Rubens Ricupero, currently Director of the Armando Álvares Penteado Foundation (FAAP) in São Paulo, Brazil, was Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Geneva between 1995 and 2004. Previously, he was Brazil’s Minister of Finance (1994) and oversaw the preparation and introduction of the new currency, the real. From 1993-94 Ricupero was Brazil’s Minister for the Environment and the Amazon. From 1987 to 1991 he was Brazil’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva and to GATT, where he held the posts of Chairman of the GATT Council of Representatives (1990), Chairman of the Parties to the GATT (1991) and Coordinator and Spokesman for the informal Group of developing countries. He was also Secretary for Inter-American Affairs in the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, Ambassador to the United States of America (1991-1993) and Ambassador to Italy (1995). Rubens Ricupero has taught International Relationship Theory at the University of Brasilia and History of Brazilian Diplomatic Relations at the Rio Branco Institute, the Brazilian Diplomatic Academy. He has published several books and articles on the history of Brazilian diplomacy, international trade, development issues, and international relations. His latest book is Diplomacy in the construction of Brazil 1750-2016 (in Portuguese), a comprehensive history of Brazil’s international relations.
Where do you see the most exciting research / debate in your field?
The most important topic for research / debate in the field of international relations is undoubtedly China’s rise and its current and potential impact on the world. No other international development offers comparable potential for shaping the future international system. It is the first time in our historical experience that a non-Western country with a culture completely different from Western tradition is about to become the largest economy, with the potential of being the most powerful nation in advanced technology and in the strategic-military field too. What will an international system look like in which China could be the dominant actor? What values or changes might result from Beijing’s primacy? These are the crucial issues that will dominate the research / debate in international relations for a long time to come.
How has the way you understand the world changed over time and what (or who) has triggered the most important changes in your thinking?
I was born in March 1937, just two and a half years before the outbreak of World War II. During my lifetime I witnessed the emergence of the post-war world, the founding of the United Nations, the Cold War, the decolonization in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, the regional wars in Asia, Africa and the rise of communist China, the birth of the European Union and its expansion, the creation and growth of Israel, the growing conflict in the Middle East, the unexpected end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the unipolar moment of the US, the threat of radical Islamic terrorism , the invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Brexit, Trump’s election, and finally the current deterioration in relations between China and the US, are just a few of the momentous events of this period.
Of all these developments, my direct experience of working at the United Nations as Secretary General of UNCTAD for nine years and my commitment to the environment were the two personal experiences that have made the deepest and most lasting impression in my life and in my life . If I had to define my position on the challenges of our time, I would answer that I firmly believe that the United Nations is our best hope for keeping the peace and advancing along the four major axes for betterment to promote the moral conscience of mankind: human rights, the environment and sustainability, equality between women and men and the promotion of “all men and the man as a whole everywhere”.
Your book analyzes the structure of Brazilian diplomacy between 1750 and 2016. What were the most important changes and influences on the behavior of Brazilian diplomacy? How have they shaped Brazilian diplomacy today?
Since independence, the decisive events that have shaped Brazilian foreign policy have been its involvement in the international conflicts in the Plata region that led to the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870), the more than nine years of the Baron of Rio Branco’s existence as Minister of the Foreign relations of the First Republic (1902-1912), Brazil’s participation in World War II (1942-1945), the short years of so-called independent foreign policy (1961-1964) and the search for a more assertive role in international affairs of the New Republic (1985- 2018). While the Plata conflicts in colonial times were a legacy of the Portuguese-Spanish antagonism, the other moments of change represented real advances in the gradual evolution of Brazil’s foreign policy as a constructive force serving a more peaceful and balanced international system.
During the Cold War, Brazil pursued an independent foreign policy. What impact has this had on Brazilian diplomacy?
In fact, from 1948 to 1961, Brazil was generally closely associated with the US and the West on Cold War issues: Brazil severed diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, supported the American side in multilateral and inter-American forums, and refused to recognize the Republic of China and did not support liberation movements in Asia and Africa. Only with President Jânio Quadros and his independent foreign policy (1961) did Brazilian foreign policy distance itself from viewing international events through the ideological prism of the Cold War. This independent line was violently broken by the military coup (1964), but after a few years its spirit reappeared in the pragmatic diplomacy of President Geisel and his Foreign Minister Azeredo da Silveira. Since then it has become the basis of the various foreign policies that all governments pursued after re-democratization until it was abandoned by the Bolsonaro administration.
The essence of Brazil’s independent orientation in international affairs was its refusal to analyze the outside world in ideological terms. As a result, decisions in this area should be made solely on the basis of Brazilian values and national interests, with no pressure to take sides in conflicts unrelated to Brazilian objectives. It could be summed up as a constant search for autonomy in external affairs through integration and active participation in multilateral and bilateral initiatives.
How do you assess the international and national environmental agenda today? How does it differ from your time in the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment in the 1990s?
I was Brazil’s first Minister for the Environment and the Amazon (1993/1994). As a result, I first had to deal with the creation and approval of the administrative structure of the new ministry in Congress on the basis of the former Secretariat Nacional de Meio Ambiente (SEMA) and the IBAMA. Due to the central importance of the Amazon region, we have set up a National Council for the Amazon, chaired by the President, to coordinate the work of numerous federal authorities active in the region and to define and adopt a long-term strategy for sustainable development in the Amazon region. For both Brazil and the world, what has changed over the past 26 years is not so much the issues on the environmental agenda as the level of awareness of government and civil society, including the corporate sector and large corporations, of these issues. Until recently, there has been steady, if insufficient, progress in the commitment to resolutely addressing the existential threat of global warming. Unfortunately, the election of Trump in the US and Bolsonaro in Brazil was a serious worsening of environmental challenges in both countries.
Much of your diplomatic work has been focused on economic development. What are the main economic challenges developing countries are likely to face over the next decade?
The most important lesson I have learned through years of development work is that development is primarily not just or primarily about economic issues. In reality, development in the deepest sense means learning how to deal with the increasing complexity of modern societies in all areas. Becoming evolved is not just about being richer, it is about knowing how to find solutions to the multitude of human problems in society today. In other words, development has to do with all aspects of social life. A fully developed country is better able to manage everything: schools, universities, museums, prisons, national parks, hospitals, research laboratories, farms, industries, banks, etc. It all depends on human resources, education, culture, science and technology from constant improvement of human knowledge.
You were finance minister when the 1994 Realplan was drawn up in Brazil to introduce the new currency. How do you assess the currency and the Brazilian economy now?
The Realplan enabled Brazil to finally grapple with several decades of chronically high inflation that threatened to spiral out of control and turn into hyperinflation. It gave the country a solid currency that could successfully withstand the test of time, changes in politics, and even the deterioration of other fundamental elements of the economy. Despite episodes of fiscal irresponsibility, inflation has remained relatively under control. In large part, this is because the Brazilian people have learned from the success of the real that there can be no tolerance for inflation. At the time I was Treasury Secretary, our overwhelming priority was addressing the two “cursed aftermath” of the military regime: chronically high inflation and the external debt crisis. Both were successfully overcome. It is a pity that later, in the following administrations, the economic transformation brought about by the Realplan was unsuccessful in one decisive aspect: to carry out a similar transformation in the area of public accounts and expenditure and to change the tendency of governments at all levels to change permanently To behave irresponsibly in managing the budget and controlling spending. The budgetary deterioration caused by growing budget deficits and rising public debt is now threatening to wipe out many of the currency stabilization conquests. If this is not reversed, the deterioration in public finances can lead to an extremely dangerous economic and social crisis.
In August 2019, the Bolsonaro government received international pressure and criticism on deforestation in the Amazon. Do you think this criticism is justified?
Not only in August 2019, but almost continuously since the beginning of the Bolsonaro government, the official omission and encouragement regarding deforestation and fires in the Amazon, Pantanal and other biomasses has been condemned internally and externally almost continuously. The criticism arose initially in Brazil through the surveillance and criticism of the relevant informal group of former Brazilian environment ministers and spread to other areas of civil society, including large financial and commercial companies. The policy of the current government is a major, possibly irreversible, step backward in environmental policy. Public institutions and policies that have barely been conquered in more than three decades of successive administrations, including the military regime, are now being systematically dismantled. The result was an explosion of fire and destruction in the Amazon and Pantanal that has reached levels not seen since 2004. The annual rate of deforestation had fallen from more than 27,000 square kilometers in 2004 to 4,000 to 6,000 between 2012 and 2016. The current government deforestation in the Amazon is again at 10,000 square kilometers per year and continues to increase. Criticism, both in Brazil and abroad, will therefore increase as long as we do not see concrete results in reducing the destruction rate.
One of the priorities of the Bolsonaro administration is to strengthen relations with the United States while taking a confrontational approach to relations with China. Do you think this approach is in the national interest?
Certainly not. Brazil’s national interest is to maintain the best possible relations with both the US and China. Our country is far from the geographic hot spots of Sino-US geopolitical rivalry in East Asia and the Middle East. We do not have international security or defense problems in the sense that we need the protection of a superpower from threats from other powers, as is the case in South Korea and Japan. As a result, there is no reason for Brazil to take sides and choose one superpower against the other. On the contrary, it is our national interest to work with countries in a similar situation to defuse international tensions and to play a constructive role in avoiding an unnecessary and divisive new Cold War. In addition to these political reasons, it would make no sense for Brazil from a trade and investment perspective to counteract its main trading partner and potential source of investment in the much-needed infrastructure sector. Taking the example of the first half of 2020, for every US dollar Brazil exported to the US, Brazil exported US $ 3.4 to China. While our country ran a trade deficit of $ 3.1 billion with the United States, it has a trade surplus of $ 17.65 billion with China.
What is the most important advice you can give to young international relations scholars?
In the future, our ability to self-actualize, lead a productive and happy life, overcome current threats, and even survive ourselves will increasingly depend on understanding and coping with the challenges of global governance. Problems such as global warming, increasing inequality within and between nations, dwindling jobs being replaced by robots, and nuclear rivalry between powers can only be solved by strengthening an international rules-based system and a consensual decision-making process. The greatest danger is that the current gradual erosion of international norms and institutions through unilateral violations of international law and the United Nations Charter by nationalist and self-centered autocrats will continue. The duty of young scholars in the field of international relations is to contribute to the infinite construction of a more democratic and effective multilateral system to meet the growing complex challenges posed by the first true global civilization in human history.
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