Brazil, Lula might be back. Will his foreign policy be different?

It is highly likely that Lula will cooperate with the US on issues such as climate change and democracy-building, without neglecting the trade and financial benefits he might receive from China

After the last accusation on corruption, out of twenty-five others, has been overturned by Brazil’s Supreme Court for procedural reasons, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is back. The PT leader has since then been on a swift run to get the presidency back from his political nemesis: Jair Bolsonaro. In the last election, Lula was not able to challenge him given that he was jailed and prohibited to run, although he was later freed pending appeal.

His positioning on domestic issues such as social policies and deforestation will most likely be similar to his past two mandates, as some of his recent statements show. Considering the deep changes in the regional and international context though, it will be interesting to see if there will be any changes in the domain of foreign policy.

Lula’s previous foreign policy position

Recalling all the steps Brazil took in its foreign policy with Lula during his two mandates, from 2002 up to 2010, is a challenging task. At the beginning of the century, Brazil was regarded as one of the most promising up and coming developing countries, generating investments and high hopes. “This is my man, right here. I love this guy, the most popular politician on Earth” were the words president Obama used to describe Lula during a G20 Summit in London.

At the same time, Brazil had the clear ambition to become a regional leader through integration initiatives like the CELAC and UNASUR, to which Lula contributed substantially. This aspiration materialized only at certain times, with some positive moments of advancement such as the successful participation of Brazil in the multilateral meetings of the G20 and some others of frustration, as the inability to obtain a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. In any case, the sensation in the first decade of the century was that Brazil was all over the place. Today, following Bolsonaro’s inactivity in foreign policy and the numerous domestic challenges the country faces, its projection as a leader is fading.

A balanced relation between the BRICS and the US

When analyzing Brazil’s foreign affairs, it’s impossible not to associate Lula’s name to the BRICS. The acronym stands for a list of countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), that represented the five major developing countries at the beginning of the century. These countries had the common ambition to amplify their voices in international affairs, and Lula’s Brazil was one of the most prominent members.

The BRICS reached some important achievements such as the creation of new financial institutions alternative to the conventional system composed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB). After a few years though, frictions between India and China started to threaten the stability of the block, and a stalemate was reached in its development following the change in presidencies of the members. Even if Lula wins, the isolation of Russia triggered by its aggression of Ukraine will further hamper the possibility of advancements in the bloc’s integration.

Despite the positive relation with the BRICS, which comprehended Russia and China, Brazil was able to forge a constructive bilateral partnership with the US as well, as demonstrated by Obama’s words quoted above. Even if most of Lula’s foreign efforts were devoted to the so-called ‘South-South cooperation’, he was able to forge a partnership with the US based around strategic issues, one of which was the entente on biofuels with the Bush government. With President Obama, the political affinity was higher than with Bush and cooperation followed, although Brazil formed part of the first pink tide that comprehended major enemies of the US such as the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez. Obama and Lula met multiple times in the framework of the G20 meetings, and coordination was sought to respond to global and hemispheric crises such as the financial crisis of 2008.

On to another pink tide?

With the coming to power of different left-leaning leaders in the region, a debate has started on whether a “new pink tide” is now spreading across Latin America. If Lula is elected, the seven largest economies of the region will be led by leftist heads of state. Yet, the difference among these leaders is so profound that their election has been defined more as an “anti-incumbent” tendency, rather than a new tide.

First, there is the difference between democratically elected leaders and the three dictatorships of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Chile’s president, Gabriel Boric, has been brave enough to distance himself clearly from these regimes and has condemned the human rights violations taking place in those territories, something that must not be taken for granted. One of the most interesting developments to keep an eye on will be how Lula will choose to position Brazil in front of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. In the past, he had forged ties with them, although the human rights situation had not deteriorated as much as it has in the second half of the 2010s, especially regarding Venezuela and Nicaragua. Lula’s position towards the left dictatorships might represent a strong source of friction with the US.

Nevertheless, there have already been talks of a revitalization of regionalism driven by Lula, Petro and Boric, all in power at the same time. What is sure, is that regional dialogue will benefit from this and might improve from the all-time lows it reached during the last years. The crisis of regional integration mechanisms such as CELAC, which Bolsonaro boycotted with his refusals to participate, and Mercosur are too deep to be overcome quickly, but a change in rhetoric and vision is the first step needed.

Lula’s future approach to foreign policy

Recently much attention has been given to a theoretical concept describing a viable foreign policy approach for Latin America for the next century, that of “active non-alignment”. The concept makes the case for a renewed exclusive focus on the region’s interest and neutral positioning with regards to the global competition between China and the US. The idea per-se is nothing fundamentally new, but its saliency is marked by the aggravation of the China-US competition and the need for Latin America to advance its own development agenda, with the support of both superpowers at the same time. Lula might make this concept his own, as his recent words on the war in Ukraine demonstrate. “Zelensky is as responsible as Putin for the war”, the Brazilian leader declared, signalling once again his equidistance from both parts of the conflict and his typical neutrality.

What is most probable is that Lula will apply the same tactic if he wins the presidency again, trying to cooperate with the US on issues such as climate change and democracy-building but without neglecting the trade and financial benefits he might receive from China. At the same time, Lula will also work on revitalizing regional cooperation, though the obstacles might be too high to be surpassed in one term.

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