The Itamaraty Tradition in Foreign Policy

The growing power of Rio de Janeiro was reflected in Brazilian foreign affairs under the guidance of José Maria da Silva Paranhos, the Baron of Rio Branco, who served as foreign minister from 1902 to 1912, under presidents Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves (acting president, 1902-3; president, 1903-6), and Afonso Pena (1906-9), Acting President Nilo Peçanha (1909-10), and President Hermes da Fonseca. His vision shaped both the boundaries of the country and the traditions of Brazilian foreign relations. In the heyday of international imperialism, he was instrumental in negotiating limits over which the great powers were not to intrude. He argued for military reform to back up energetic diplomacy, and he began the process of moving Brazil out of the British orbit and into that of the United States.

The latter was taking half of Brazil's total exports by 1926, but Brazil still owed Britain over US$100 million in the mid-1920s. British banks financed the country's international commercial exchange, and British investors provided 53 percent of the total foreign investment until 1930. But by the late 1920s, United States banks held nearly 35 percent of the foreign debt. Rio Branco's goal, which was pursued by his successors, was to diffuse the country's dependency among the powers so that none could intervene without being checked by another. Trade and financial ties with the United States were increased at British expense, and these would be balanced by military links with Germany and then France. France would continue for decades to provide a cultural model for the elites.

The Rio Branco years were the basis for what became known as the Itamaraty tradition (named after the building that housed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rio de Janeiro), but not every administration grasped its purpose. Some confused its tactical aspects--reliance on foreign loans and investments, Pan-Americanism, and alliance with the United States--with its essential substance, the quest for independence and national greatness.

World War I found Brazil with nearly half of its army committed in the Contestado. The war in Europe was traumatic for the army, which was then beginning a reorganization under the influence of thirty-two officers who had recently returned from service in German army units. A German military mission had been expected, but pressure from São Paulo and from Paris resulted in a mission contract with France instead. Economics, Washington's decision to enter the war, and German submarine attacks on Brazilian merchant ships pulled Brazil into the conflict on the Allied side. The military mobilized, but the generals, feeling over-committed and ill-prepared, declined to send troops to Europe.

Pan-Americanism provided some outlet for Brazil's international status pretensions, but the period between the world wars often found its neighbor Argentina suspicious of harmless improvements in Brazil's armed forces. Brazil's obligatory military service, its construction of new barracks, its purchases of modern weapons, and its contracts for a French military mission and a United States naval mission were viewed by military officials in Buenos Aires as threatening. Brazilian leaders wanted their country regarded as the most powerful in South America but understood that the public would not accept, and the constitution outlawed, a war of aggression. Regardless of what the Argentines thought, the military was not prepared to wage a foreign war. Tension between Argentina and Brazil and maneuvering for greater influence in Paraguay and Uruguay have been characteristic of their relations since the War of the Triple Alliance.

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Page last modified: 15-04-2013 12:09:44 ZULU