In defeat, a teaching moment for Brazil

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Two routs of Brazil in one week, first with the German soccer team and then with the Dutch, can only be viewed as a metaphor for the limits of soft power. The final blow this past Saturday was the Netherlands team trouncing Brazil in a poorly defended game, and a palpable sense of retreat as Brazilians watched their home team crash and burn.

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Brazil's culture cherishes its long romance with futbol. And well it should. It is a nation that produced Pele, Ronaldinho and Neymar. Its Labor government bet the ranch on being host to the World Cup, a jewel in the crown of an emerging power. Unfortunately, the fairy-tale ending of living happily ever was overshadowed by large public protests in 2013 in a nation that wanted more for its children than gleaming soccer palaces and airports. Brazil's desperate need for more schools, better educational opportunities and increased resources for health have become the grievance of a rising middle class that emerged as a result of policies that made poverty alleviation a central tenant of the Labor platform. First, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and then with President Dilma Rousseff, the country moved 33 million citizens out of poverty, and brought 47 million into the middle class with expectations that exceeded the government's capacity to respond. And that's where the trouble started.

Projecting power through persuasion with a global brand like soccer is fine and important. But rising to the level of serious leadership will require more than a World Cup victory or playing host to the 2016 Olympics. With this sporting event over, it is time for Brazil to rethink its mission in a complex international system that welcomes nations with peaceful inclinations, but equally values leadership. And this is where the problem lies for Brazil. For example, in 2008 it created a distinct South American forum, UNASUR, the Union of South American States, with the goal of distancing itself from the politics of the Organization of American States (OAS), which has been dominated by the United States. While UNASUR has voiced its intent to become an institution that can provide a genuine multilateral forum to resolve regional problems, to date its record is slim in spite of rhetoric to the contrary.

This week in northeastern Brazil city, Fortaleza, Rousseff will host yet another international grouping of countries that include major powers like China and Russia, and rising ones like India and South Africa. The BRICS forum could provide Brazil with a new beginning in its role as a leader in the global south, a convener that can also serve as an interlocutor between powers like China and Russia whose intentions are clearly confrontational vis a vis the United States, but who are significant economic players in giant markets like Brazil. How the BRICs define their role in the world, and particularly the Americas during the Fortaleza summit will speak volumes about the way Brazil's foreign policy might emerge in the wake of a stunning defeat in the World Cup, and a sense of having lost its way to gaining its place on the global stage.

With U.S.-Brazilian relations at a low point, in spite of some soccer diplomacy last month by Vice President Biden, a recalibration of the bilateral relationship is in order. On our side it will require us to recognize and understand Brazil's deep reliance on multilateralism, no matter how ineffective we think it has been to date. In return, we must get a deeper dialogue about regional issues that affect the security of our hemisphere, which means going beyond counter-narcotics policies to finding common ground to address the massive public insecurity problems that plague the region.

Many countries are using the U.S. retreat from the hemisphere as a space to fill with programs and policies that may not always support the best interests of our own nation or of our allies in the region. China's impressive trade with the Americas is certainly an important part of the reason Brazil's economy grew at record speed in the last few years. But can the Chinese really offer Brazilians the deep-rooted democratic values that make Brazil and the U.S. more aligned on protecting human rights, managing the environment and protecting its borders? The new diplomacy of multilateralism evolving in this hemisphere and globally raises these issues to a new level.

Power is about choices. Brazil chose to use its soft power as a way to win diplomatic friends. Its decision to forgo nuclear weapons as memorialized the 1988 constitution after over a decade of military rule reflects a nation whose global intentions are peaceful. This is still the case today. It is something we often take for granted in a world where transnational threats dominate our geopolitical agenda.

But leadership is also about showing others the way. After a heady month of soccer and then despair, it is time for Brazil to rethink its place in the constellation of rising democratic states. The BRICS summit, which will include key players of the global south, and China and Russia, will also bring Latin American heads of states together to consider the future of relationships in this hemisphere and elsewhere. Will that future include a place for stronger ties to the United States?

This is a moment of choice for Brazil. It can show other states in this hemisphere and its BRICS partners that soft power, coupled with pragmatic approaches to solving some of the world's most complex issues, such as income inequality and access to justice, requires an open society, strong democratic values and an ability to lose gracefully, without resorting to violence. As Rousseff told CNN's Christiane Amanpour, "being able to overcome defeat I think is the feature and hallmark of a major national team and of a great country." In the end, that may be the lesson of the World Cup. Defeat may be painful and expensive, but it can endure as a teaching moment for strengthening democratic governance and a way forward.

Forman is a senior adviser in the Managing Across Boundaries Program at the Stimson Center in Washington.