From global leader to U.S. follower
The author is a professor at the Hankuk University’s Graduate School of International Area Studies (GSIAS).
Brazil recently gained the vaunted status of “major non-NATO ally.” This title symbolizes the new, preferential relationship that Brazil has been pursuing with the United States as a result of the continued efforts of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, invested in January 2019, to inaugurate a new phase in Brazil’s global role.
Bolsonaro’s presidency has initiated deep changes in Brazilian foreign policy, which was traditionally based on multilateralism, non-interventionism and a commitment to universal human rights. Bolsonaro’s abandonment of traditional foreign policy is driven by the belief that despite changes in the world order, the future will remain U.S.-led and, as such, a partnership with the latter is essential. With this partnership, Brazil is relinquishing its position as a global leader to become a junior follower of U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy.
Ideological affinity with countries is thus a major component of Bolsonaro’s foreign policy, which has had practical and immediate consequences for Brazil. Due to Trump’s trade war with China, that country has been downgraded in the priorities of Bolsonaro’s government despite being Brazil’s main trading partner, and opportunities to increase trade in Asia are now willfully overlooked. Brazil’s prominent leadership role in Latin America is also being sacrificed as a result of its enthusiastic promotion of U.S. interests in the region.
The new vision guiding Brazilian foreign policy is composed of ideas centered around anti-globalism and Western cultural superiority. According to this view, Bolsonaro’s rise to power represents a unique opportunity to restore traditional moral values that will somehow help Brazil in its mission to save “Western civilization” from decline. A partnership with the like-minded Trump is imagined as a way to reaffirm the supremacy of the West.
These ideas form part of the broader ideological agenda which the Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ernesto Araújo, whose version of Brazilian nationalism is in essence based on recovering Brazil’s “Western soul.” The traditional nuclear family and Christian values – perceived as the hallmarks of “Western civilization” – are the central pillars of Araújo’s moral nationalism and, as such, should be seen as the foundation of Brazil’s new foreign policy orientation.
These views represent a stark renunciation of Brazil’s previously active role in building a liberal world order. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that the country will abandon its progressive contributions to major global problems. As a consequence, Brazil will no longer be seen as a leader among developing countries, a widely respected role that the country has had since 2003, when the governments prioritized South-South cooperation.
Being averse to both multilateralism and cooperation with developing countries, Bolsonaro seeks to keep his distance from the UN and the BRICS, a group of emerging economies made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Bolsonaro considers the deepening or even the maintenance of established diplomatic ties with the BRICS group as detrimental to Brazil’s new alliance with the U.S.
Brazil’s engagement with other Latin American countries is mainly based on ideological affinity. Hence, Brazil is showing interest in strengthening bilateral relations with Chile, a country that Bolsonaro admires principally due to his admiration for Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship and with Argentina, with which bilateral relations remain warm as long as the liberal-minded President Macri remains in power.
Venezuela is, for quite different reasons, another important country for Bolsonaro. He uses Venezuela’s unrest to escalate the intensity of his rhetorical confrontation against the Venezuelan regime, which resonates powerfully with Bolsonaro’s supporters at home and abroad.
The rationale for and discourse surrounding Brazil’s blind alignment with the United States is facing heavy criticism at home, including the agribusiness sector, the military and the Brazilian diplomatic corps.
Agribusiness is a pragmatic group of actors who understand China is a pivotal player in the expansion of Brazilian agricultural exports and is understandably disturbed by Brazil’s increasing distance from China. Parts of the Brazilian military also appear skeptical about Brazil actively positioning itself within the U.S. sphere of influence, believing this to be a blind alignment that could easily compromise the image of Brazil as a strong, autonomous country. Bolsonaro’s foreign policy also faces opposition from within Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where career diplomats are increasingly voicing their concerns over the president’s wanton abandonment of the multilateralism that Brazil has historically and effectively used to engage with the rest of the world.
In an increasingly dog-eat-dog world, Bolsonaro hopes that Brazil can establish itself as a privileged U.S. partner. However, given the waning support for Bolsonaro’s foreign policy at home, as well as its fundamental lack of pragmatism, these radical shifts in Brazil’s international affairs may ultimately prove to be ephemeral.