Brazil and Turkey's recent alliance with Iran on uranium enrichment is not quite a stake in the heart of post-war American foreign policy, but epitomizes the post-globalization realities that are in the process of transforming U.S. foreign policy assumptions, planning, and actions. Two of the pillar concepts of post-war U.S. foreign policy -- George Kennan's Containment theory and Mutual Assured Destruction -- seem ancient and irrelevant in a world where rogue nations deftly manipulate global powers, information zips across the world in a nanosecond, and suicide bombers travel with impunity across borders. Taken together, Brazil and Turkey's action, North Korea and Iran's failure to fall into line, and the West's inability to declare victory in the War on Terror all represent the failure of American foreign policy, and the inability of policy makers to grasp the harsh new realities.
The bold, assertive foreign policy that emerged from 9/11 became synonymous with pre-emptive action that knew no boundaries and smug self-righteousness that turned many allies against the U.S. The combination of unilateral action and interventionism that have prevailed since 2001 have prompted countries such as Brazil, China, Turkey and Russia to believe that it is America that needs to be contained. To them, America's foreign policy has lost a sense of balance and has become desiccated into so many conflicting strands that it is more reactive, wanton, and reckless than proactive, purposeful or prudent.
In this context, Brazil and Turkey's actions are not so mysterious. Both countries are emerging regional powers whose political influence has appeal well beyond their borders. In Brazil's case, apart from its importance as a natural resource powerhouse, President Lula is popular globally as a former worker activist turned moderate statesman. Turkey has captured the imagination of moderate Islamic countries and Prime Minister Erdogan has come to symbolize both the power of Islamist parties in politics and opposition to western influence in the affairs of Islamic nations. But the two countries' own ambitions in the nuclear arena help explain their actions vis-à-vis Iran.
Brazil's and Turkey's Nuclear Ambitions
Brazil first embarked on a nuclear program in the 1930s and pursued a covert nuclear weapons program until the 1970s, when the military government in power had gone so far as to prepare a nuclear weapons test site. Brazil retains the ability to create nuclear weapons but agreed not to do so under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement, and as a signatory to the 1994 Treaty of Tlatelolco, which bans nuclear weapons in Latin America. But Brazil continues to have a program to produce enriched uranium for power plants, and opened its first uranium enrichment plant in 2006. In its negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the time, Brazilian negotiators did not want to allow inspection of its centrifuges, arguing that doing so would reveal technological secrets. Following extensive negotiations, the IAEA relented and agreed not to directly inspect the centrifuges, but rather the composition of the gas entering and leaving the centrifuges. Brazil won a significant victory and the U.S. was forced to resort to merely stating that it was "sure" Brazil had no plans to develop nuclear weapons.
If Brazil decided to pursue a nuclear weapon today its centrifuges could be reconfigured to produce enough highly enriched uranium to produce nuclear weapons. In addition, Brazil has ambition to develop a nuclear submarine fleet, having authorized the construction of a prototype submarine propulsion reactor in 2007. So while the world focuses on the potential for nuclear proliferation between Pakistan, North Korea and Iran, Brazil has similar proliferation capability but is seen as a 'team player', getting a green light as one of the good guys from the IAEA and the United States, while actually having manipulated and emasculated both for its own benefit. Seen in this context, Brazil's action vis-à-vis Iran has a potentially sinister connotation in terms of proliferation potential.
Turkey first considered embarking on a nuclear power program in 1965 and proceeded with plans to develop its first nuclear power plant in the late 1990s, but did not proceed due to a series of delays. In May of this year, Russia and Turkey signed an agreement for Russia to take a controlling interest in the construction of Turkey's first nuclear power plant. It is surely no coincidence that after 45 years of ambition and delays Turkey just this year agreed to proceed with construction of its first nuclear power plant. Doing so is both the satisfaction of a long-held ambition and consistent with the Erdogan government's position vis-a-vis to the West.
Rising Tension with Turkey
Turkish public opinion is divided between pressuring the government to assert itself against Iran - which many see as a competitor to Turkey's own regional political and economic ambitions - and opposing Western influence and security alliances. With both Iran and Russia becoming increasingly aggressive in international relations, Turkey feels pressure to assert itself on the global stage. Given that France, the UK, Russia, and Israel already possess nuclear weapons, and with Iran on an obvious path in that direction, Ankara has made its ambition to obtain nuclear weapons clear in recent months through a lobbying effort in Western capitals. The U.S. is torn on one hand between succumbing to the seemingly legitimate defense-related requests of an important strategic ally and Iranian neighbor -- that can act as a counter-balance to a future nuclear armed Iran -- and on the other hand by promoting the nuclear proliferation it seeks to prevent.
Just last year President Obama referred to the U.S. and Turkey's bilateral relationship as a "model partnership", but bilateral relations have been deteriorating since the Gulf War, when President Bush was unsuccessful in facilitating Turkish action against Iraq. Tension has risen for weeks between the two countries over the Iran issue and more recently the Turkish flotilla to Palestine. Turkey has expressed disappointment over Washington's failure to condemn Israel's attack on the flotilla. Anti-U.S. sentiment among the Turkish public is now comparable to that of Pakistan - not exactly what Washington would expect from a 60-year post-war alliance.
The Lesson to be Learned
The Obama Administration has failed to see Lula's and Erdogan's actions in a broader geostrategic context. The reality is that in the 21st century, U.S. allies will no longer automatically side with America on important matters in international affairs, as was the case during the Cold War. Brazil, Turkey, China, India and Russia are all rising at a time when America's position at the top of the foreign policy mound is eroding. The new reality is a shifting geopolitical landscape in which emerging powers may take a position diametrically opposed to U.S. foreign policy, and there is little the U.S. can do about it.
Turkey remains a strong U.S. ally and an assertive Turkey should be viewed positively, as a counter-weight to and increasingly aggressive Iran and Russia, rather than simply as an ally that has fallen out of line. The same is true vis-à-vis Brazil, which may be viewed as a counter-weight to Hugo Chavez and the socialist tide that is spreading across Latin America. As allies, Brazil and Turkey are assets. Until the time comes that they may no longer be seen as allies, the U.S. should treat them as allies, rather than adversaries.
It is vitally important that U.S. foreign policy continue to nurture strong bilateral relations with the 21st century's emerging powers, but acknowledge that America can no longer call the shots going forward. The U.S. should see Brazil's and Turkey's actions as a harbinger of things to come. As Joseph Nye has noted, the paradox of American power is that in spite of all its might, the U.S. cannot get what it wants by acting alone.
Daniel Wagner is Managing Director of Country Risk Solutions, a political and economic risk consultancy based in Connecticut. Tyler Rouillard is a research analyst with CRS and provided research for this article.