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Rebuilding Brazilian Foreign Policy From Scratch

The world today is very different from what Lula found when he last inhabited the presidential palace. Important allies now find themself on opposite sides in a confrontational international environment

By: /
20 December, 2022
Brazilian president-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva speaks during the COP27 climate conference in Egypt's Red Sea resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh on November 16, 2022. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)
Raphael Tsavkko Garcia
By: Raphael Tsavkko Garcia

Few Presidents have so systematically dismantled their country’s foreign policy as much as Jair Bolsonaro.

For decades, Brazil has played an active role in multilateral diplomacy with “a progressive foreign policy focussed on human rights, the environment, women’s rights and the protection of indigenous rights.  That is, Brazil’s international behaviour mirrored the country’s own democratisation process” according to Carlos Milani, Vice-Director of the Institute for Social and Political Studies (IESP) at the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ).

Under Bolsonarismo, each of these causes was dismissed as “cultural Marxism” and the international organizations where such issues were discussed condemned as talking shops of the left. The outgoing president “adopted a diplomatic narrative directly at odds with any prior tradition [in foreign policy] such as leadership in multilateral institutions and the role Brazil often played as a mediator of conflicts in Latin America.”

Bolsonaro’s approach to the Amazon rainforest, which caused significant harm to Brazil’s reputation on the global stage, also came in for intense international criticism, damaging the country’s reputation as a responsible steward of the environment.

In addition, Bolsonaro’s combative style has caused completely avoidable problems in Brazil’s foreign relations. After France raised concerns about deforestation in the Amazon, the far-right president insulted Emmanuel Macron’s wife on social media. He frequently made inflammatory remarks on a range of issues, including race, gender, and sexual orientation, which offended and alienated other nations.

So much for Brazil’s decade-long quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. After four years of Bolsonaro, says Milton Deiró, a researcher at the science and technology institute SENAI CIMATEC, “Brazil can forget it.”

How to rebuild a foreign policy in tatters?

Based on the past actions and statements of the once-and-future-President Lula da Silva, it is possible to make some educated guesses about the direction Brazilian foreign policy might take.

Rebuilding regional leadership will feature prominently. During his presidency from 2003 to 2011, da Silva prioritized regional integration and cooperation. He worked to build stronger ties with other countries in the region, even including the U.S. during the Bush administration.

Lula is also likely to prioritize environmental issues in foreign policy. In his previous terms as President, he was a strong advocate for climate action and worked to position Brazil as a leader in the global fight against climate change. His successor as president, Dilma Rousseff, was not able to maintain this leadership on environmental issues, earning worldwide condemnation for the construction of the Belo Monte Dam which disrupted a major tributary of the Amazon River.

As Felippe Ramos, a political analyst at the New School for Social Research, notes, “Lula’s third term is likely to be especially attentive to environmental issues, and the theme has grown amid developed countries in the last decade with governments spending more on the transition towards low carbon economies.  It is an easy win for Lula to show to international audiences how starkly different he is after Bolsonaro’s disastrous attacks on the Amazon.”

Turning the pendulum back from right to left can only help in some parts of the foreign policy agenda, however.

When it comes to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the Brazilian left has supported Russia. In February, the Workers’ Party leadership in the Senate published a note on the party’s website in which it “condemns the long-term US policy of aggression against Russia.”

In July, Ukraine included then-candidate Lula da Silva on a list of personalities spreading pro-Russia propaganda for saying that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would be as guilty for the war as Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.

These statements reflect an instinctive alignment with Russia, and with Communist China as well as a traditional anti-Americanism among Latin American leftists.

The explosive reaction to these statements suggests that Lula will be up against a different international environment in 2023 than he was in 2003. Within hours, after immense negative repercussions, the Senate party leadership note was taken offline. The incoming president’s name was removed from the Ukrainian list shortly afterwards without further explanation.

When he was president before, Lula tried to avoid antagonizing the U.S.. He maintained pragmatic relations with the country despite the ideological positioning of his party. In the far more combative international environment of 2023, those skills will be put to the test.

For the new Lula administration, says Deiró, the international environment “will be a rough sea with floating mines lurking everywhere – starting with the war in Ukraine, the disruption of global supply chains and the shortage of fuel.”

The world today is very different from what Lula found when he last inhabited the presidential palace. Important allies now find themself on opposite sides, lining their ships up for battle. The president-elect will have to use all his skill to navigate the turbulent seas between them.

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