Bolsonaro's foreign policy legacy means hard work ahead for Lula

In his victory speech on October 28, 2018, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro declared, “We will regain international respect for our beloved Brazil.” However, four years later as his presidency comes to an end, his foreign policy track record leaves many challenges for his successor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who will take office on 1 January 2023. Throughout his term Bolsonaro’s polarization, anti-globalist rhetoric and controversial stances on global governance challenges led to Brazil’s increasing isolation on the world stage and significant reputational damage with ramifications for the country’s bilateral ties.   

In office, Bolsonaro pursued an anti-environmental agenda, publicly doubting the science behind climate change. He embraced conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19 and downplayed the virus while promoting unfounded allegations of voter fraud in US and Brazilian elections. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s government did not deliver results that could elevate the country’s status internationally.  

All of the above was closely monitored by foreign media outlets and met with international concern and criticism. Brazil, the largest country and economy in Latin America, was once a regional leader and internationally acknowledged for its soft power. However, many observers and foreign policy makers begun to view Brazil as a less reliable partner.  

Lack of a coherent foreign policy agenda 

This view was reinforced by the lack of a coherent foreign policy agenda under Bolsonaro. The president’s rhetoric and foreign policy actions were often conflicting, revealing no overarching strategy. For example, Bolsonaro rhetorically embraced a democracy-guided foreign policy while defending Brazil’s military dictatorship and making groundless attacks against his country’s electronic voting system.

Despite criticism, Bolsonaro visited Putin just days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, refused to condemn Russian actions and declared that Brazil will remain neutral in the matter. In addition to angering key Western allies through his controversial stance on the war in Ukraine, the stark inconsistencies between Bolsonaro’s discourse and foreign policy decisions underlined the external uncertainty regarding Brazil as a foreign policy actor. In the absence of a coherent foreign policy, Bolsonaro’s foreign policy was primarily driven by populist themes and aimed at pleasing his domestic supporters. Compared to other right-wing populists in power, such as Donald Trump, Bolsonaro turned little to nothing of his populist themes and anti-globalist rhetoric into concrete foreign policy actions. 

Attempted break with diplomatic traditions 

Bolsonaro’s Brasil acima de tudo (Brazil above everything) discourse and campaign promises indicated a break with Brazil’s diplomatic traditions such as multilateralism and universal relations. However, this break with previous Brazilian foreign policy was partially contained by geopolitical realities such as an increasing reliance on China as well as technocratic and military influence in the government.

Bolsonaro attempted to facilitate change by placing members of the government’s ideological wing in key foreign policy positions and introducing institutional reforms in Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, seemingly in an effort to erode the institution’s power. He made Ernesto Araújo, a conspiracy theorist and climate-change denier, the minister of foreign affairs and unsuccessfully attempted to make his son Eduardo Bolsonaro the Brazilian ambassador to the US.  

Araújo resigned in March 2021 in response to mounting criticism. His replacement, Carlos Alberto França, reversed some of his predecessor’s institutional reforms and expanded the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ capabilities in health diplomacy and sustainable development. While the technocrats and bureaucrats have partially prevailed over the ideological wing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ loss of influence, such as to state governments, will be longer lasting.  

Bolsonaro’s skepticism of and continuous attacks on multilateral forums resulted in action. In January 2019, Brazil withdrew from the Global Compact for Migration and, in January 2020, the country withdrew from the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). Bolsonaro’s administration also repeatedly threatened to withdraw from Mercosur, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris Agreement on climate change.  

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Soured bilateral relations  

In multilateral and bilateral matters, Bolsonaro opted for a distinct foreign policy style and tone that, by most accounts, did not lead to any significant, lasting improvements in Brazil’s bilateral relations and, in several cases, has had the opposite effect.

In contrast with Brazil’s diplomatic tradition of preserving universal relations, Bolsonaro’s government repeatedly attacked foreign governments and got involved in their domestic affairs. This soured relations and even led to the summoning of Brazilian ambassadors in countries such as Chile, Bolivia, Uruguay and Iran.  

Bolsonaro pursued closer ties with the US during the presidency of Donald Trump, whom he and his inner circle saw as an important, like-minded ally on several fronts. This manifested itself in several visits to the US by Bolsonaro and other Brazilian officials and produced outcomes such as Trump’s support for Brazil’s OECD membership bid. However, Bolsonaro’s initiative was somewhat one-sided, as Trump did not pay a single visit to Brazil, the bilateral trade balance remained unequal and, according to some experts, the closed bilateral agreements heavily favored the US. Since President Joe Biden has taken office, Brazil-US relations have been less friendly. Bolsonaro and Biden fundamentally disagreed on many international issues, such as climate change, and Bolsonaro groundlessly claimed that Biden’s election victory was fraudulent.  

During his campaign and later as president, Bolsonaro frequently attacked China but his anti-China discourse translated into few policy actions and took no toll on the countries’ economic relations. While Bolsonaro’s 2018 visit to Taiwan angered Chinese officials, in 2021, bilateral trade between Brasil and China reached a new all-time high of USD 135 billion and China continues to be one of the largest investors in Brazil’s infrastructure. Bolsonaro’s attempt to distance Brazil from China was primarily rhetoric to appeal to his base.    

Bolsonaro’s positions on matters such as nationalism, indigenous rights and the environment were not well received in most European countries and contributed to significantly strained relations. His attacks on European governments accusing them of spreading misinformation about Brazil and being greedy for natural resources further exacerbated the situation. Several EU member states remain resistant to ratifying the EU-Mercosur free trade agreement, among others, because of Bolsonaro’s position on the exploitation of the Amazon and, as a result, he represented one of the barriers to what would be an important win for Brazil, Mercosur and the EU. His anti-environmental agenda also damaged ties with Norway and Germany – Brazil’s strategic European partners in the fight against climate change – which ultimately suspended payments to the Amazon Fund. Close to the end of his presidency, Bolsonaro’s only European ally left is Hungary’s right-wing and largely isolated President Victor Orbán.  

Brazil’s relationship with its traditional strategic partner Argentina also suffered under Bolsonaro. While Bolsonaro pursued closer ties with Argentina under the center-right President Mauricio Macri, the countries’ relations began to stall due to ideological differences when Macri lost his October 2019 reelection to the center-left candidate Alberto Fernández. Bolsonaro refused to acknowledge Fernández’s election victory and did not attend his inauguration.   

Lula’s challenges 

On Sunday, October 30th, Lula won reelection and was quick to proclaim in his election speech that “Brazil is back”. Between 2003 and 2010, when Lula first governed the country, he led an “active and assertive” foreign policy that, arguably, succeeded in boosting the country’s international standing. Brazil established its position as a rising leader by taking a prominent role in multilateral forums such as the G20 and the BRICS; strengthening regional integration through MERCOSUR, UNASUL and CELAC and responding to international troubles such as the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti and the Iran nuclear deal  

Throughout his campaign and in many of his speeches, he has vowed to restore the country’s international credentials. However, the current juncture offers new challenges that preclude the repetition of the past international program and hinder the fulfillment of Brazil’s frustrated ambitions.  

Despite having defeated Bolsonaro, Lula will inherit his opponent’s strong political following, who will be eager to complicate the prospects of pursuing an agenda that may affront views. Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party (PL) will hold the largest benches in both houses of congress and Bolsonaro-backed governors will rule the majority of Brazilian states.  Lula’s new opposition, with the power to obstruct the approval of treaties and the appointment of ambassadors, will be quick to convert Brazil’s foreign relations into anti-globalist fear-mongering, scrutinizing every foreign policy move, while the governors of Brazil’s three most populous states – São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais – will have little disposition to help with their paradiplomatic apparatuses. 

The coming administration will also face obstacles beyond Brazil’s borders. Regionally, concerted international efforts will be hindered by the need to conciliate more pronounced disagreements between the Latin American left and the need to pick up the pieces of the largely dismantled integration framework. On a larger scale, Brazil will have to contend with increasing competition between its top commercial partners, China and the US. The ensuing economic decoupling, disruption of global value chains and decreased appetite for Brazilian commodities will limit opportunities for growth through trade, while crises such as the War in Ukraine will beg Brazil to pick sides in international disputes and undermine the neutrality of international forums such as the BRICS.  

Although Lula will not face the same favorable conditions as in his first government, his current international outlook is not without its opportunities. The quick recognition of Lula’s election demonstrates the international community is eager to welcome the veteran leader back to the world stage. Lula’s commitments to protect biodiversity and reduce deforestation are likely to be met with open arms and will (re-)enable cooperation on matters of the environment and climate change. He is likely to make use of the momentum to put Brazil back on the international diplomatic map and restore Brazil’s environmental image abroad, making Brazil a more active player in international climate diplomacy.   

The domestic and international restrictions at play still offer easy wins should he place a moderate name at the helm of foreign relations and embrace Brazil’s potential for climate leadership. In this sense, his coalition’s embrace of centrist allies and commitment to combatting deforestation can secure international prestige and investment flows.