Last week, news emerged that Brazil’s President Temer would stay away from the upcoming G20 summit, due to take place in Hamburg from July 7-8. The decision can be attributed to two factors. First of all, the political situation in Brasília has reached a degree of instability that traveling for several days poses a risk to the president, who is engaged in a complex battle for political survival that involves public prosecutors, Congress and the Supreme Court. Secondly, Temer’s recent trip to Moscow and Oslo, the first in five months, was largely regarded as a disaster after Norway, the largest environmental donor to Brazil, openly criticized Brasília’s failure to avoid accelerated deforestation, threatening a sharp reduction of financial support. Surprisingly, despite known to be a seasoned political operator, Temer also committed a series of gaffes that consolidated the perception in Brazil that the president has become an international embarrassment.
Temer’s move to cancel the trip to Germany could hardly be richer in symbolism. After all, it was during the first two presidential G20 summits in 2009, in London and Pittsburgh, that Brazil reached the height of its global visibility, seemingly consolidating itself as a diplomatic powerhouse. This was far more than mere rhetoric: together with the United States and China, Brazil was one of the top three contributors to global growth during the first ten years of the 21st century. In the same year, the first presidential summit of the BRICS countries took place in Yekaterinburg, transforming the landscape of global governance. Merely eight years later, Brazil is in the midst of the longest economic crisis of its history, and recent data suggest the country may fall back into recession later this year.
While the president’s decision to stay home may make sense from a personal short-term perspective, it is a deeply worrisome sign with negative consequences for both Brazil and the international community. Months ago, the government accepted the fact that Temer would most probably fail to shake off its dismal single-digit approval rating until the end. Yet there is now a real possibility that the Temer presidency will, until late 2018, be shaped by chronic domestic instability and an international retreat that would dwarf Rousseff’s lacklustre foreign policy. That would be an unmitigated disaster for Brazil’s national interest, as it depends, far more than other large countries, on an open, rules-based international order (actors like Russia, by contrast, can occasionally revert to the use of hard power). Precisely that rules-based order is now facing an unprecedented threat, as Donald Trump has begun to actively undermine the pillars of the international system. The upcoming G20 summit will be one of the major venues as the world adapts to a far less reliable US government. As the New York Times’s Melissa Eddy writes,
(…) divisions are likely to be full display during the Group of 20 summit (…), where Ms. Merkel will welcome not only Mr. Trump but also President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and other leaders from industrialized and emerging nations. Global trade, as well as measures to halt climate change, migration, terrorism and international pandemics are all on the agenda. For [Merkel], however, the most important single message of the gathering is ensuring multilateral cooperation through international institutions. Those include the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, both of which will are taking part in the meeting.
Even those who question the G20’s relevance (its biggest achievement is addressing the financial crisis of 2008, but since its summits often failed to produce tangible outcomes) will agree that the meetings on the sidelines are crucial. In Hamburg, President Trump and President Putin will meet for the first time. It will be the first time President Emmanuel Macron will engage with the international community. As the CFR’s backgrounder on the G20 points out, the nations of the G20 account for around 80 percent of global GDP, nearly 75 percent of all global trade, and about two-thirds of the world’s population. This makes it one of the year’s most important agenda-setting exercises, where the global strategy on challenges such as climate change, migration, terrorism, financial instability and global health are discussed. One of the most remarkable new trends in these areas, for example, is the emerging “Green Alliance” between the European Union and China to take the lead in the global fight against climate change. Not being present during these crucial debates temporarily excludes Brazil from decision-making processes that will shape global affairs in the coming years. The absence of Brazil, a country of crucial importance to several of the issues that will be discussed above, also removes an actor who has, since the turn of the century, played a highly constructive role in debates about issues ranging from peacekeeping, sustainable development and inequality, and the reform of global governance structures.
Skipping the presidential G20 summit is not a trivial omission, and sends a strong message to leaders that Brazil is unable to actively participate in the big debates about global challenges at this point. The leaders of Russia, India, China and South Africa will meet in Hamburg to prepare for the upcoming meeting in September. No President has ever missed a BRICS Summit. In 2010, China’s President Hu Jintao decided to participate in the 2nd BRICS Summit in Brasília despite a massive earthquake in the country, underlining his commitment to the emerging grouping at the time. President Temer should keep this episode in mind as the 9th BRICS Summit in Xiamen approaches.