When the leaders of 40 percent of the planet's population sit at the same table, the rest of the world pays attention. So it was this week, as heads of state from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, known collectively as the BRICS, convened in Brazil for their sixth and, by far, most productive summit meeting. In 48 hours, the emerging market leaders inaugurated a $50 billion development bank and a $100 billion panic fund for troubled debtors, and broke bread with 11 Latin American presidents. Waxing bullish, their host, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, proclaimed, "We are responsible for the mitigation of the financial crisis and the sustainable growth of the world economy since then."
Whether nations with disparate agendas, competing ambitions and plenty of homegrown problems can see eye to eye, and then convert bulk into clout, is an open question. Consider the chronically underachieving host country. Skeptics used to rib Jim O'Neill, the former Goldman Sachs chief economist who invented the concept in 2001, that he had included Brazil only to give the acronym better mouth feel. For years, Brazil was content to play diplomatic small ball, even in its own hemisphere. As late as 1982, no Brazilian head of state had ever set foot in Colombia, Peru or Venezuela, notes political scientist Matias Spektor. It was as if the Tordesillas line, the imaginary boundary drawn by Pope Alexander VI to divide the New World between Spain and Portugal, still existed.
Not until the 1990s did Brazil make its pivot to the Americas, starting Mercosur, the South American trade union, and fighting the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which it saw as a Yanqui conspiracy. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) escalated diplomacy, jetting abroad at a moment's notice, often straight into the arms of brutes and populist charmers. There were bearhugs for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Fidel Castro and Muammar Qaddafi, and campaign cameos for Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, a leader he called "democratic to a fault." He scolded industrial countries for bringing on financial meltdown after 2008 and volunteered to broker peace between the United Nations and nuclear scofflaw Iran. No agenda was too delicate and no regime too unsavory in Lula's play to brand Brazil and lobby for a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The world mostly demurred, however, and Lula’s successor Rousseff, a technocrat with little appetite for world affairs, abdicated the diplomatic initiative to bossy neighbors. On her watch, Paraguay was railroaded out of Mercosur, after its Congress impeached a floundering president with Chavista sympathies. Venezuela, which dismissed the pact as a capitalist cabal, was railroaded in.
Forsaking her own experience as a political prisoner tortured by Brazil’s military regime, Rousseff has sometimes put political correctness and expediency before human rights: Quick to censure Israel's abuses in the Palestinian occupied territories and the sins of Honduras’s right-wing government, her government abstained on UN votes to condemn state violence in Iran and Russia's Crimea takeover, and never has a harsh word for Cuba and Venezuela.
In April, with Venezuela's streets in turmoil, she dispatched foreign minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo to Caracas ostensibly to broker peace between the Chavista mobs and opposition protesters. The talks collapsed, and the streets continue to smolder. Early this year, when foreign ministers gathered at the Geneva II Conference over the civil war in Syria, Rousseff sent her No. 2 diplomat. Figueiredo was visiting a World Cup stadium.
Brazilian human-rights watchers find such selective moralism hardly befitting. But if Rousseff is troubled, it was hard to tell. With her power hair and talking points, she gave wonky speeches and lectured reporters, then posed for photos with the BRICS brass. You would never guess that this was the national leader who'd been nearly jeered out of the stadium at the World Cup opener, then made to endure the home team's disgrace and exit from the tournament she hosted.
A few days ago, Rousseff was a struggling incumbent, hemorrhaging in the polls three months before elections, and wondering if the protests over miserable public services that shook Brazil a year ago were about to make a post-cup return. In a land with problems as big as its ambitions, bread and circus don't last long. This week, at least, Rousseff looked poised and presidential, at ease in the company of fellow giants. Call it the 40 percent solution.
Mac Margolis is Brazil bureau chief for Vocativ.