In spite of the rapprochement with the U.S., strengthening Brazil’s performance in BRICS would make sense for the new government.
Jair Bolsonaro promised a revolution in foreign policy, and the first weeks of his government leadership indicate that he will lead the most radical change in the history of Brazil’s international relations, rejecting many pillars of the country’s diplomatic traditions. A complete alignment with Trump’s United States is the centerpiece of the new Brazilian foreign policy, with direct consequences in all areas, such as multilateral forums, negotiations about climate, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and defense, in which Bolsonaro is expected to emulate Trump.
Considering this unprecedented change, some people are trying to convince the president to reduce Brazil’s participation in the BRICS group (formed by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) or completely leave it, arguing that it should be treated as another petista* initiative that deserves to be discarded. Chancellor Ernesto Araújo questions the usefulness of the group and argues that Brazil should seek closer ties with countries such as Israel, Italy, Poland and Hungary. In fact, considering that intense tensions between the United States and China are the new normal - many have already spoken of a “new Cold War” - the unconditional alignment of Bolsonaro with Trump could reduce the scope of cooperation in initiatives led by BRICS. In the same way, the uneasiness created in Beijing by Bolsonaro’s anti-China rhetoric during the campaign still has not been overcome, and recent attacks by Bolsonaro and by Olavo de Carvalho’s voters against the PSL (Social Liberal Party) parliamentarians that visited China suggest that cooperation with Beijing could have significant political costs. Reducing participation in BRICS would, however, be a missed opportunity for the new president. On the contrary, it would make more sense for the government to strengthen its performance in the bloc to achieve his principle foreign policy objectives: gaining the respect of Trump and renegotiating a bilateral relationship with China.
Unlike what Chancellor Ernesto Araújo seems to believe, Brazil will not gain Trump’s respect by showing unconditional admiration, as Eduardo Bolsonaro did during his recent trip to Washington. The U.S. president is known to require absolute loyalty and offer nothing in return. Trump has little interest in, or incentive to, create a long-term partnership with Brazil, which Brazil’s minister of foreign affairs dreams about. Trump’s decision not to attend Bolsonaro’s inauguration and to merely send the Secretary of Defense, Mike Pompeo,** shows how difficult it will be to establish strong ties between the Brazilian president and his North American idol.
In November, Bolsonaro will have a unique opportunity to project himself as a globally relevant statesman while attending the 11th Summit of BRICS. He will host the leaders of China, India, South Africa and Russia, as well as the majority of South American presidents. It will be one of the most relevant summits in international relations of 2019 and probably the biggest diplomatic event of the president’s first term. This makes Bolsonaro much more interesting to Trump than a faithful little pet dog, as Aruajo and Eduardo Bolsonaro end up projecting him as.
In addition, being worried about the ascension of China is not a reason to leave the BRICS group - in truth, all the other members of the block - India, Russia and South Africa - share many of Brazil’s concerns in relation to the issue. The annual presidential summit of BRICS and the numerous meetings throughout the year - between ministers of education, environment, defense and such - face proportionate privileged access to the Chinese political leaders, and offer a unique platform to defend the interests of Brazil in relation to China. What many critics of BRICS don’t see is that the bloc’s meetings are not limited to aligning ideas but also offer Brazil the opportunity to influence Beijing. In place of downgrading BRICS, Bolsonaro could think about coordinating with the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, or the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, on a joint strategy to pressure Beijing concerning what the four nations want from China.
It would be a mistake to believe that the Bolsonaro ideology differs greatly from some of his peers in the BRICS group. Modi and Putin are both right-wing nationalists who adopt conservative, chauvinistic rhetoric and a religious tone that would make Ernesto Araújo feel at ease. Brazil is the only country in BRICS where South-South cooperation is considered, incorrectly, to be a left-wing idea. Occupying the temporary presidency of the BRICS group this year, Bolsonaro has an opportunity to promote debates on issues of concern to his government: defense, anti-drug policies, reduction of crime and anti-terrorism. In some of these areas, other BRICS countries have extensive experience, and Brazil could learn from them - especially when addressing the issue of anti-terrorism, an important issue for the country if Bolsonaro transfers the Brazilian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Finally, independent from the ideological orientation of its president, any country in the world today - even those critical of Beijing - needs to have the necessary knowledge to deal with China, which is moving to become the economic center of the world. With BRICS, Brazil already has the advantage of being part of an institutional platform that facilitates adaption to this new reality. Today, the geopolitical importance of the bloc is greater than ever. The 11th Summit of BRICS will occur in the middle of profound uncertainty about the future of the economic world order. This creates an opportunity for BRICS - and Brazil in it - to assume a more prominent role.
Oliver Della Costa Stuenkel is an adjunct professor of International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV) and coordinator of post-graduate programs at the FGV School of International Relations.
*Editor’s note: Petista refers to Brazil’s Workers’ Party.
**Editor’s note: Pompeo is the U.S. Secretary of State, not the Secretary of Defense.