posted on 06/08/2022 06:00 / updated 06/08/2022 10:44
(credit: PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA)
Journalist and jurist Paulo Portas is one of the most influential politicians in Portugal. Former Deputy Prime Minister and former Minister of Foreign Affairs of his country, Portas is a staunch supporter of representative democracy and diplomacy as a tool to overcome crises. But he is concerned about the political radicalization that is advancing not only in Europe, but throughout the world and, in particular, in Latin America. And he points to social media as one of the factors in this crisis. On a recent visit to Brazil, Portas spoke with the Mail on geopolitics and the “weakness of multilateralism”, and criticizes what he calls the democracy of social networks.
Has multilateralism collapsed?
I think it went into weakness. Multilateral organizations are not able to respond to the seriousness of the challenges. In any case, if we think about which international organizations were relevant during the pandemic, in regional terms, the European Union was relevant, because it learned to make joint purchases and manage vaccination schedules in an area, health, that it’s common policy. And in international terms, despite its limits, I think the World Health Organization (WHO) was relevant. But basically, many organizations were not relevant.
In this Ukraine crisis, for example, the United Nations. I quoted as a metaphor: Is it possible that, on the day the UN Secretary General goes to Kiev, Russia, which is a member of the Security Council, decides to bomb Kiev? It’s between disrespect and humiliation. And there is very little room for diplomacy.
One reason is because both sides are convinced they can win. And this does not favor the beginning of a negotiation, contrary to what is thought. And there are few entities, at the moment, capable of mediating. There were many European Union countries that asked China to mediate and China did not want to. Probably, he thought he would have a problem in his arms and would not be able to solve it.
Was it fear of being blamed for failure, if any?
That. For example, this small big deal that would release grain exports, which are from Ukraine and Russia does not allow exports — although there are responsibilities for the mines placed in the sea on both sides — but, objectively, Russia hijacked a part of the Ukrainian wheat and he can’t get out of Odessa. There are 85 boats stopped in Odessa. And 22.5 million tons that are sorely lacking in food, mainly from North and East Africa. We needed more effective international organizations, more mediators and with more power to avoid situations like this.
How do you see the role of the UN going forward?
The UN has two entities in the two things we talk about: the World Health Organization and the FAO. The work they do is indisputable, but, in a conflict situation, apparently it is not enough to restore the channels. Globalization has had many benefits, especially to the Southern Hemisphere. I see criticism of the Northern Hemisphere.
What are the benefits of globalization?
It took many people out of extreme poverty. My question is: Have we learned the lessons from the pandemic or this Ukraine war, and in the next global crisis, will we be better prepared? That is the decisive question. It could be that the next crisis is about the climate. There are many indicators that point to this. And if it arrives — when it arrives — we have learned from the failures of the pandemic and the failures of this situation in the 21st century, is it still possible for a war between nations on the edge of Europe? That’s my point. We need a serious strengthening and modernization of multilateralism.
Do you see great leaders capable of undertaking these changes?
Not. I’m going to talk about the democratic world, those who choose their leaders. We are choosing more and more extreme people. Moderates have a hard time living in this “social media” democracy. And that’s not good for the future, quite frankly. People should have realized what happened in the United States by now. The United States was having a coup on January 6, 2021.
The Capitol Invasion…
…in the strongest democracy in the world. All that was spread by “social media”. Using social media. The internet is fantastic. It changed our lives, it was the most important revolution of our lives. But, be careful: The political vanguards that took over the platforms, I think they are constantly a factor of radicalization, of insult, it is not possible to have a serene discussion. People end up insulting each other. They don’t want to be right, they want to insult the opponent. This ends up resulting in little room for compromise, for agreement. And we are seeing that in many countries of the democratic world. In addition, more and more people are living in authoritarian regimes.
Is there this danger in Brazil?
It would be very impolite of me to talk about such a sensitive topic.
But we are experiencing a polarization right now.
All of Latin America is. I think that a Portuguese person should refrain from commenting on Brazilian foreign policy, but I can contextualize. All of Latin America is going through a cycle, it was like that in Bolivia, in an extreme way, in Peru, it will be like that in Colombia, and, certainly, with the influence of social networks and the capture that political social networks make of the agenda, Latin America is experiencing a moment of extreme polarization, in which you have neither center-left nor center-right. It has extreme left and extreme right. Aren’t there a few reasonable people in the middle? I think that the progress of societies is not made by extremes. It is done by agreement, step by step, compromise, negotiation, reform. It’s very hard. I think that Latin America would have an opportunity to get out of this global crisis: Latin America is a natural producer of energy and food for the world. The world is experiencing a period of food shortages due to the factors I have already mentioned, and an uncontrolled rise in energy prices.
In relation to Europe, are we also experiencing this polarization?
There were elections in France. The French are perhaps the most political people in Europe. 52% did not go to vote. I think this should open our eyes. What is happening in European democracies? It is another symptom that something is not right. This should make us think about some disease that is affecting democracies.
Is democracy really sick?
I think there is a weariness of the idea that there is room for maneuver to make a difference, there is a weariness of corruption. Europeans have become peoples who are unwilling to give up anything. They reached a very high level of comfort. They want the best of all worlds at the same time. Sometimes this is not possible. Brexit (the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union) in Europe’s oldest democracy, with a huge manipulation of arguments, is something to think about. It must be stressed that, in the so-called digital democracy, there is no past and no long term. The past was last night and the long run is tomorrow morning at best.
And don’t you delve into the themes?
Anything. I said there: Almost no problem the world has to solve is simple, it doesn’t fit in 142 characters. And so this digital democracy leads to a simplification of what is complex. Simplification calls for manipulation. A significant part of accounts and profiles are fake. We get to the point of arguing with people who don’t exist and we accept that. And this is what I find revealing: We accept this. I’m a little worried about the dominance of radicalization and the short term, and the idea that there are magic solutions for things that don’t have magic solutions.
Inflation has no magic solution, it is a very complex issue. Inflation has a big energy component and there is no magic. Raising interest rates harms the economy, but it is the only way to control inflation. You, in Brazil, know very well what the inflation dragon is. I have great admiration for a man who helped bring economic rationality to Brazil, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, whom I really like.
What is possible to do in this preparation in relation to the international order, for example?
There are some possible stability pillars to reduce unpredictability. The relationship between China and the United States, for example. It is evident that the States are the biggest economy in the world and, of course, China is more ambitious, but it would be important that there was a minimum of management of this competitiveness between the two countries. And we have to pay attention to Asia. Look what happened to women in Afghanistan, they can no longer go to school, walk in the same garden where the men are. They can no longer travel abroad. And now, dramatically, they have to put on the burqa again. This happened in nine months. There is the Taiwan problem, which is very sensitive. But it is true that we needed the relationship between the two superpowers to be more stable. We also need economic governance of globalization. It is indisputable that globalization has lifted many people out of poverty. But it is also true that the gap (the distance) between those who have and those who do not has widened. And a balance had to be found in that. My notion of equality is equality of opportunity. God did not make two people alike. If it were egalitarian, it would have made us equal. Now, equal opportunities for me to be able to put on a great talent, as I saw at the Castro Alves Theater in Salvador.