Brazil will need to position itself beyond the typical “tight spots” in U.N. votes
Even in a polarized environment and with presidential candidates presenting visions of profoundly different worlds, a certain consensus in the area of Brazilian foreign policy has been preserved throughout the last decade. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Dilma Rousseff, Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro generally sought, with some exceptions including the tremorous relations between Brazil and Europe during the current government, to distance Brazil far from the main geopolitical tensions and to seek a minimally neutral position, equidistant between the great powers. Even though he frequently attacked China during the first two years of his term and sought to draw closer to former President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro never missed a BRICS summit,and resisted Washington’s pressure to ban the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei as the provider of Brazil’s 5G network.
In the same way, Bolsonaro’s reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in which he generally stayed neutral and avoided any formal alignment, failed to generate relevant criticism from his opponents. On the contrary, the former Workers’ Party Chancellor Celso Amorim defended Bolsonaro’s decision to visit Moscow just a few days before the war. Similarly, President Rousseff resisted pressure from Western governments to “uninvite” Vladimir Putin to the BRICS summit in Fortaleza after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014.
Brazil’s Equidistance from Disputed Issues
There are concrete reasons for Brazil to seek non-alignment or remain equidistant between the United States, China, Russia and the European Union beyond the need to preserve important economic bonds among them. Both the Brazilian left and right generally advocate for the traditionally autonomous practice of avoiding any alignment that ties Brazil down and limits its strategic flexibility.
With the exception of the last few years, which saw a worsening of relations between Brazil and various other powers, this strategy has been very successful; Brazil is still used to being seen as one of the countries that credibly manages to belong to totally different, even antagonistic clubs: the Group of 20 industrial and emerging-market nations, BRICS, the Asiatic Infrastructure Investment Bank (led by China) while, at the same time, it claims a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and seeks membership in the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development.
If Lula wins the presidential election in October, as the current polls suggest, maintaining the traditional strategy of equidistance from the main poles of power and preserving Brazil’s relations with Washington, Peking, Moscow and the European Union will be the major challenge of his foreign policy. Finally, although the dominant dynamic between the beginning of the 1990s and the late 2010s was the absence of serious geopolitical tension, now the picture is something very different. The recent “geo-politicization” of the international system (symbolized by the worsening of relations between Washington and Peking), as well as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and tensions in Taiwan seem to be just the beginning of what could lie ahead.
The war in Ukraine has entered a spiral of intensification. Following Vladimir Putin’s decision to double down and mobilize 300 million reservists, the West needs to increase sanctions against Russia and arms shipments to Kyiv.
The Digital Iron Curtain Is a Reality
Possibly even more important is the technological war between the West and China with the rise of a digital Iron Curtain, in other words, a world divided between two incompatible technological spheres, as well as an increasingly greater fragmentation of the global platforms (such as the SWIFT system, which many Russian banks no longer have access to).
In this context, Brazil will need to know how to position itself in a strategically equidistant way beyond the typical “tight spots” during sensitive votes in the General Assembly, or when it sits as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. To realize this strategy in the middle of ever deepening geopolitical tensions, the next Brazilian president must deal with two challenges, neither of which is trivial.
The first is the possibility of disappointing its own militants (whether on the right or the left), who normally advocate that Brazil abandon neutrality and get closer to the poles of power aligned with their ideological convictions.
The second is recognizing the fact that the more Brazil manages to provide global public goods in the future, whether as a supplier of peacekeeping troops to the U.N., as a leader in the fight against deforestation or as an ally respected by all in the fight against pandemics, the more it will be to resist pressure from Washington and Peking to choose a side. The next Brazilian president — whoever it may be — will not be able to escape this quandary.
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