Andre Pagliarini is an assistant professor of history at Hampden-Sydney College, a columnist at Brazilian Report, and a faculty fellow at the Washington Brazil Office.
There is not much in common between Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the center-left former president of Brazil and leading challenger in the upcoming presidential election, and the radically right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. Lula emerged on the national scene in the late 1970s as the leader of a labor movement willing to stand up to the government after more than a decade of military rule. He was the founding face of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT), established in 1980. Bolsonaro served in the army during the reign of Brazil’s military dictatorship and has since consistently criticized the regime for not having been brutal enough while in power. These distinct backgrounds have produced two very different politicians with a particularly stark divergence in their approach to foreign policy.
Lula’s presidency from 2003 to 2011 was defined by an assertive foreign policy, which Claudia Zilla has argued represented a disruption of Brazil’s consensus on international affairs. In a way, however, Lula’s insistence on Brazilian autonomy on the world stage, acting broadly in defense of national interests rather than deferring to wealthier powers, was very much in line with a longstanding feature of Brazil’s foreign policy. Brazil expanded its global presence under the stewardship of Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, a renowned diplomat whose reputation has notably remained unscathed through years of anti-PT backlash. In 2002, the year before Lula’s inauguration, Brazil had a total of 150 consulates, embassies, and permanent delegations to international organizations. Eight years later, it had 216. Lula’s emphasis on South American integration and worldwide representation led to a rise in international influence for Brazil. Beginning in 2004, for example, the Brazilian Army led the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. Lula was also critical to the establishment in 2009 of BRICS, the coalition of rising economic powers composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. He will all but certainly resume his project of positioning Brazil as an independent power capable of negotiating equally as well with the West and East should he win this year. If victorious, he will seek to harness the goodwill he is likely to receive early in his administration from the foreign press, world leaders, and multilateral institutions to that end.
By contrast, Bolsonaro has made himself toxic to most governments around the world. This has much to do, as Guilherme Casarões and Déborah Barros Leal Farias have argued, with Bolsonaro’s myriad attempts to undermine Brazil’s place within the liberal international order. While Donald Trump was US president, Bolsonaro steered Brazilian foreign policy in strict alignment with the United States, even going so far as to contemplate military action in Venezuela at Washington’s behest. Such subservience was out of step with Brazil’s customary independence in foreign affairs and failed to deliver any tangible benefits for the country. By 2018, the year Bolsonaro was elected, Trump’s international brand was already tarnished. As Keren Yarhi-Milo wrote that year in Foreign Affairs, “most citizens of traditional US allies, such as Australia, France, Germany, Japan, Jordan, Mexico, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, say that they have no confidence in the US president.” By aligning himself so closely with Trump, Bolsonaro placed Brazil out of step with foreign governments who did not get along with the Trump administration. Shockingly, Bolsonaro was the last democratic leader to recognize Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral victory, souring his relationship with the US president. With Biden now in office, Bolsonaro has been much less willing to collaborate with the United States and Europe on crucial issues like environmental conservation after years of unprecedented levels of deforestation in Brazil under his administration. A long-stalled trade deal between Brazil and the European Union is also unlikely to advance while Bolsonaro is in office, a hindrance for Brazil’s economy that does not seem to faze the president.
For all his legal travails in Brazil over the past several years, Lula remains a strikingly popular figure abroad. This owes much to the implicit and explicit comparisons world leaders make between him and the incumbent. The way Lula has been received by foreign leaders in the past two years also demonstrates how eager foreign dignitaries are to have a new partner to work with in Latin America’s largest nation. Last November, for example, Lula was received with inordinate fanfare by French president Emmanuel Macron to discuss crucial international issues like the preservation of the Amazon rainforest. Although Bolsonaro was not cited by name, Macron came as close as he could to needling the Brazilian president without sparking an international incident. Macron, after all, had been a leading voice urging the international community to do more to protect the Amazon as dramatic fires raged across the jungle under Bolsonaro in 2019.
For their part, Bolsonaro and those close to him interpreted such international concern for Brazil’s environment as an attempt to chip away at the country’s sovereignty. Concerns about international designs on the Amazon are not new, nor are they historically consigned to one end of the ideological spectrum. The left and right have fretted over the Brazilian government’s ability to maintain its hold on the vast rainforest. Three years ago, Bolsonaro denounced Macron’s “lamentable colonialist stance.” Lula has espoused a strident anti-imperialism in the past as well, but he does not display the same kind of bellicose defensiveness as Bolsonaro when it comes to matters that have long been international points of consensus—like mitigating deforestation. When Lula met with Olaf Scholz last November, the future German chancellor noted that he was “very satisfied with the good conversation” and that he hoped talks between them “would continue.”
There are no serious doubts domestically or internationally about Brazil’s ability to carry out a free and fair election. In fact, Brazil’s federal electronic voting system is widely praised for its efficiency and reliability. Yet Bolsonaro has spent years alleging that Brazil is incapable of assuring that its elections are clean, a stunning indictment of his own country that undermines Brazil’s international standing. Most recently, while in England for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, he insisted that “there is no way he won’t win in the first round [of voting].” No poll has shown him anywhere close to such a feat, but his most ardent followers are being encouraged to see the results of the election as illegitimate unless he pulls off what would be a spectacular upset. The Biden administration has made it clear that it expects a free and fair election in Brazil. If not a signal of tacit support for Lula, attempts from the Biden administration and the CIA to assert US faith in the Brazilian electoral system will at least curtail the most reckless Bolsonaro supporters who would almost certainly have felt emboldened if Donald Trump was still in the White House.
Should Lula prevail, he will still face great geopolitical challenges, as well as strong disagreements with foreign leaders. He drew criticism online for his remarks on the war in Ukraine earlier this year, claiming that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “want[ed] war. If he didn’t want war, he would have negotiated a little more. That’s it.” Bolsonaro has also been loath to criticize Putin. On a visit to Russia mere days before the Russian president ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Bolsonaro expressed solidarity with Moscow without defining exactly what he meant. Since then, as Anthony Faiola and Lesley Wroughton noted in the Washington Post, Bolsonaro insisted Brazil “‘will not take sides’ in the conflict, even as he dismissed Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy as ‘a comedian.’” Bolsonaro, in short, embraces a neutrality that does little to strengthen the international outcry against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Lula’s former Foreign Minister Celso Amorim refused to criticize Bolsonaro’s trip to Russia in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine, arguing for Brazil’s right to pursue its own national interests and important strategic ties to Russia. But Amorim also articulated a general position against war as a means of conflict resolution, placing the onus for the present conflict directly on Putin. Brazil should not get involved, he believes, but it should not hesitate to identify the culprit for the largest humanitarian crisis to befall Europe since World War II. Lula’s harsh criticism of Zelenskyy did not draw strong condemnations from world leaders, but that would obviously change should he espouse the same views as president.
Navigating Brazil’s relationship with the other BRICS countries in a world that looks very different from when he left office will be a delicate task for a new Lula administration. He will also likely face international pressure to help mediate negotiations with rogue governments in Venezuela and Nicaragua. Finally, under a new administration, Brazil will be expected to drastically rein in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, an issue that helped bury Bolsonaro’s international standing. From his remarks throughout the campaign, Lula seems aware of the multitude of foreign policy challenges that await him and appears eager to tackle them head on. His optimism is understandable. Lula has led Bolsonaro in every poll throughout this campaign and has been welcomed abroad by scores of foreign leaders. He would take office as his country is beginning to recover from Bolsonaro’s calamitous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. But simply not being Bolsonaro won’t win Lula favor abroad for very long. He will be expected to deliver tangible results in protecting the environment and indigenous peoples, shore up Brazil’s democratic institutions, and tackle the extreme poverty that has reared its head again on Bolsonaro’s watch. In short, many will be watching to see if Lula can live up to the promise and potential of his return to national office.
John D. French, Lula and His Politics of Cunning: From Metalworker to President of Brazil (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469655789_french.
Andre Pagliarini, “Jair Bolsonaro: Beyond the Pale, Above the Fray (Born 1955).” In Dictators and Autocrats: Securing Power Across Global Politics, edited by Klaus Larres (New York: Routledge, 2022): pp. 399-413, https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/oa-edit/10.4324/9781003100508-27/jair-bolsonaro-andre-pagliarini?context=ubx&refId=0159547a-f11d-410f-834f-9177d0381d49.
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Guilherme Stolle Paixão E. Casarões and Déborah Barros Leal Farias, “Brazilian Foreign Policy Under Jair Bolsonaro: Far-Right Populism and the Rejection of the Liberal International Order,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs (2021): 1-21, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09557571.2021.1981248.
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“Macron Spearheads Pressure on Bolsonaro Over Amazon Fires,” France 24, August 24, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190824-macron-france-brazil-bolsonaro-amazon-fires.
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Ciara Nugent, “Lula Talks to Time About Ukraine, Bolsonaro, and Brazil’s Fragile Democracy,” Time, May 4, 2022, https://time.com/6173232/lula-da-silva-transcript/.
Anthony Faiola and Lesley Wroughton, “Outside the West, Putin Is Less Isolated Than You Might Think,” Washington Post, March 10, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/10/putin-india-brazil-south-africa-eritrea-belarus/.
“Conselheiro de Lula, Amorim Endurece Tom Contra Putin e Chama Guerra de Erro,” March 9, 2022, Folha de São Paulo, https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/colunas/painel/2022/03/conselheiro-de-lula-amorim-endurece-tom-contra-putin-e-chama-guerra-de-erro.shtml?origin=folha.