Celso Amorim: The optimism of the diplomat

By Gualter George*

celso amorimThe scenario Celso Amorim views from his large living room in his comfortable apartment on “avenida Atlântico”, on the edge of Rio de Janeiro, beauty, blue skies and tranquility. An image he certainly needed to renew his everyday life, after his long term of office in the diplomatic work, where the real world is displayed in its hardest, imperfect, and raw reality. The Brazilian Chancellor, for about the last ten years, during the course of three presidential mandates, retired, but he continues keeping his eyes on international politics based on a new perspective. But now without the excessive cautions the previous officialdom required, he continues following the geopolitical modifications based on the same desire to understand diverse peoples and countries that brought about his successful career as a diplomat. He is an enthusiast who support the African cause, Celso Amorim defends and pays careful attention to that side of the world map because of its potentialities and natural riches, and not just feeling sorry for the poor people who are usually confused and trying to defend investments and initiatives in that region. This is a speech that can always be put into practice. The ATLANTICO magazine staff went to Rio to talk to Celso Amorim, on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon. It is really worthwhile to check out the results, because there are few people speaking out in the world and who have the same authority to speak about the geopolitical framework. After all, he helped to define it.


ATLANTICO —  Ambassador, from the diplomatic point of view, nowadays, is the world easier or more difficult to explain or to be understood?

Celso Amorim — The world nowadays is more complex than it was when I was young. In those days, there were basically two large political blocks: the West and the East. You were either a socialist or a communist, whichever you may have been, and there were people who favored the East block or those who favored capitalism, liberal democracy and they who favored the West. There were few countries with little influence, even back then, but then the neutrals, the unaligned; who after some time increased in number, they even became more influential. Nowadays, nobody is sure of the ideology of country ‘a’ or country ‘b’. A certain country can be very independent in way, but when you see whose its allies are, you will see people who are on the right or on the left politically. So, as you see, the world is more complex nowadays. Now, being more complex does not necessarily mean it is worse, new countries have emerged. The theme is maybe our center in Africa, which doubtlessly… Many people speak about the rebirth of Africa, but that is not true, Africa, as a political entity, it is the birth of Africa, which has been developing and nowadays is much stronger than 50 years ago.

ATLANTICO — And you consider our modern world to be more complex, then how is Brazil ranked?

Celso Amorim — Look at this, Brazil has everything it needs to be wellranked. I wish to say, Brazil is one of the five most populous and largest in size. From the economic point of view, it is one of the 6th or 7th, this depends a little on the exchange rate, but after all, certainly, in buying power, it is one of the 5 best. It is a country is capable of communicating with different parts of the world. Then, I think Brazil has the real potential to be highly ranked. Now, it depends a lot on our willingness to act in this way.

ATLANTICO — What has been the role, as you personally understand it that brought about this process to make Brazil become a more important global player?

Celso Amorim — Look, I was lucky as the Foreign Affairs Ministry. In the beginning, I was the minister to Itamar Franco, that government was a little bit transitional, Itamar was a man who had a nationalistic point-of-view and also extremely focused on South America, and that helped me in the consolidation of Mercosul, I like to say that the “Ouro Preto” Protocol was signed in his administration; the first time we launched the Alcsa idea (not Alca) that was during the administration of President Itamar, the CPLP was launched in his administration and it did not become important due to the size of Africa; but not just because of that, but also due to the size of Africa and I was even luckier, let’s say, also because during that time period and because I was so trusted, by President Lula, who is a very sensible person, he is very selfconfident and in Brazil and very sensible regarding the problems in the world. Then, I could work in favorable conditions for important actuation for Brazil in varied spheres, in the region where South American integration was consolidated in commercial negotiations, whereas, we were able to avoid an unfavorable treaty in Alca and we were also able to change the negotiation terms in ICC, in a complex negotiation, such as the Teerã treaty, which is also the theme of my latest book. In our approach to the Arab countries and the approach to many more countries in Africa, where we opened many embassies, I think more than half of the embassies which exist nowadays were opened or reopened in my administration. There were important programs implemented then ranging from “model farm”, “Pro-cotton”, and even a medication factory in Mozambique and these are some of the examples of the new enhancements that took place in our foreign policies.

ATLANTICO — Let’s talk about your relationship and vision you have for Africa. You said that your wife encouraged you focus on the importance of Africa. What was the context she stressed?

Celso Amorim — Well, not to downplay her merits, I have always been interested on African issues too, when I was head of the Cultural Department (Itamaraty), once instead of traveling to London or another European country. I went to Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, and then, I became attracted to Africa too. But the anecdote I am telling began during the Lula administration, I was the ambassador in London before that, so my wife had stayed in England for a certain time period and after 15 or 20 days, I called her twice and told her about some of the things I was doing: “See, we created a group of friends from Venezuela, let’s implement a similar initiative for ALCA, I already had gone to Argentina to consolidate a common agreement for ICC…” And then she asked me: “and what about Africa, aren’t you going to do something?” Because she always demanded a lot from me to do something and that helped me a lot. And after that, I have to say, she helped me a lot too, because she worked for Serpro, in the Treasury Ministry. In some of the programs we implemented in Africa, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé, and Príncipe, Angola, Cabo Verde, to mention a few that comes to mind immediately, SERPRO installed telephone centers, cyber cafés that were very important, and in some of them, she even went with me for the inauguration ceremonies to see how they were working, so my wife always supported me a lot.

ATLANTICO — It is not an easy decision; I wouldn’t say not to choose Africa, because that is not the issue, but to look at Africa, not considering what the region offers us commercially. There is a lot of criticism on Lula’s diplomacy for not seeking the large markets, where the country focuses on interests for the purpose of making greater business deals and Africa; evidently does not seem to offer that possibility nowadays. As it is a region where the countries display great cultural and human debts…

Celso Amorim — Look, first I think it is a potential market. Obviously it is not so large, but you have to understand the following: when you speak about the USA, that is a big market, the European Union is a large market, as we have considered for such a long time, everything that was easy to obtain there has already been obtained. Everything we achieve gets on their nerves, related to awakening protectionist interests. Generally, what happens is their negotiating power is also very great and they charge prices that are excessively expensive for small advantages that they concede to us, but I would have to say that things are not exclusive. I think our relations in Africa needed positive action, because looking at Africa there is so little, besides the human and cultural factors, which we have approached, there are also political interests. There are many countries in Africa. Many times at the UN, when I was an ambassador, people wanted to know how it was possible to obtain a vote from Japan or Germany, after all; that was naturally important. I said: “look, the real battle is fought for Africa.” So, besides the solidarity, what do you think is a dimension that must not be neglected in diplomacy, because it is true, there was also interests, for example, in the reformation in the Security Council, that was not put into effect, but Africa was a little divided, if a little more of Africa had come to support the theses we had defended, together with Germany, in the case of Japan and India, they would have been approved. Then, I wish to say, it is an important continent in all aspects; you do not elect a person, based on all his/her merits, I don’t want to deny it, but if you do not elect a person such as (José) Graziano for FAO or Roberto Azevedo for ICC without African support, it is very hard for it to happen. Then, I think it is very beneficial for Brazil to have strong and coherent support in Africa. Because everything you do there is something innovative, it has a strong impact. Can you understand that? There is a good quotation I like to quote by the Kenyan, Calestou Juma, who said the following: “For each African problem, there is a Brazilian solution “. I think this is a very expressive sentence based on what we have done for Africa. We have to put this potential into effect: it is good for them and good for us.

ATLANTICO — You were very active as chancellor, of course, in BRICS, at the time this economic block was in another situation, different from the current status, including, Brazil from the economic standpoint. What would you say about the current scenario, is BRICS being threatened?

Celso Amorim — These things oscillate. In fact, BRICS began… as follows: We created the Ibas initially, made up by India, Brazil, and South Africa, so there were just three countries in that concept, which were made up by three large democracies, multicultural, multiracial, each one from a different region, in a developing world, and in reality, the IBAS was very sought after by Russia and by China, because they felt excluded; parallel to that, the idea emerged for institutionalizing BRICS, which was not our invention, it was invented by Jim O’Neill, who classified these countries in the following way, they were large emerging countries, that were influential… And that was done. I even was very careful because I was responsible while I was the Foreign Affairs Minister so that Brics was not suffocated by IBAS, so that IBAS would continue maintaining its own personality. After all, these things oscillate a little. In the case of China, there was no doubt that as it was the biggest in BRICS and it would continue growing. It is growing at a rate of 7%… You have to consider all this… this is a real power plant, one of the real power plants in the global economy. Now, for our interest, we also are creating a more equilibrated world, more balanced world. It is not interesting to completely depend on the USA, neither China, to tell you the truth, neither any other country; we have to work within the multi-polarity concept that was one of the things that we insisted on the most. And we saw that BRICS in the framework of being multi-polarity, economically, as well as politically would create a more balanced world and due to this, it creates a more favorable situation for Brazil.

ATLANTICO — Now, let return to the issue regarding the relationship between Brazil and Africa….

Celso Amorim — Even in Africa, the fact of having a group like BRICS is important, to diversify the financing sources. China is very influential there. Now, I think that Brazil has to be more influential there too, because Brazil has a very special way of relating and cooperating there.

ATLANTICO — Are you optimistic about Africa?

Celso Amorim — Yes, I am. Africa has grown quite a lot. It is going through some problems, some serious ones, which have occurred previously in other countries. Of course now, things are more accelerated, they are young nations. If you consider 500 years of history in Europe, Africa has gone through that in 50. Thus, evidently, many of these turbulences that occurred in Europe, religious wars and others, that went on for centuries, they are taking place now. Then, we have to see these things in this context. But, I am still very optimistic, because I think Africa has grown a lot, it has great potential, there has been a considerable increase not only in ores, but in commodities, in general, and also in the production of manufactured goods. So, I am optimistic and I think Brazil can contribute a great deal to this.

ATLANTICO — Let me try to understand a little about how you starting acting in the world of diplomacy. When did you perceive, decide on becoming a diplomat? How did you plan that when you were still young?

Celso Amorim — I cannot say that it was a vocation, I do not have any relative who was a diplomat, I did not have any friend who was one, who I knew. I was in fact interested in the world of arts, literature, also politics, but a little in political philosophy, in general, Brazilian foreign policies, because when I was very young in the days of independent foreign policy, Santiago Dantas, Afonso Farias… that also awakened my imagination a great deal, but due to various circumstances, which would take a long time to explain, I had to get away from the world of arts to take a government examination and I chose Itamaraty, because I was interested in foreign policy. I could have taken an examination in taxation, for example, the Treasury ministry, whereas I would earn much more.

ATLANTICO — You entered Itamaraty, or in other words, in the system around 1963. When was the moment that you consider when Brazil became more solidified?

Celso Amorim — I think I have no doubt about that. It is not the fact that I was the chancellor, but I think the election of President Lula, and what it meant… The election of President Lula was what Obama said about there, “we can”, there, if we can elect a factory worker, a real factory worker, faithful to his origins, we can also act independently, in free international actuation.

ATLANTICO — Was that what you understood when you traveled around the world with President Lula? Was that the impression you captured from the world?

Celso Amorim — Let me see, that requires qualification. It is not just that; Brazil is Brazil, Brazil is big. Even before Lula, Brazil played an important role, so that it could witness, in the ICC and many other moments. Here for example, in the region where Brazil worked for pacification, I had nothing to do with that, I was away, somewhere between Ecuador and Peru. Of course, Brazil always played a role, this is unarguable, but in the Lula administration, that was a very big impulse, first because he supported it, he thought that Brazil had to play that role. I think he chose a chancellor who thought like him, who would not keep on saying: “be careful”, “don’t do that, do not do that”… It was the contrary, I think that both had a great deal of affinity regarding that manner, it was his counsel, the general counsel, and his own too, I think that this had to be said, it was a great foreign policy triumph, because of Lula, his story… Everybody wanted to be photographed with Lula, no matter if they were leftist or rightist, that was valued.

ATLANTICO- Is there some situation along your path, when you have reflect on any mistake? A choice you made that nowadays you admit you should have done differently. Surely, nowadays you can reflect on that, right?

Celso Amorim — I don’t know. If I had any self-criticism as general guidance, sincerely, I think that as general guideline we should not change; I don’t want to say that I am self-critical in that way. “Ah, at a given time, you should have paid more attention to Latin America and you should have been less concerned about ICC.” I don’t know, maybe it’s possible, some people at some times, they think, but you cannot do everything, then I did that, I thought my presence was more necessary in other places, there could be another… I was very concerned about keeping the unity of South America; then, for example, there was a proposal, from the Africans, for routine meetings between Africa-Brazil, as there were for Africa-China, Africa-India… President Lula and I, also, jointly, we thought it was better to hold the Africa-South America meeting, which was a way to also confirm the unity of South America, of course, that was a lot of work, and, sometimes, much fewer results. I don’t consider that was a real mistake, but sometimes because I was short-sighted, but I sincerely do not see any big mistake.

ATLANTICO — Who do you consider as a great example of a diplomat in history? It does not need to be a current one, but one who represents the best synthesis of great efforts related to diplomacy?

Celso Amorim — Look, there is Barão do Rio Branco in our relational plane; Rui Barbosa in the multilateral plane; I will begin here, in our own country; I think that history is different, at the end of the XX century, and in the beginning of the XXI. So, related to diplomacy nowadays, it is… It necessary, of course to defend national interests, that is a essential role, but it is no longer the same diplomacy as it was in the XIX century, at that time, there were great diplomats in the XIX century, who normally acted very selfishly in the interests of their own countries… I seek inspiration from many varied types of personalities. Like Gandhi, who was not a diplomat, but he had a diplomatic vision, for non-alignment. Here in Brazil, Santiago Dantas, who remained in the post for a short time, for a very short time… It is very rare in history, a person who held a post as minister who achieved as much as Santiago Dantas, for defining independent foreign policy and, besides that, he made a very important decision, and that was not to support the sanctions against Cuba in 1962.

ATLANTICO — How do you understand the multilateral entities in the contemporary world? What seems to be the most complex? For example, an entity as the UN; where Brazil, at some times, jointly with other countries, defended a profound reform?

Celso Amorim — The UN is fragile and weak when facing the power of Countries. We are very far away from having a world government, I don’t even know if we wish to have a world government, let’s say, in the near future, but in spite of everything…

ATLANTICO — In practice, isn’t that what we have? From the strength of the United States, that was even more powerful…

Celso Amorim — It was more powerful, relatively, but what I wish to say is that the UN does not impede actions, such as in the case of Iraq, but it is in fact, it is a moderator, a slight moderator, in that case, and it has been the forum for discussing other themes. Like the climatic changes, environment, issues related to development; the ICC in commercial issues. “Ah, but the ICC is unfair.” Yes, all right, but without it, it would be worse, it is like the law of the jungle. Let’s say, I remember, when I worked in the Science and Technology Ministry, when the North Americans threatened to retaliate because of the information policy and afterwards on patent policies. In the ICC, they tried to bring back the issue on medications, and they saw it wasn’t going to work out, then, they retreated. So, for good or for worse, that is a moderation factor, it is a place for solving problems, maybe you can’t solve all controversies, but it is possible to solve a few. Then, I think that we, inevitably, have to work to strengthen the UN, not so it becomes a world government, but so that these rules become more abided by. Now the critics, when they say “Ah, but the UN doesn’t do anything “, but the critic cannot remove the UN, it is necessary to strengthen the UN.

ATLANTICO — Well, you have already been chancellor twice, in three mandates, and you have already held the position as Defense minister, and after finishing that term, you declared that you were retiring from public life. Is there any possibility that will go back to become a minister again. Is that in your plans…

Celso Amorim — No, I am not planning that.

ATLANTICO — You have four kids, right? Have any of them followed the diplomatic career?

Celso Amorim — Three are filmmakers… My daughter works in an international organization; she works in the AIT, which is an international socially orientated organization; she does several things, but she, for example, has focused her efforts on the South-South cooperation, which practically is inexistent. I wouldn’t say she is the one who invented it, but she has dedicated herself to that, inside the AIT, also there is a great deal of support for Brazil; it is not because she is my daughter, but the fact is, we had the South-South cooperation, and nowadays it has caught on, only now it is focused more on China, Brazil has retreated a great deal… Little by little…

Wilson Dias/Agencia Brasil


Celso Luiz Nunes Amorim was born in Santos, on the seacoast of São Paulo State, on June 3th 1942. He graduated in 1965 from the respected Rio Branco Institute and he graduated as best in his class, he was awarded a prize and the right to study in the Vienna Diplomatic Academy for two years and he was awarded his post- -graduate degree. His first diplomatic post was in London, and there he carried out one of the glamorous careers as the ambassador in that Country. He was Foreign Affairs minister twice, in the administrations of President Itamar Franco and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (in the latter, for a period of eight years for his two terms of office), he was also Defense Minister, president of EMBRAFILME (Brazilian Government cinema, nowadays it has been done away with). As ambassador, he is renowned as the country’s representative in London and the UN. He is married to Ana Maria Amorim and he is Vicente, Pedro, João, and Anita’s father

*Former Editor-in-Chief of ATLANTICO