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It’s past time to talk about “grand strategy”

Vinicius Mariano de Carvalho*

Six days after the American airstrike that killed Iranian General Qassim Suleimani, The New York Times issue of 9 January 2020 brought an article signed by Elizabeth Cobbs and Kimberley C. Field with the title: “Why did America kill Suleimani?”

More than exploring particular reasons for this attack and murder, the article seeks to read this act from a broader perspective, that of a “Grand Strategy.” The authors are blunt in saying that the act was useless in isolation because “America doesn’t really have a grand strategy. What it does have, a patchwork of doctrines left from over from the Cold War fails to match its abilities, its national goals and the changing shape of global threats and opportunities”. The article continues to demonstrate the times when the United States had a “grand strategy” and how it guaranteed them a position of articulators in the world. But mainly, it highlights how since the end of the Cold War, the absence of this “grand strategy” has been felt in the country’s internal and foreign policies.

You may ask yourself what does this has to do with Brazil?

It seems to me that in the case of Brazil, even without the country having attacked and killed any enemy, the same conclusion as Cobbs and Field can be applied: “Brazil doesn’t really have a grand strategy.” And for many reasons. Starting with the fact that this “grand strategy” is not very well known and the discussion is often confused with anachronistic and intestinal nationalist outbursts, the result of a delusional pride, which translates “grand strategy” into a great strategy, and not for its precious meaning of “broad strategy.”

Another reason for not having a “grand strategy” in Brazil is that the idea of “strategy” is unnecessarily associated with military and defense issues –  eventually and superficially expanding to diplomatic thinking. In other words, a thought that should be broad is limited.

There are many drafts of national strategies, and mostly patchworks of doctrines’ that are not even the result of an organic line of thinking of the country’s skills, capabilities, limitations, and intentions in an unstable and dynamic global arena.

The combination of a hyperbolic superlative – “Brazil is the greatest and best in the world or the worst and most mediocre” – with a prophetic messianism – “the country of the future” – does not contribute to the development of a strategic thought that can situate the country in the present, with a clear relation to its past and consequently with realistic perspectives for a future.

A good example of this lack of a “grand strategy” can be seen in the way the country deals with the Amazon region. It’s down to a few empty jargons – “do not dare to threaten our Amazon” –but that does not necessarily represent any broad strategic thinking. The dispute over speeches about the region – its role for the global climate balance and potential for national development – does not place the region in a Brazilian “grand strategy,” but distracts and causes divergence. It is important to emphasize that I am not saying here that “grand strategy” is a single and total speech. On the contrary, there can only be “grand strategy” where there is controversy, diversity of discourses, and multiplication of hermeneutical horizons. In the case of the Brazilian Amazon, this is evident. There are many actors, interests and worldviews in dispute. Without opposing, coordinating and refuting interests and worldviews, the potential of the region will fall apart as it has been happening systematically for generations.

It’s a not government role to define a “grand strategy.” This is the result of a dialogue with various actors in society. Government programs are proposals on how to execute a “grand strategy”, not a “grand strategy” per se.

Without an epistemology that reflects the multiplicity and richness of views about the country and that takes into account national strengths and weaknesses; without a relationship with its past and its history, recognizing mistakes and making them lessons and not simply creating insane mythologies; without the admission of the controversial as a provocateur of knowledge and not as an internal enemy; without understanding that “grand strategies” are not dogmas of faith and that they must be flexible and adaptable in a world of multiple and changing challenges; without these minimum steps, we will continue to drift as a country in the global context, reacting and not acting.

Dr. Vinicius Mariano de Carvalho is Senior Lecturer in the King’s Brazil Institute and War Studies Department.