international analysis and commentary

Back to the international arena, Brazil’s diplomatic ambitions unnerve the West

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Since he took power in January, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has succeeded in breaking with Jair Bolsonaro’s isolationism. Now, the leader of Latin America’s largest nation is aiming to expand Brazil’s role in global affairs, from climate change to the path to peace in Ukraine and the reform of the United Nations. However, Lula’s willingness to engage with undemocratic regimes, like China, Russia and Venezuela, is causing uneasiness in the West.

On May 29th, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was welcomed by an honor guard at the Palacio do Planalto, Brazil’s presidential palace, before he was greeted by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with a hug and a smile. The meeting ended an eight-year hiatus of visits by the leader of Venezuela to Brasilia and encapsulated Lula’s ambitions to restore Brazil’s links with political and trading partners around the globe, regardless of their political system.

Formerly a close ally, Brazil had virtually halted diplomatic links with Venezuela after Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro won the 2018 presidential election. The far-right President had aligned with the United States and dozens of other countries that had retaliated against Maduro’s allegedly undemocratic regime by recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president.

“I think it is really absurd that they deny that Maduro is president of Venezuela,” Lula said after meeting Maduro, clearly breaking with Bolsonaro’s stance. In Brasilia, Lula and Maduro held a press conference and lambasted US sanctions on Venezuela—a retaliation for cracking down on Maduro’s opponents and violating human rights. Lula argued that Washington had been using a “constructed narrative of authoritarianism” to justify the “extremely exaggerated” economic measures against Caracas.

Venezuela’s Maduro and Brazil’s Lula at their meeting in Brasilia in May

 

According to the World Report 2023 by Human Rights Watch, “the government [of Maduro] has jailed political opponents and disqualified them from running for office,” while “the authorities harass and persecute journalists, human rights defenders, and civil society organizations.” Turmoil in the country has also sparked “an exodus of some 7.1 million Venezuelans”, “one of the largest migration crises in the world.”

 

Brazil’s diplomatic ambitions

A day after meeting Maduro, Lula hosted twelve leaders of Latin America in Brasilia and called to revive the project of integration and regional partnership, which Lula and his advisors see as strategic to limit US hegemony in the region.

“We need to refuse to spend another five hundred years on the periphery,” Lula said as he addressed his counterparts from Argentina, Chile and Colombia, among others. Uruguay and Chili quickly distanced from the project and criticized Maduro’s government.

Lula’s charm offensive towards Latin America is part of a series of unambiguous diplomatic initiatives to end Bolsonaro’s diplomatic legacy, restore the country’s influence in international affairs, and advance in the objective of gaining a larger role in international institutions. At the core of Brazil’s demands is a reform of the United Nations that would allow a series of emerging powers to earn a permanent seat at the Security Council.

 

Read also: Bolsonaro’s defeat and Lula’s comeback

 

As explains Vinícius Guilherme Rodrigues Vieira, Associate Professor of Economics and International Relations at the Armando Alvares Penteado Foundation (FAAP), none of these demands are new. They recall Brasilia’s proactive diplomacy during Lula’s previous governments (2003-2006 and 2007-2010) to reform world governance and give more voice to rising and populated nations like Brazil.

“Brazil’s foreign policy is now rebuilding the bridges that Bolsonaro broke with China and Argentina, for instance,” explained Viera. “It’s a long time that Brazil’s doesn’t align automatically with Washington, but I’d have expected Lula to perceive more opportunities by engaging with the US and the European Union,” explained Viera, who argues that Lula’s international push to strengthen links with undemocratic regimes might antagonize the West.

 

An ambiguous view on Ukraine

One of the most controversial stances of Lula’s foreign policy is his view of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the role that Brazil should play in the conflict.

Continuing with Brazil’s traditional multilateralism and non-alignment approach to foreign policy, Lula refused Germany’s request to provide ammunition to Ukraine for German-built Gepard anti-aircraft guns. By contrast, Lula argued Brazil was “neutral” and proposed to form a “peace club” with other nations like Indonesia, Turkey and China with the aim of mediating with Kyiv and Moscow. The proposal recalls Brazil’s joint initiative with Turkey to get Iran to limit its nuclear program back in 2010, during Lula’s second term.

However, some experts have now cast doubts over Brazil’s ability to act as an honest and neutral broker after some controversial statements made by Lula over Ukraine. During a recent trip to China, Lula criticized both Washington and Brussels for not doing enough to “stop encouraging war”. He also suggested that Kyiv was partly responsible for the invasion and therefore, if it genuinely wanted to find a peaceful solution with Moscow, should give up parts of the territory Russia has annexed.

Lula’s words painting Ukraine and Russia as almost equally responsible for the war were criticized both at home and abroad. The Brazilian media recalled that Brazilian agribusiness rely heavily on Russian fertilizers to continue growing, but refused the idea that Kyiv was responsible for the invasion or should give up Crimea, as suggested by Lula. Ukraine rebuffed Lula’s approach because it put “the victim and the aggressor on the same scale”, while the United States accused the Brazilian leader of “parroting Russian and Chinese propaganda” on the conflict.

“Brazil has overstretched to mediate in the conflict,” argued scholar Viera, who thinks that Lula might be pressing for a peaceful solution to the conflict in order to “get some personal recognition like the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Despite the frictions, some experts believe that Brazil is actually in a good position to mediate. In addition, they recall that in the past Washington made the mistake of ignoring Brazilian initiatives of mediation, like with Iran’s nuclear program.

“Brazil is Ukraine’s best bet for peace,” wrote Jorge Heine, Professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, and Thiago Rodrigues, a scholar at the Federal Fluminense University in Rio de Janeiro state, in a recent article. “Given the state of Iran’s nuclear program today, the United States in 2010 arguably wasted a good opportunity to close a deal that was not perfect but good enough. Instead, Washington sabotaged Brazil’s efforts—and now seems to be paying the price… The lessons from Brazil’s Iran initiative should be applied to today’s war in Ukraine.”

 

The Chinese question

Why is Brazil interested in playing a role in Ukraine?

Analysts have recalled that, by proposing to broker a peace deal, Brazil has resumed its “active nonalignment” approach to foreign policy, which was fostered by Celso Amorim, Lula’s former Foreign minister and today a senior adviser to the Brazilian president. Amorim was Lula’s envoy in recent trips to both Moscow and Kyiv to meet Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky, respectively. Amorim also accompanied Lula this week as he met in Rome with Pope Francis, Italian President Sergio Mattarella, and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. The fight against climate change and the war in Ukraine were two topics at the top of the agenda.

Lula and Mattarella walking in the Quirinale’s court, in Rome

 

It is not the first time that Lula is personally involved in re-shaping Brazil’s foreign policy. During his previous terms, Lula became a globetrotter and expanded the network of Brazil’s posts overseas (embassies, consulates and other diplomatic offices). Building on his personal charisma and his social and economic achievements at home, where millions of Brazilians left poverty as the country’s economy boomed, Lula pursued an assertive diplomacy to open markets to Brazilian exports and claim a larger role in global affairs, often by criticizing the overwhelming power of Washington and the nefarious effects of the Iraq war. Amorim was the mastermind of that strategy, of that “audacious and, sometimes, irreverent, foreign policy,” as he wrote, that bore the fruit of a “leap forward” in Brazil’s diplomatic influence.

 

Read also: Il Brasile torna nel mondo: le prospettive di un grande Paese nel contesto internazionale

 

One of the major achievements of that approach was Brazil’s “global strategic partnership” with China. Bilateral trade has experienced an unprecedented 37-fold increase since Lula’s first term began in 2003 to reach $150 billion in 2022. Both countries were also crucial in founding the BRICS grouping of major emerging economies.

Last April, as the US-China crisis over the surveillance balloons added stress to an already tense relationship between the world’s largest economies, Lula travelled to Beijing to meet with President Xi Jinping.

“No one is going to prohibit Brazil from improving its relationship with China,” Lula said, in an obvious reference to the United States. “China is an indispensable force in global politics, economy and trade, science and technology, and plays a vital role in promoting world peace and development. Brazil is committed to building closer relations with China from the strategic perspective of shaping a just and equitable international order,” he added.

Xi Jinping with Lula in Beijing

 

Both countries signed a series of agreements and memoranda of understanding, while expressing the intention to use the BRICS’s New Development Bank to confront the dollar dominance and bypass the US currency when trading. “Every night I ask myself why all countries have to base their trade on the dollar,” Lula said in Shanghai. “Why can’t we do trade based on our own currencies?” Still, the fact that Brazil did not join China’s Belt and Road Initiative showed that, despite Lula’s rhetoric of further engagement with China, the leftist leader does not want to jeopardize Brazil’s links with the US or the EU.

“In that trip, Lula acted as a pragmatist,” said Viera, recalling that the state visit to China happened only after Lula had visited American President Joe Biden in Washington. On June 23, the Brazilian President is expected to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris as part of an European diplomatic tour that seems to be part of a complex, great balancing act to reclaim a larger role in global affairs for the Latin American giant, while reassuring Western countries that Brazil continues to be an ally.