What to expect from Brazil’s new foreign policy IG News

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Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was due to meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in late March. Beijing would have been Lula’s fourth international destination in less than 100 days in office.

Lula was forced to cancel his visit after contracting pneumonia, which was to be attended by 200 businessmen. His administration hoped that the trip to China would ease political pressure at home.

Since returning to the presidency (his previous term was 2003–2010), Lula has already visited partners in the South American trade bloc Mercosur, Argentina and Uruguay, and most recently met with US President Joe Biden and members of Went to Washington DC for talks. Democratic Party on infrastructure investment, trade and climate change.

Globetrotting sounds like quite an endeavor for the 77-year-old, third-term president, who faces a deeply divided society. But Lula does it with a smile on her face. Since he first took office 20 years ago, the former metalworker has risen to the challenge of international diplomacy as a natural negotiator with political charm.

building political legitimacy

As Lula begins his third term, foreign policy will be a tool for building his own domestic political legitimacy. His reputation is currently more visible abroad than at home.

Always a determined player on the international stage, Lula’s administration led to the creation of UNASUR, a South American organization established to offset US economic and political power in the region. He also built several alliances in the developing world.

Although Lula left office in 2010 with an impressive 83% approval rating, much of his political capital waned in the years that followed. This was largely thanks to the miserable economic performance of his successor, Dilma Rousseff, and mounting corruption allegations against top leaders in her Workers’ Party.

But despite being indicted and imprisoned for corruption in early 2018 (at which point his domestic popularity plummeted), the foreign celebrities’ praise has endured. Some even visited Lula in prison, protesting the political persecution of the former president.

So, at age 77 — and with health problems — a big diplomatic game may be his best bet for leaving a presidential legacy.

Challenges of a New World Order

But Brazil’s potential as a meaningful international player will depend on the administration’s ability to navigate a world that is fundamentally different from the one in the early 2000s.

The country is also not in its best shape. In the years following Lula’s first two terms, Brazil went through a decade of decline, introspection and isolation.

Much of this is owed to his immediate predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. Under Bolsonaro’s watch, Brazil ranked second in total COVID deaths with 700,000 recorded deaths. Vast areas of rainforest were burned, and the lands of the Yanomami indigenous people were devastated by large amounts of mining.

So, while Lula will have to capitalize on any residual international popularity to relaunch Brazil as a global player, he will have to do much more to restore his country’s economy and heal the wounds of a divided society.

Lula’s first task internationally – a difficult challenge – is to balance his relations with Washington and Beijing, Brazil’s two main partners. So far, his new administration’s even-handed strategy has worked well. But if tensions between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping lead to further political instability – or if a Republican with a zero-sum approach to China gets elected in 2024, Brazil could find itself in a difficult position.

A ship being loaded at a Brazilian port.
Chinese investment in Brazil has become increasingly important.
Reuters/ Alamy

Lula has attempted to anticipate these problems by offering to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine. This was a way of dodging criticism by Western powers, who wanted Brazil to engage in military aid to the Ukrainian government while preserving Brazil’s longstanding ties with Russia.

Lula’s views on war are part of what researchers have termed “active non-alignment”. It is part of a broader Latin American strategy to safeguard the policy space and instruments for national development strategies in an increasingly polarized international order. By projecting itself as a high-profile mediator, Brazil seeks to maintain trade and cooperation with all parties to the conflict.

Lula’s Balancing Trick

But Russian-Ukrainian peace appears far off – and it will hardly come through intermediaries from the developing world. If Lula wants to create a legacy, he needs to build on Brazil’s already existing potential, both in multilateral and regional terms.

One possible way is to restore Brazil’s activism in the United Nations. They should also re-establish cooperation on issues as diverse as climate change, biodiversity, indigenous rights, vaccines, food security and development.

The second way is to rebuild South American integration. Regional organizations such as MERCOSUR and UNASUR can help strengthen global supply chains in critical sectors such as energy and food disrupted by the war in Ukraine. To do this, Brazil must reclaim its role as the continent’s center of economic gravity.

But there’s one obstacle: Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan president. An ongoing political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has exposed the dangers of left-wing authoritarianism. Lula is one of the few leaders who has open channels with Maduro and may be able to help the country work towards national reconciliation.

The question is whether Lula wants to join in. Unlike the leftist leaders who recently came to power in Chile and Colombia, Lula and the Workers’ Party have been uncharacteristically sympathetic to dictators such as Maduro in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

Overcoming the Brazilian left’s outmoded views on totalitarian socialism and anti-imperialism could be as difficult a challenge for the Lula administration as leaving a good diplomatic legacy. But both steps are necessary if Lula really wants to make a difference in the region – and the world.