Much Ado About Nothing: Accurately Assessing Lula’s Recent International Overtures

In a global economy shaped by inflationary trends, energy shortages, and market instability, Lula’s domestic success will depend to a significant degree on his international achievements. While Bolsonaro obscured the relevance of country in the global arena, Lula expanded Brazil’s presence in the early 2000s by enlarging the list of economic partner and diversifying strategic partnerships, particularly in the global South.


Source: El País.

The world is undergoing major geopolitical transformations. The rise of Asia, particularly China, has presented unprecedented challenges to the Western-centric liberal order of the postwar era. These changes have become even more apparent with the onset of a major military conflict in Ukraine, which further polarized political alliances along East-West lines. It was to be expected that these trends would provoke confusion and international analysts need to take special care in order to make sense of the complex dynamics unfolding in the world. This is particularly true when examining countries that have traditionally had less influence in the international arena, but whose fates have often depended upon their ability to navigate the challenges and opportunities presented by evolving global power trends.

Brazil is one such example. Latin America’s largest economy has recently seen its share of turbulence. In fact, after a stable period of democratic consolidation that lasted between 1985 and 2015, Brazil saw a rapid erosion in its democratic institutions. This 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-wing nostalgia for Brazil’s military dictatorship. Although Bolsonaro is no longer in power and is presently battling multiple lawsuits, Brazil continues to face the challenge of rebuilding not only democratic procedures but also democratic values to ensure that democracy survives.

This task is now mainly in the hands of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former president who despite becoming a more polarizing figure in recent years, served two extremely successful terms in the early 2000s. Bringing the country together will require not only major political skills, which Lula has already demonstrated to have, but a feasible economic plan. In a global economy shaped by inflationary trends, energy shortages, and market instability, Lula’s domestic success will depend to a significant degree on his international achievements. While Bolsonaro obscured the relevance of the country in the global arena, Lula expanded Brazil’s presence in the early 2000s by enlarging the list of economic partners and diversifying strategic partnerships, particularly in the Global South. Notably, this was done without jeopardizing traditional relations with the United States or the European Union.

Since taking office, Brazil’s returning president has sought to promote a bold revival of his highly effective ‘active and assertive’ foreign policy. However, it will be much more difficult to reproduce Brazil’s achievements of twenty years ago given today’s challenging and changing world. Lula has made sure to start his international pilgrimages by visiting traditional and central partners, including neighboring nations and the United States. During his first month in office, he attended a meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations (CELAC) in Argentina, where he emphasized a desire to strengthen Brazil’s relations throughout Latin America. Soon after, Lula visited U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in Washington. During their meeting, both leaders professed their mutual desire to promote democracy and a more environmentally-sound developmental path—particularly in Brazil’s Amazon. Following his trip to the United States, Lula visited China with the objective of deepening trade relations and leading a peace effort for the war in Ukraine. After his visit to China, he again met with traditional Brazilian allies, including Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France.

All things considered, this “many friends” approach is not so different from what he implemented 20 years ago. Back then, Brazil was largely welcomed as a rising diplomatic force in the developing world. During a 2009 meeting, President Barack Obama made special note of Lula’s “forward-looking leadership in Latin America and throughout the world.” However, the domestic and global contexts in which Lula now operates have changed. Within this context, what was once seen as a progressive pursuit of an autonomous and assertive foreign policy is now interpreted by many in Brazil and the West as divisive, inappropriate, or even a betrayal of Brazil’s traditional alignments. These views ignore Lula’s earlier international record and lack a wider, historical perspective.

For more than a century, Brazil’s diplomatic efforts have focused on promoting multilateralism and pushing for the peaceful resolution of conflicts. While it drew closer to Western allies throughout the 20th century, successive governments in Brazil—be they progressive, conservative, democratic, or authoritarian—pursued a policy of self-determination. Shaped by those dynamics, Brazil’s foreign policy has served the country well as an instrument of national development.

It is concerning to see that even qualified analyses about Lula’s attempt to reposition Brazil in the world tend to be biased, particularly by taking parts for the whole. Some see Lula’s visit to China and his repeated calls for peace talks in Ukraine as a sign that Lula was espousing an anti-Western approach to international affairs. This is clearly not the case. Similarly, fears that Lula may be trying to create an anti-U.S. Latin American alliance with China are unfounded. Yes, Lula gave more than advisable attention to Nicolas Maduro during a recent visit to Brasilia for a meeting of South American nations. However, this does not mean that Lula is in alignment with Venezuela, nor does it diminish the role that Lula actually played in helping calm things down following the 2002 coup attempt in that country—largely with the approval of the Bush administration. Likewise, Lula’s recent attempt to revive UNASUR does indeed face important challenges. However, that does not diminish the fact that regional collaboration—a goal pursued by Lula’s predecessor, as well—has proven to be a challenging yet promising project. The purpose of the project is to provide economic and political stability, an objective that should be worthy of U.S. support.

The Lula administration will not risk the country’s future by picking sides on rising international conflicts or disputes. Rather, the president’s main task is the reconstruction of his own country’s democracy. He will need all the help he can get—especially from Brazil’s main historical partner, the United States, who recently played an important role in providing support to the country’s democratic processes. Accurately understanding the context behind Lula’s international overtures is critical if one is to avoid previous analytical traps that are detrimental to understanding Brazil and its relations with the United States and the broader international community.

Rafael Ioris is a Professor of Latin American History and Politics at the University of Denver. He is originally from Brazil and currently resides in Denver, Colorado.

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