Much Ado about nothing



Considerations on President Lula's recent international overtures

There is no doubt that the world is undergoing major geopolitical transformations. The rise of Asia, particularly China, has indeed presented unprecedented challenges to the postwar Western-centric liberal order, whose roots, in fact, go back to the European and American neocolonial expansions of the late XNUMXth century. These events were made more disturbing by the onset of a major military conflict in Ukraine, which helped to further polarize political alliances along East-West lines.

One would expect such trends to be confusing, and it takes a special effort on the part of international analysts to make sense of the complex dynamics playing out in today's world. This is particularly true when examining the role played by traditionally less influential countries in the international arena, whose fate largely depends on their ability to navigate the challenges and opportunities presented by an evolving global landscape.

One such country is Brazil, the largest society and economy in Latin America, and a nation that has recently experienced turmoil. Indeed, after a stable period of democratic consolidation that lasted between 1985 and 2015, Brazil has seen a rapid erosion of its democratic institutions, so painfully won in the long transition from military rule four decades ago. That process culminated in the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro, a divisive political figure whose authoritarian rhetoric and administrative mismanagement gave voice to an extreme right nostalgic for the dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s and cost more than 700 lives.

Although Jair Bolsonaro is no longer in power and faces several lawsuits, in one of which he was considered ineligible for eight years, Brazil faces the challenge of rebuilding not only democratic procedures, but also the democratic values ​​that need to be shared by all political actors if the country's democracy actually survives.

Those tasks are now primarily in the hands of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former president who served two extremely successful terms in the early 2000s but who has become a more polarizing figure in recent years. The country's unity will require great political skill, which Lula has already demonstrated, in addition to improvements on the economic front.

In a global economy shaped today by new inflationary trends, energy shortages and market instability, Lula's domestic success will largely depend on his international achievements. While Jair Bolsonaro was shrinking the country's relevance in the global arena, Lula had increased Brazil's presence by expanding the list of economic partners and diversifying strategic partnerships, particularly in the Global South; all this without compromising traditional relations with important actors such as the United States and the European Union.

Since taking office, the returned president has sought to promote a bold revival of his previous, highly effective, "active and haughty" foreign policy. But replicating Brazil's great achievements of 20 years ago is much more difficult in today's challenging and changing world. For this reason, Lula has made a point of starting his international pilgrimages by visiting traditional and central partners, such as neighboring nations and the United States.

In his first month in office, he participated in a meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations (Celac), in Argentina, where he expressed his desire to strengthen Brazil's relations in the region. Soon afterwards, Lula visited President Joe Biden in Washington, where the two leaders expressed their mutual desire to promote democracy and push for an environmentally sounder development path, particularly in the Amazon region. Once the trip was over, Lula visited China to deepen trade relations and try to lead a peace effort for the war in Ukraine. He then met with traditional allies such as Spain and Portugal, as well as Italy and France.

Considering these first actions, this “many friends” approach is not so different from Lula's experiences 20 years ago. At that time, Brazil was widely received as a rising diplomatic force in the developing world. President Barack Obama, during a meeting in 2009, highlighted Lula's “forward-looking leadership in Latin America and around the world”. What has changed since then are the domestic and global contexts in which Lula now operates.

Yet, regrettably, what was once seen as a progressive quest for an autonomous and assertive foreign policy is now being interpreted by many in Brazil and the West as divisive, inappropriate or even a betrayal of Brazil's traditional alignments. These views ignore not only Lula's previous international record, but also a broader historical perspective.

For more than a century, Brazil's diplomatic efforts have focused on promoting multilateralism and pushing for the peaceful resolution of conflicts. And as it drew closer to Western allies during World War II and the Cold War, Brazil's successive governments – whether progressive or conservative, democratic or authoritarian – pursued a policy of self-determination. Shaped by this dynamic, Brazilian foreign policy has served the country well as an instrument of its own development.

Considering all these elements, it is worrying to see that even qualified analyzes of Lula's attempt to reposition Brazil in the world after the fiasco of Bolsonaro's subservient alignment with the United States under Donald Trump still tend to be biased, particularly when evaluating the part for the whole.

In principle, some saw Lula's visit to China and his repeated attempts to urge peace talks in Ukraine as a sign that Lula was taking an anti-Western approach to international affairs. This is clearly not the case. Likewise, fears that Lula may be trying to create a China-backed anti-US Latin American alliance are unfounded and unsupported by the facts.

Yes, Lula gave Nicolás Maduro more prestige than advisable during his recent visit to Brasilia to participate in a meeting of South American nations. This, however, does not align Lula with Venezuela or diminish the role that Lula actually played in smoothing things over in that country, largely with the approval of the Bush administration at the beginning of the century.

Likewise, Lula's recent attempt to revive Unasur does face important challenges. But this does not in the same way diminish the fact that regional collaboration – a goal also pursued by Lula's predecessor – has proved to be a challenging but promising project, including with the aim of providing greater economic and political stability, an objective that should, in fact, be seen as beneficial and therefore worthy of US support.

Brazil under Lula will not risk the country's future by choosing sides in escalating international conflicts or disputes. His main task is rebuilding democracy in the country and he will need all the help he can get in that effort, especially from his main historical partner, the United States, whose recent role in defending the country's elections was decisive in paving the way for inauguration. from Lula.[1]

Lula is not trying to isolate the country from traditional allies, and accurately understanding Lula's recent international overtures could be useful to avoid repeating past analytical pitfalls so damaging not only to Brazil, but also to its relations with the US and the world in general.

*Rafael R. Ioris is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Denver (USA).

Originally published on the website National Interest.


[1] See

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