Lula Must Not Undermine Brazil's Chance to Be the Next "Indispensable Nation"

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's remarkable tenure closes at the end of this year -- and already some are speaking of him as a possible candidate to succeed Robert Zoellick as President of the World Bank or even Ban Ki Moon as Secretary General of the United Nations.

Normally, the head of the World Bank is an American while the head of the IMF is European, but in this age where the lines of global power and responsibility are rapidly being redrawn, some in the Obama administration are eager to show both magnanimity towards Lula as well as indicate "institutional flexibility" when it comes to building in the world's new rising powers.

In a deft Obama-esque move, the next head of the World Bank could very easily be a non-American.

When virtually overnight President Obama and other global leaders threw the G8 into the trash heap of history and selected the G20 as the primary workshop to deal with the rapidly worsening global financial crisis, the institutional order of the 20th century signaled that it was ready for a new era recognizing the consequential weight of stakeholders like Brazil, India, and China.

Brazil, however, in the twilight of the Lula administration needs to consolidate confidence in it rather than plant seeds of doubt as it faces fundamental choices about the type of nation it wants to be as it sits at a clear breakout point in its global ascendance.

On one hand, Brazil can move from being a significant regional power whose significance used to be defined in part by how it could slow US-led institution-building to a different sort of globally responsible stakeholder that wants to be in the first tier of nations rewriting a globally inclusive social contract.

President Lula's trip to Iran and his enthusiasm about injecting himself as a broker between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the UN Security Council Permanent Members of the US, Russia, China, the UK, and France in addition to Germany) is fraught with serious dangers for his legacy and for Brazil's aspirations to be accommodated in the world's most powerful institutions.

Iran and the West are in a serious standoff over the course of Iran's nuclear intentions, and the US and its UN Security Council counterparts are working to assemble a sanctions package to punish Iran for failing to abide by IAEA protocols, for developing a covert nuclear reprocessing site, and for not doing more to convince a skeptical world that its nuclear power program is not meant for military purposes.

Nations rarely indicate what their top tier national security priorities really are as politically correct platitudes about various causes get in the way, but there is little doubt that for the United States, encouraging Iran to pivot from a nuclear weapons capacity, latent or real, is very near the top, if not the single most important national security objective of the administration.

There are two possible outcomes from Lula's upcoming trip to Tehran. First, Lula's well-meaning efforts to defuse one of the world's tensest, building crises may result in convincing Iran that it has a political back door out of the increasingly tough wall that the US is trying to assemble around Iran with the support of China, Russia, Europe, Japan, and many of the other nations that participated in the recent Nuclear Security Summit and who are key players in the current Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty review underway now in New York.

Giving Iran a back door would seriously aggravate American policymakers who have enough problems at the moment communicating resolve to Iran's leadership.

Alternatively, Lula could succeed in taking the message that everyone from Obama to Europe's Javier Solana to the former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei and others have issued to Iran -- which is to engage in a serious discussion that ranges from the Islamic Republic's own concerns about regime security to inclusion in global institutions to accommodation of its growing regional interests in exchange for helping to alleviate the West's lack of trust in its nuclear activities and ongoing concerns with Iran's funding of transnational terror groups.

Lula could perhaps be the person who helps Iran to move forward in ways that it has not -- but in doing so, Lula cannot afford to be seen as acquiescing to or promoting Iran's strident misbehavior.

In the wake of the Cold War, Brazil's statecraft has been brilliant as it has positioned itself as the new "indispensable nation" in nearly every nouveau cluster of states trying to fill the power vacuum in a world cluttered with anachronistic global institutions whose power grids don't match the real world. The recent Brazil-hosted BRICs summit (Brazil, Russia, India & China) and the IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) summit are examples of the positioning brilliance of Lula and his government; so too Lula's role in global climate change politics and his helping to make the G20 the new power center in global economic affairs.

But the reality is that the United States remains a vital global player that can enhance or restrict the aspirations of new powers.

President Lula's decision to jump into the US/Europe vs. Iran match has turned enormous Obama administration enthusiasm for Brazil and Lula into confusion; for some, real doubt about Brazil's judgment.

While the Obama administration was giving previous "special relationships" like the UK, Israel, and Japan some less privileged treatment than they had grown used to, Obama and his team were trying hard to 'upgrade' some of the relationships that are vital to the future. Brazil is clearly one of these, but its Iran moves threaten a lot.

Some senior folks in the administration as well as sophisticated observers in the US Senate and House of Representatives think that at just the moment when Lula got the US wanting to seriously advocate for Brazil's inclusion in any reformulation of the UN Security Council permanent membership, Brazil then stepped into the Iran mess. Lula's posture thus far has not necessarily been one of a fair-minded broker but oddly more as an advocate of Iran's declarations.

Perhaps Lula is just cozying up to Ahmadinejad and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to be able to give them some tough love and deliver more serious words privately. However, if that is the case, Lula's government has not used back channels to either Europe or the US that that is his intention.

Recently, Brazil's Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized a significant day-long workshop to think about emerging institutions of global governance. Thirteen nations were represented in the meeting, and I was fortunate to be invited. Others there filling American slots included my New America Foundation colleague and 21st century Alvin Toffler-style futurist Parag Khanna, the Council on Foreign Relations' Julia Sweig, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's David Rothkopf.

The meeting, co-chaired by Rothkopf and Deputy Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota, was really superb and easily surpassed most US-based meetings I have attended on the subject of what comes next in the global order.

At Patriota's direction, we tried to seriously work through alternative paradigms for global governance. For instance, I gave my own thoughts on how we needed to modify the UN with a system of networked nodes of responsible global stewardship that was less hierarchal than today's system.

I haven't figured out how to explain my concept well -- but what I have in mind is something metaphorically like a cloud computing approach to global management in which there is an open source, Microsoft like portal for nations around the world -- be they Iran, India, Brazil, Indonesia, China, and others -- to help generate security and economic balance in their region without a globally dominant hegemonic overlord. In fact, the DNA of the previous hegemony is more embedded in the "software" of a mostly liberal global order that will continue on even if the US is not the global heavyweight it once was.

G. John Ikenberry at Princeton has been influential in my thinking about this -- which clearly needs more work. Nonetheless, Deputy Foreign Minister Patriota's Brasilia salon was mind-stretching and sophisticated, quite up to par for the kind of Brazil we should all want to see emerge.

There were many other proposals offered, some incremental fixes of the current system and others big conceptual leaps -- but during a sixteen hour long day of discussion, many senior Brazilian government strategists and diplomats from the President's office as well as from the Foreign Ministry remained with us, intensely involved and listening.

Brazil on many levels is becoming a vital global player -- and should be one. Lula's unique ability to be both a progressive global visionary while also a pragmatic realist about what is doable and what is not has earned him trust and confidence of most serious world leaders who want him to remain actively connected to the global order after his presidency ends.

That said, the trust needed among the world's biggest stakeholders to make space for Brazil's global leap forward is threatened by possible missteps on Iran.

Some observers think that beyond the issue of whether Lula fails or not with Iran is his judgment -- in which Brazil embraced an issue that probably was not its highest national security priority in order to add to Lula's legacy but potentially made itself an obstacle in what may be one of the highest priorities of the United States and Europe. Bad statecraft -- perhaps. Or at least a high stakes gamble that will have big costs associated with failure.

From my perspective, I think that this situation can still be managed depending on Lula's posture when in Iran, his willingness to communicate behind the scenes with the US and other key stakeholders in the Iran standoff, and whether or not he actually produces any shift in Iran's recalcitrant position.

This summitry represents a big gamble by Brazil's impressive President -- and one hopes that he understands that his nation's rightful place as a key pillar of emerging international stakeholders depends on getting nations like Iran to move beyond their past, to get beyond paranoia, and to constructively negotiate about strategic factors that divide Iran from the rest of the world.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons