on our borders, no great historical or contemporary rivals among the ranks of the other important powers … and long-standing ties with many of the world's emerging and developed nations." This is a status enjoyed by none of the other BRICs -- China, India, and Russia -- nor, for that matter, by any of the world's traditional major powers.
This unusual position is strengthened further by the fact that Brazil is not investing as heavily as other rising powers in military capabilities. Indeed, as Tom Shannon, the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, has noted, the country is one of the few to effectively stake its future on the wise application of soft power -- diplomacy, economic leverage, common interests. It's surely no coincidence that, in areas from climate change to trade, from nonproliferation to development, Brazil under Lula and Amorim and under Rousseff and Patriota has been gaining strength by translating steady growth at home and active diplomacy abroad into effective international networks.
But Rousseff's administration is also breaking with the past. Whereas Cardoso and Lula achieved greatness by addressing and solving some of the most bedeviling problems of Brazil's past, from stabilizing the economy to addressing social inequality, Rousseff, while still cognizant of the work that remains to be done, has also turned her attention to creating opportunities and a clear path forward for Brazil's future. From her focus on education to her commitment to science and technology through innovative programs like "Science Without Borders," she is doing something that no Latin American leader has done before but that has been a proven formula in Asia. She is committed to moving Brazil from being a resource-based and thus dependent (which is to say vulnerable) economy to one that counts more for future growth on value-added industries, research and development, and educating more scientists and engineers.
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In an event that will undoubtedly be as interesting to mental health professionals as it is to foreign policy wonks, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has flown directly from his Tehran cuckoo's nest to the padded cell of his partner in derangement, Hugo Chavez, for the 2012 Summit of the Nonaligned and Vaguely Unhinged. Despite Chavez' increasing irrelevance this was an act of considerable courage on Mahmoud's part both because you never know what's going to happen when you're dealing with El Loco but also because whenever a despot leaves a country as screwed up as Iran is at the moment, he can't be sure he's going to have a job when he gets back.
At the moment, given the parlous state of the Iranian economy, the likelihood of its further decline later this year, the upcoming parliamentary elections in March that could be another trigger for restiveness in that country, the increasing global pressure of every type regarding Iran's rogue nuclear program, and Ahmadinejad's profusion of enemies among Tehran's empowered classes, he can't be too comfortable, even when he is at home. The statement over the weekend by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that America simply will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons and our tough response to Iran's saber rattling in the Gulf of Hormuz can't make things any easier.
So, what's a would-be world leader -- who is increasingly isolated -- to do? Well, turn to someone who understands his problems. Other than Kim Jong-un and Ron Paul, there are few people on the world stage who understand better than Chavez the plight of being seen as a member of the lunatic fringe of the global elite. (Sorry, Ron, you're a member of the global elite whether your tin-foil hat wearing contingent of conspiracy theorist supporters are willing to accept it or not.) Indeed, like Chavez and Kim, Ahmadinejad's claim on world attention is based as much or more on his potential for irrationality as it is on any particular resource or capability of the country he represents. Oh sure, Iran and Venezuela have oil, and North Korea and perhaps soon Iran may have nukes. But the point is these are otherwise marginal countries with the capability of being little more than regional trouble makers, who have tried like recalcitrant sixth graders to get more attention than they deserve through acting up.
The only difference between Ahmadinejad -- whose Venezuela stop is the first on a trip through Latin America in search of Sofia Vergara, er, that famous Latin warmth and hospitality -- and Chavez and Kim is that if anything, his grip on power is more tenuous. Which is saying something, given that Chavez is battling cancer and faces what may be his first real electoral challenge in years, and Kim is an untested newcomer, the neophyte Pillsbury doughboy of rogue nations. Come to think of it, the one thing that all three of these guys have in common is that all three must worry that the day may soon come when their grip on power is actually weaker than their grasp of reality.
For the rest of us, we can only hope that day comes soon.
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Recently, there have been perturbations in the wonkosphere. While the trembles are so slight that they wouldn't show up on the Richter Scale of a real human being, they have generated blog headlines and conversations at conferences full of people with advanced degrees and too much time on their hands. The stir has been caused by the assertion that we now live in something that big idea branding experts are trying to characterize as a "G-Zero" world.
In the words of one of the term's proponents, Ian Bremmer, the term refers to the assertion that we now live in a world in which "no country or bloc of countries has the political and economic leverage to drive an international agenda." Bremmer, and another supporter of the idea, NYU's Nouriel Roubini, have been explaining the notion and have done so compellingly enough that after it came up at this year's World Economic Forum gabfest in the Swiss Alps, the New York Times called it the event's "buzziest buzzword."
Buzz words are important in the wonkosphere because people are very busy going from conference to conference, periodically stopping to Tweet about who they bumped into and how they influenced them, and they have very little time to really think about anything. So if you can take an idea, reduce it to a couple of key, easily digestible, tasty ingredients, and wrap into a piece of shiny gold foil you have ... a Reese's Pieces Mini. Well, actually, you have something just like it, but not quite as tasty; you have a candidate for buzz-term of the moment.
Sometimes, it must be said, that even the fizziest of the buzziest actually contain a core idea of real value. Take a stroll down foreign policy nerd memory lane and savor past hits like "illiberal democracy" or "the world is flat" or "clash of civilizations" or "the end of history." Agree with the core notion of the idea or not (the delicious peanut butter center), you have to admit these ideas performed a useful purpose, captured a zeitgeist, and got the conversation going. Some, like "the end of history," were both widely misunderstood and, when understood correctly, wrong. But it was a compelling idea thoughtfully arrived at.
This G-Zero thing, not so much. The idea, of course, plays on all the discussion that has swirled around recent international summits as the attendance lists changed and the labels were altered accordingly. We went from the G-8 to the G-20 and then, keen observers, eager to build their own bit of buzz in the pundit-hive, pondered whether we weren't really seeing a case of a G-18 wrapped around a G-2 (the United States and China.) The Chinese didn't much like this and wished pundits would leave their g-darned labels off of them.
Bremmer and Roubini and company make the case that the United States and the Europeans and the Japanese are too deeply under economic water, and the emerging powers like China and India are too busy developing all the time for anybody to be able to step up and drive the international agenda. And while I know and like Ian and think both he and Roubini are smart guys, this is as an idea that looks like what it is: not much built around a big zero.
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While the attention of the media is largely devoted to looming storm clouds over the Middle East, it may well be that the next tempest to shake the world may in fact be expected in your teapot. Not to mention your shopping cart. And your gas tank.
In fact, while the uprisings in the Middle East may well be harbingers of historic change in the region, they are also a direct result of another set of factors that could conceivable eclipse them as the big story of the year for 2011: rising global commodity prices. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan among the most notable complaints of protestors has been the skyrocketing food prices.
As noted here, that fact is part of a vicious circle that is worrying markets. Bad global grain crops last year produce unrest in the Middle East this year. That in turn pushes up energy prices due to concerns about disruptions in energy flows. That in turn pushes up food prices further as something like 30 or 40 percent of the cost of most food products is related to energy costs associated with processing, packaging, and transportation.
But that's not the whole story. Look at the headlines coming out of China this week about a spreading and significant drought that is likely to further negatively impact food supplies and push up prices. Look at the other headlines about Chinese and Brazilian concerns about inflation. Or the headlines from today (and many recent days) about how inflation worries are depressing stock prices.
In fact, among the very few people who are not that worried about inflation is U.S. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke who, testified Wednesday, said that while it may be a problem for the emerging world, "inflation is expected to persist (in the United States) below the level Federal Reserve policymakers" feel they have to worry about it. Of course, just because he doesn't worry about inflation here in the United States, doesn't mean Americans aren't going to feel the pinch if food and fuel prices go up. In a rough economic environment like this one for many Americans that squeeze will be particularly acute ... and included in that group are the politicians who will hear the howls of their constituents if prices get above the level average people feel is fair to them. Furthermore, if inflation in places like China, Brazil, or elsewhere in the emerging world causes them to tighten their monetary policies or it negatively impacts real growth, there could be meaningful negative knock-on consequences for the United States.
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While we Americans contribute to global warming with overheated rhetoric (and little else) about 21st century competitiveness, our enemies around the world are employing a different strategy. Being sensible arch-villains, they know that the future is uncertain. (Just what exactly are all those green jobs anyway? And weren't we all supposed to have flying cars by now?)
So, they have concluded, "Why fool around with tomorrow when yesterday is a sure thing?"
That is the only way to explain the most recent move by Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Daniel Ortega -- yesterday's men, each and every one of them -- that proclaims loudly that those who repeat the past may not be doomed to be forgotten.
According to a story in Ha'aretz, Venezuela, Iran, and Nicaragua are quietly hatching a plan to build a competitor to the Panama Canal along an alternative route that was considered and dismissed roughly a century ago -- back when canals were the "plastics" of their era.
Given the megalomania of this trio, one can only imagine that they will soon join with like-minded maniacs elsewhere on the planet to boldly go where everyone has been before.
Among their likely next initiatives:
Fortunately, we have little to worry about. Because we are protected against the plans of this Axis of Nostalgia by our own advanced defenses and worldview, which, although firmly rooted in the last century, still place us decades and in some cases millennia ahead of our potential opponents.
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If one of the secrets to success in any job is choosing the right predecessor, then Dilma Rousseff may be starting out with one strike against her.
Her current boss and political champion Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva could well be the toughest act to follow anywhere in the world. Despite the efforts of some commentators to take him down a notch or two (much like young guns in the old American west who used to try to boost their reputations by going after the fastest gun in town), Brazil's charismatic president has done a remarkable job. Confounding -- and consigning to the trash heap of history -- old distinctions between left and right, Lula has overseen an economic boom, major social reforms and the elevation of Brazil's standing to the top ranks of nations in the world. (See the excellent story in today's Latin Business Chronicle ... rapidly becoming required reading for anyone interested in Latin America ... summarizing Brazil's recent economic accomplishments. It's pretty dazzling stuff.)
The question is: What's a girl to do? Dilma, who almost certainly will become Brazil's first woman president -- despite a recent slight slip in the polls due to a scandal that doesn't in any way implicate; her one of those curiously timed dust ups that happen to come to light in the weeks before an election -- is going to inherit a country with very high expectations. Some critics expect that absent Lula's extraordinary gifts that she will falter. But read her story and you discover an exceptionally accomplished, tough as nails, politically canny, professional manager who will come to office much better prepared and equipped than some other leaders who have taken over major powers recently.
In fact, given that a centerpiece of her tenure will be the efforts to tap the enormous oil reserves off Brazil's shores -- thus making Brazil a major petropowerhouse -- her background as former energy minister is ideal. The fact that in that capacity she chaired Petrobras, the state's oil giant that recently completed a massive financing that made it the fourth most highly capitalized company in the world, gives her much more business understanding than many political leaders ... even if her views on the national responsibilities of that company make some market purists uncomfortable.
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We are not in Kansas anymore. More importantly, Kansas is not even where it once was.
Once upon a time and in the minds of most living Americans, Kansas was more than just a synonym or a metaphor for America's heartland, it was the actual geographic mid-point of the United States. You could debate whether the exact location deserving of this honor was closer to Lebanon or Grenola, but at the end of the day, all would agree that by virtue of the power and position of the United States, somewhere out there in the middle of nowhere was the center of the world.
No more. America may be the richest and most powerful nation on earth. But the world's economic center of gravity is shifting away from Kansas much more rapidly than anyone had any reason to expect it would even a decade or so ago. (I know this for a fact -- as a senior economic official in the Clinton Administration who helped put together and run the first U.S. inter-agency effort focused on the world's largest emerging markets, I remember how officials would smile patronizingly and roll their eyes, "Yes, China, India, Brazil, yes... important, but not in our lifetimes.")
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This may have been the best month for Brazil since about June 1494. That's when the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed granting Portugal everything in the new world east of an imaginary line that was declared to exist 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands. This ensured that what was to become Brazil would be Portuguese and thus develop a culture and identity very different from the rest of Spanish Latin America. This guaranteed the world would have samba, churrasco, "The Girl from Ipanema," and through some incredibly fortuitous if twisted chain of events, Gisele Bundchen.
While it took Brazil sometime to live up to the backhanded maxim that it was "the country of tomorrow and always would be," there is little doubt that tomorrow has arrived for the country even if much work remains to be done to overcome its serious social challenges and tap its extraordinary economic potential.
The evidence that something new and important was happening in Brazil began to build years ago, when then President Cardoso engineered a shift to economic orthodoxy that stabilized a country racked by cycles of boom and bust and mind-blowing inflation. It has gained momentum however, throughout the extraordinary term of the country's current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Some of that momentum is due to Lula's commitment to preserving the economic foundations laid by Cardoso, a courageous political move for a lifelong labor leader from the opposition Workers Party. Some of it is due to luck, a changing global energy paradigm that helped make Brazil's 30 years of investment in biofuels start to pay off in important new ways, massive discoveries of oil off Brazil's coast and growing demand from Asia that has enabled Brazil to become a world agricultural export leader and assume the role of "breadbasket of Asia." But much of it is due to great skill on the part of Brazil's leaders in seizing a moment that many of their predecessors likely would have fumbled.
Of those leaders, much of the credit goes to President Lula who has become a bit of a rock star on the international scene, harnessing energy, drive, charisma, uncanny intuition, and common sense so effectively that his lack of formal education has hardly been an impediment. Some goes to other members of his team, such as his chief of staff Dilma Rousseff, a former energy minister who has become a very tough chief of staff and a possible successor to Lula. But I believe a large amount of it ought to go to Celso Amorim, who has masterminded a transformation of Brazil's role in the world that is almost unprecedented in modern history. He has been Lula's foreign minister since 2003 (he also served in the same role in the 1990s) but I think there is a fair case to be made that he is currently the world's most successful foreign minister.
It is impossible to pinpoint just one turning point in Amorim's efforts to transform Brazil from a lumbering regional power of dubious international clout into one of the most important players on the world stage, acknowledged by global consensus to play an unprecedented leading role. It may have come when he played a central role helping to engineer a pushback by emerging countries against a business-as-usual power play by the U.S. and Europe during the Cancun trade talks in 2003. It might have been the canny way the Brazilians have used issues such as their biofuels leadership to forge new dialogues and influence either with the United States or with other emerging powers. It certainly involved his embrace of the idea of transforming the BRICs from acronym to important geopolitical collaboration, working with his counterparts in Russia, India and China to institutionalize the dialogue between the countries and to coordinate their messages. (Arguably the BRIC helped most by this alliance is Brazil. Russia, China and India all earn places at the table due to military capabilities, population size, economic clout or resources. Brazil has all these things...but less than the others.) It also involved countless other things from the Brazil's deepened and tightened ties with countries like China, it's promotion of both investment flows and a reputation for being comparatively secure in the face of global economic reversals, the comfort level America's new President has with his Brazilian counterpart -- even extending to encouraging them to play a role as a conduit to, for example, the Iranians. Agree or not with their every move in places like Honduras or in the OAS on Cuba, Brazil has also continued to play an important regional role even as it is clear its focus has shifted to the global stage.
Nothing illustrates how far Brazil has come or how effective the Lula-Amorim team has been than the events of the past few weeks. First, the countries of the world cashier the G8 and embrace the G20, guaranteeing Brazil a permanent place at the most important table in the world. Next, Brazil becomes the first country in South America to be awarded the right to host the Olympics. Yesterday's FT carried news that "Asia and Brazil lead rise in consumer confidence", a reflection on the reputation that the government has effectively sold (with the bulk of the credit going to a resurgent Brazilian private sector.) And this week's stories out of the IMF-World Bank meeting in Istanbul show a further institutionalization of Brazil's new role with agreement to change the structure of the International Monetary Fund. According to today's Washington Post: "The nations also preliminarily agreed to reshape the fund's voting structure, promising a blueprint for giving more clout to emerging giants like Brazil and China by January 2011."
Not a bad few days work. And while it's Brazil's Finance Ministry you'll find at IMF-World Bank Meetings, the undisputed architect of this remarkable transformation of Brazil's role in Amorim.
Much work remains to be done, of course. Part of it has to do with the new role that has been shaped. Brazil wants a permanent place on the U.N. Security Council and more of a leadership role in other international institutions. It may well earn these, but it will have to maintain its growth and stability to get there. Further, Brazil seems inclined to minimize regional threats such as those posed by Venezuela (Brazilians tend to look down their nose at their neighbors to the north almost as much as they do toward their Argentine friends to the south ... and thus they under-estimate the ability of men like Hugo Chavez to do too much damage.) And they have an election coming up that may change the cast of players and of course, that can alter the current trajectory in any number of ways -- good and bad.
But it is hard to think of another foreign minister who has so effectively orchestrated such a meaningful transformation of his country's international role. And that's why if I were asked today to cast a ballot, my vote for world's best foreign minister would likely go to Santos' native son, Celso Amorim.
One note on yesterday's post: I received a note late yesterday from a spokesperson for the British Embassy taking issue with my assertion that the British Ambassador had joked that he wasn't getting much attention from the Obama administration. The thrust of their point was that "the Embassy denies categorically that the Ambassador made these remarks, even in jest, and that in our view the relationship between the UK and USA remains as close as ever -- whatever the noises off by febrile commentators in the media." While I stand by my story, their email to me on this was so civil and well-argued that I felt it only fair to pass on their views. I would take the "febrile commentators" point personally, but I had a flu shot only yesterday so they can't possibly mean me.
AFP PHOTO/JUAN MABROMATA
David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.