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Oliver Stuenkel


In late 2011, during a meeting in Delhi with former Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor and several Indian diplomats, one speaker thanked Tharoor for helping India's Ministry of External Affairs "begin to understand how to use social media and engage civil society." The number of followers of the Ministry's twitter account was still low, he conceded (it currently stands at 79,800). Shashi Tharoor's personal account, by contrast, boast 22 times as many followers, currently standing at 1.75 million, making him one of the most popular politicians of our time. What seemed certain to the diplomats present was that India's foreign policy establishment needed to do more to engage civil society - through a savvy social media strategy, a transparent organizational structure, and a professional team of public relations officers. How else would the Indian government win public support for complex foreign policy strategies, such as building up its military presence in the Indian Ocean, seeking stronger ties with former enemy China, and drum up global support for UN Security Council Reform?

A similar debate is taking place in Brazil, another emerging power that seeks to play a greater role on the international stage. Just like in India, foreign policy makers at Itamaraty, the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, grapple with convincing civil society that Brazil should turn into a global actor strongly involved in many issues around the world. Yet quite to the contrary, foreign policy plays only a marginal role in Brazil's bustling public debate. Itamaraty's greatest projects are often greeted with a mixture of neglect and rejection by both the media and public opinion.

In 2010, when President Lula traveled to Iran to negotiate a nuclear deal with President Ahmadinejad, most public opinion makers harshly criticized the decision, and several friends colleagues disapproved of my article defending the trip (Lula’s weekend trip to Tehran: worth a try). Brazil's strategy to strengthen ties with Africa and the Global South in general is often falsely termed as a purely ideological endeavor (although it has slowly been accepted by the political mainstream). As I wrote recently, the vast majority of civil society, media and academia in Brazil remain skeptical of the BRICS concept, one of the governments most innovative strategies to diversify its partnerships and press for reform of global governance. Finally, one of Brazil's most ambitious long-term projects, UN Security Council reform (and its inclusion as a permanent member), is generally seen by Brazilian citizens as a quixotic, amorphous and uninspiring elite project.

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