By Jane Bussey
BRASILIA — Whether addressing the United Nations, accompanying Brazil’s president to world capitals or beset by journalists at contentious global trade talks, silver-haired Celso Amorim appears the consummate diplomat.
For nearly a decade, Amorim has been the leading architect behind a transformation of Brazilian foreign policy. He spearheaded Brazil’s transition from a regular but rarely splashy regional voice to one whose opinions are courted and counted on the world stage. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, with his winning political skills, has been the force that melded economic, political and diplomatic ascendance into global clout; Amorim has been his determined general on the front lines and an agile mediator behind the scenes.
When the leaders of the large economies meet, Brazil today commands a seat at the table, which is why the G8 has become the G20. Brasilia has worked to increase its authority in multilateral institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It has shored up bilateral relations with China and forged closer ties with many African nations.
Brazil holds sway in hemispheric politics, as seen when it led Latin America’s condemnation of the Honduran military expulsion of the president. It has ventured into controversy, as when it helped to broker a nuclear fuel swap between Iran and Turkey in an attempt to dissipate tensions over the nuclear standoff.
“There is a fair case to be made that [Amorim] is currently the world’s most successful foreign minister,” David J. Rothkopf wrote on his Foreign Policy blog last year. A visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., Rothkopf argued that Amorim, with Lula, masterminded a transformation that is “almost unprecedented in modern history.”
For all that Amorim has accomplished as a diplomat, his professional development was decidedly offbeat, with forays into filmmaking, journalism and academia. “There are many things that happened in my life that were not something I expected,” said Amorim, 68, as he sat at his desk in the Itamaraty Palace, Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, in an office filled with personal and family photographs.
Amorim opted out of the university track when he graduated from high school. He instead worked as assistant director on two films and as a newspaper reporter before taking the exam to join the Foreign Ministry, a government position that did not then require a college degree. Earning top honors in his class at the Foreign Ministry’s Rio Branco Institute in 1965, he was awarded a scholarship to a diplomatic academy in Austria. In London for his first official assignment in the late 1960s, he pursued a doctorate at the London School of Economics. From 1979 to 1982, Amorim ran EMBRAFILME, the government film commission. After financing a movie that was critical of the military when the generals were still in power, he went back to diplomacy.
He served as Brazil’s ambassador to the United Nations and Britain. In 1999, he was sent to the coveted posting of Geneva to be in charge of three missions that included the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade — now the World Trade Organization. While in Switzerland, he was called back to Brasilia to become deputy foreign minister in the government of former President Itamar Franco. He later stepped into the job of foreign minister.
“Life is like that, full of chances, hazards,” said Amorim. “But one thing I learned: Everything that I wished for very strongly, which did not happen, it was for my own good. It’s only in retrospect that I can say that.”
Amorim credits Lula’s victory with setting the stage for massive changes in Brazil by articulating goals of creating a more socially just society and adopting a “can-do” attitude that spilled over into foreign affairs. Brazil had a long tradition of good foreign policies, from self-determination to peaceful resolution of conflict, Amorim said. “But we always underestimated our capacity.” That changed with Lula.
“Part of it is objective — Brazil grew, Brazil became more democratic,” Amorim said. “But there was also the subjective part, which was the self-confidence, a self-confidence which came after the election of Lula.”
Although Amorim downplays his part in creating this change, he clearly relishes his work as foreign minister. “It is very exciting, sometimes a bit exhausting,” he said.
One of those moments, he said, was the 2003 ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization in Cancun, where he marshaled other large, developing countries into demanding a bigger say in order to counter the proposals put forth by the European Union and the United States. “That was one of the moments in which Brazil not only said but showed in practice that it would not abandon its interests,” Amorim said. “We have a much richer negotiation because we took the attitude that we took.”
The talks ultimately broke down. Subsequent attempts to revive the Doha Round have been characterized by cooperation between Itamaraty and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
Amorim highlights regional collaboration to resolve disputes, such as those related to Venezuela or Honduras. Brazil also sent troops and aid to Haiti after the earthquake.
If Brazil’s stance on the 2009 Honduran elections and other Latin American issues sparked controversy, reaction to its wading into Mideast diplomacy was even stronger. In May, Brazil helped wrest a commitment from Iran to do a nuclear-fuel swap with Turkey. Criticism sharpened after Brazil rejected U.N. sanctions against Iran in a Security Council vote.
“We knew that the issue was very, very sensitive,” said Amorim. “But we thought it would be good for peace, and that is what we did.” Brazil voted against the sanctions, yet has been abiding by them.
Amorim will step down next year when Lula leaves office. The foreign minister has no concrete plans beyond traveling, spending time with his family and catching up on movies. He has no regrets over his unconventional path to becoming a top diplomat.
“One might think I was abandoning any possibility of success,” Amorim said. “It was the contrary. I learned a lot.”
Cover illustration by Kent Barton.
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