international analysis and commentary

Brazil, back on the world stage

A version of this article is published in Aspenia International 2-2023


If in crossing the ocean the melancholy of fado is diluted into the irony and energy of the bossanova, it is not always easy for an introspective and even somewhat introverted Europe to follow Brazil’s steps as it moves, unpretentiously, with determination and vigor. After Jair Messias Bolsonaro’s four years in office, largely a result of widespread dissatisfaction and of grassroots resentment over his predecessors’ mistakes, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s return to the presidency of the Republic in January 2023 has impressed a new dynamic on the polarized country. Brazil is struggling with game-changing challenges and no longer fully believes in the rosy future invariably forecast.

With Lula, who has roared back to grab the limelight once again after the anger over the lawcourts’ questionable verdict and the humiliation of almost two years in jail, Brazil is turning over a new leaf. The country is returning to its tried-and-tested policy based on pursuing consensus and integration at home while playing a leading role on the international stage. The country has yet to heal the wounds inflicted by the dangerous institutional clash fomented by an outgoing president who refused to acknowledge his challenger’s election. Bolsonaro even fueled an attempt at armed sedition in a replay of the assault on Capitol Hill in Washington that enjoyed the blessing of that poor example, Donald Trump.

Lula is now trying to win back the confidence of broad swathes of a population weary of often self-referential, predatory and ineffectual politics. At the same time, the traditional problems of social inequality, regional inequality, technological and industrial dualism, sustainable development and environmental protection are still all there on the table. In fact, the table is positively groaning under the weight of all the issues on the agenda.


LULA’S INTERNATIONAL PROACTIVISM. Brazil’s agenda is even weightier in the sphere of foreign relations. Bolsonaro and his random diplomacy deliberately restricted Brazil’s role on the international stage, almost to the point of snuffing it out altogether. The pressure of domestic priorities and a mistaken impression that synergy with other Latin American countries and important partners was of no consequence cut deeply into Brazil’s role and ambitions during his four years in office. This led to the country’s self-isolation on the international stage and a situation that was both unique and penalizing for its national interests. The Foreign Ministry’s new secretary general, Maria Laura Rocha (the first woman to hold that top diplomatic position), has aptly called it an “eclipse”.

Bolsonaro’s “Brazil First!” mantra ended up relegating the country to the back of the global line. A photograph of the G20 meeting in Rome in 2021 sums it up perfectly. During a break in the session, the G20 leaders are having animated conversations in groups while Bolsonaro, standing alone in a corner, stares emptily into space. The image is symptomatic not of the G20 leaders’ wish to sideline a major country such as Brazil (which would be stupid) but of Bolsonaro’s determination to pull out of multilateral forums and politics.

We can gauge the consequences of this. For example, it is the new government that is now making the mandatory payments to such international organizations as the AIEA, the WTO, the WHO, the ILO and the ICC that the previous government had decided to forgo, thereby weakening Brazil’s ability to act on the global level.

Lula is reviving the international proactivism that characterized his first two presidential mandates (2003-2006 and 2007–2010) and rapidly restoring relations with the main players on the world’s stage. As early as in November 2022, shortly after he had won the presidential election but before his formal inauguration, Lula was determined to attend the COP27 talks in Egypt. He was greeted with enthusiasm there on account of his commitment to protecting the environment and, in particular, to defend the Amazon rainforest from the threat of deforestation.

Here too, we see a break with the position adopted by Bolsonaro, who was in favor of the most intensive economic exploitation of the Amazon’s resources and less than sensitive to the goals of environmental protection. The previous government pulled Brazil out of the UN’s Amazon Multi-Partner Trust Fund set up fifteen years ago to finance sustainable development projects in the region. Indeed, it is no mere coincidence that at the helm of the new Brazilian government’s Environment Ministry we find Marina Silva, a leading figure in the struggle in favor of the environment. Furthermore, Brasilia has offered to host the 2025 COP talks in Belém while also reactivating its participation in the Amazon MPTF and facilitating new funding.

In February 2023, Lula flew to Washington for talks with Biden; in April he was with Xi Jinping in Beijing, then he visited Europe’s leading countries. He held cordial, in-depth talks with Giorgia Meloni in Italy that were extremely promising for potential developments of a bilateral and multilateral nature, regardless of the two leaders’ different political leanings. In May he held an intense series of meetings on the sidelines of the G7 in Hiroshima in the outreach aptly promoted by the Japanese. In addition to all this, he is imparting a fresh thrust to regional dialogue and to cooperation within Mercosur, while also breathing new life into the draft agreement with the European Union that has been waiting some twenty years for a final version capable of meeting both parties’ expectations. Lula is also bringing Brazil back into the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), from which Bolsonaro’s government had pulled out a few years earlier.


Watch: Brasile: il perché dell’ampio sostegno internazionale a Lula


The government is seeking to revive the UNASUR, an accord among South American countries designed to counter the NAFTA, faulted back in the day for its allegedly excessive subordination to the will of Washington. It is planning to restore previously frozen communications with Maduro’s Venezuela and to offer its services in a brave attempt to mediate between the regime and the opposition. Lula has no trouble criticizing US policy toward Caracas (“US sanctions against Venezuela are worse than a war”).

Brasilia is also seeking to impart a fresh thrust to the conclusion of a free-trade agreement between Mercosur and China, an extremely important partner for Brazil’s economy. To confirm the importance of the increased weight carried by China in Brazil in recent years, we have but to look at a few figures: trade between the two countries stood at $152 billion in 2022 with a $62 billion surplus in favor of the Latin American country. The Chinese have invested $70 billion in Brazil in the past two decades, a figure that accounts for more than 40% of overall Chinese investment in the region.


STRIKING A BALANCE BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND CHINA. Relations with China could become even stronger in Lula’s third mandate thanks to funding from the AIIB. But in parallel with that, it is more than likely that we will be seeing stronger ties also with the BRICS’ New Development Bank chaired by former Brazilian President Dilma Roussef, Lula’s erstwhile protégé and still very close to him. In any event, the government in Brasilia considers China to be a parner of strategic importance worth cultivating, not only on economic grounds.

Thus an idea that is beginning to take shape is that Brazil should espouse a kind of “pragmatic autonomy” from the world’s major players in the hope, primarily, of being able to strike a perfect balance in relations with the United States on the one hand and with China on the other. While the White House has reassured Lula that it intends to make major investments in the semiconductor production chain, Brazil is looking with equal interest at China’s investments in infrastructure (ports, roads) and in the mineral, oil and food sectors. There are converging interests both with Washington in the fields of social justice and environmental policy, and with Beijing on account of its substantial investments and synergies, particularly in connection with the export of Brazil’s agricultural produce. In general terms, China is an extremely interesting outlet for Brazil, whose exports to the Asian giant are now worth three times the value of its exports to the United States.

Assisted by his international affairs advisor Celso Amorim (Brazil’s diplomatic chief for many years during Lula’s first two mandates) and by Foreign Minister Mauro Viera (back at the helm of the Itamaraty after having been foreign minister in Dilma Rousseff’s government), Lula is eager to win a place on the international political stage worthy of Brazil’s size and role. After all, it is the sixth largest country in the world in terms of population. Hence his insistent claim for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, in the context of a reform considered even more necessary today in light of the deadlock in the UN body’s decision-making process.

President Lula with Mauro Vieira and Celso Amorim


He also nurtures a thoroughly political determination to bolster ties among the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), to vigorously back the admission to the group of the new members selected at the recent summit in Johannesburg (Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia and Iran), to press for a common reference currency in international trade as an alternative to the US dollar, and to proudly underscore the power achieved by the bloc. The BRICS, after all, currently account for some 32% of the world’s GDP (as opposed to 29% for the G7) and that percentage is expected to grow by 4% next year, when estimates for the G7 are no higher than a modest 1.4%.


MISTAKES ALONG THE WAY. The prospect of a political role and of international recognition for the country may also prompt Brazil to make a few mistakes along the way. After Russia attacked Ukraine, the country subscribed to the condemnation of the attack by a majority of member states in the UN, but then it failed to back sanctions against Russia. Speaking in Beijing, Lula also made a number of unfortunate public remarks on the “equal responsibility of Russia and Ukraine in this war” and on the “continuation of hostilities that depends primarily on the countries that are supplying weapons” (the United States and Europe). Those words, whether premeditated or not, reveal a position far too unbalanced for him to aspire with any credibility to playing a mediator’s role between the warring parties.

The Brazilian hypothesis of forging a “club for peace” to foster a compromise capable of halting the fighting has not made much progress, indeed. So far the diplomatic initiative announced with a great deal of rhetoric has spawned a single, inconclusive meeting between Celso Amorim and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, never followed up by a matching meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv. This proves to Brazilian diplomats just how sadly fraught with obstacles is the road to peace and how illusory it is to place one’s trust in pious declarations of intent so distant from crude reality.


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


Still, we should not underestimate the energy and the capability that Brazil can deploy on the international stage. Its solidarity and interest in what is known as the Global South are not the product of an impulsive decision. On the contrary, they have been firmly fixed for some time now in the minds of Lula and, above all, of Amorim. Lula’s leading advisor is the brains behind his foreign policy; he is a diplomat who is both experienced and, occasionally, curt in his dealings with the West. Even if the mediation initiative between Russia and Ukraine has not worked, Brazil’s expectations and demands certainly merit serious attention.


PUTTING OUR MONEY ON AN IMPORTANT PARTNER. The West, and Europe in particular, should unreservedly rekindle their dialogue with Brazil on issues of common interest on the global agenda. The climate emergency, protection of the environment, transparent and regulated trade, development aid, the struggle against poverty and cooperation in the health sector are only the first few items on an agenda that needs to be shared and addressed in an open and constructive spirit. Others may follow, as will discussions on how to update the mechanisms and tools of global governance. The important thing is to emerge, and to emerge together, from the rationale of a showdown among blocs.

It is not too late to attempt to launch a new ethic in international relations, to revive the ability to listen in both the north and south of the globe in order to rebuild confidence in reason and balance. Even with its new commitment to the variegated – and oh so uneven – world of the BRICS, a free, democratic and tolerant Brazil can still be a priority partner for the West. There is no lack of ideas. We shall have to wait and see whether there is the will.

For us in Europe (and Italy in particular), playing some of our cards in earnest might persuade Brazil to acknowledge the fact that we too – alongside the larger BRICS group – offer a friendly and beneficial shoulder to lean on. Moreover, doing that might even help us to overcome a certain degree of resignation, of latent fado-like nostalgia for the world of yesteryear.



*A version of this article is published in Aspenia International 2-2023