by Eduardo Maia, Ph.D. candidate in Social Policy from Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES).
Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling
When analyzing the courses that Brazilian foreign policy has taken at different historical moments, critical or apologetic views coexist, whether concerning the “conditioned liberalization” of FHC or the “autonomism” of Lula and Dilma (SARAIVA, 2010). Despite fluctuations according to different governments and conjunctures, the existence of clear intentions and capable staff of leading a certain project is a historical hallmark of Brazilian diplomacy.
Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency marks a rupture with the century-old Brazilian diplomatic tradition dating back to the Baron of Rio Branco in the early twentieth century and the continuity of well-developed, balanced, pragmatic, and professional practices. Not only is Jair Bolsonaro the worst president in Brazilian history, but also responsible for what will certainly be acknowledged as the worst foreign policy. Handpicked for his alignment with the values and wishes of the president, former Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo has led a major teardown of the diplomatic capital acquired over decades of good international practices. In the name of a “conservative revolution” there was not a stone left unturned (Kalout, 2021).
Strictly speaking, there is no foreign policy in the Bolsonaro government. More than a displeased rhetoric with the adopted courses of action, such a statement is an evaluation of the absence of courses of action. There are no guidelines, no positioning, no guiding documents, not even suitable names. The first two years (2019-2020) have revolved around a subordinate alignment without counterparts from the late Trump government. From this automatic alignment derives a significant part of the diplomatic issues such as the distancing from the BRICS, regional isolation, and the recurrent episodes of offenses against China.
Some analyses seek to interpret the ideological substrate of foreign policy (Saraiva & Silva, 2019), which is indeed relevant but does not fully explain the whole picture. Even the “ideological guidelines” are narrow and incoherent.
The loss of the main international guarantor – i.e. Trump – has launched Brazil in an inertial movement, without pretensions, proposals or projects and increasingly isolated. The country remains a diplomatic giant that cannot be ignored, yet it has been repeatedly bypassed and its size translates less and less into relevance.
The course of world politics has turned Brazil’s bet on an informal axis of allied conservative governments into failure. The replacement of Macri, Netanyahu, and Trump by less conservative names each with a different agenda emphasized Brazilian detachment from the rest of the world. The bilateral relationship with Argentina, carefully built in recent decades, recedes before the absence of any positive diplomatic gesture from Bolsonaro; the new Israeli government looks inward, immersed in domestic concerns, leaving to Brazil only the discontent of the Arab countries before the unilateral rapprochement with Israel; the post-Trump United States resumes to the known hegemonic pragmatism of its foreign policy, acting more or less closely to Bolsonaro according to interests that more often than not differ from Brazilian interests. The number of shaken alliances is outnumbered only by the number of enmities collected.
The isolation unfolds in several ways, from some more difficult to evaluate, such as the loss of international prestige, to more immediate impacts, both in political and economic terms. From the latter, the most symbolic is the difficulty in dialoguing with strategic partners such as India and China about measures against COVID-19, notably regarding Brazilian requests (Estadão, 2021; Oliveira & Duarte, 2021).
In administrative terms, Itamaraty is at a historic low. The budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the lowest since the redemocratization, and it lacks funds for measures such as repatriation and even to pay basic bills (Poder360, 2021; Vasconcellos, 2021).
The inevitable removal of Ernesto Araújo from the diplomatic leadership took a long time; his replacement by Ambassador Carlos França happened only in late March 2021. If at first glance, the change is a breath for diplomacy, it does not imply a change of course or even the adoption of a clear course. The narrative based on the fight against “globalism” and “cultural Marxism” has lost focus being replaced by a more moderate tone, close to the discrete profile of the new chancellor. If, on the one hand, the diplomatic crises have cooled down and there seems to be a return to the sobriety necessary for diplomacy; on the other hand, the change in shape does not mean a change in content. Carlos França, who is not known for being a foreign policymaker (Folha de S. Paulo, 2021) has not been able, so far, to repair the damage or find a diplomatic path that conciliates reasonable practices with the government’s positions. If that is a possibility.
There are changes, nonetheless. Under the new administration of Carlos França, the president Jair Bolsonaro attended the event convened by the American president, Joe Biden, on climate change. Bolsonaro’s speech was not at all bad (Kalout, 2021). However, how to reconcile an external agenda of defending the environment with accelerating environmental destruction at home? Or how to dispute tariffs in international bodies when criticizing the UN at home? Or how to articulate with the South American subcontinent when there is a refusal to recognize elections in neighboring countries and when the main economic bloc in the region is being undermined?
It is important to stress that even the small changes for the better do not change the fundamentals of the disastrous foreign policy of the Bolsonaro government. A clear example is a direct action of Vice President Hamilton Mourão in favor of the interests of the Universal Church, one of the most influential neo-Pentecostal groups in Brazil, which was expelled from Angola under accusations of non-compliance with local legislation. The Brazilian government tried to intercede with the Angolan government so that it would receive a commission of parliamentarians linked to the church, but the request was rejected by the Angolan president João Manuel Lourenço (Longo, 2021). In this case, the lack of diplomatic skills is combined with the instrumentalization of foreign policy on behalf of private interests.
The Itamaraty, Brazilian foreign policy and Brazil itself are today, in the eyes of the world, a shadow of what they were in recent years. Bolsonaro’s partial retreat from the belligerent tone and Carlos França’s damage-control measures contribute to give a touch of stability to foreign policy, but they are not enough to guide diplomacy, which continues to lack direction. It does not suffice to avoid new problems the damage to Brazilian image and position requires a turn that seems less possible as Bolsonaro becomes more cornered internationally, with his domestic support melting away and under pressure from Congress in the form of the COVID CPI (Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry).
There is hope, nonetheless. If mere association with the Brazilian government may be considered toxic, this is not yet an immutable truth. Brazil has a long track of positive international relations that will weigh on when we return to diplomacy in line with the role we hold and the role we aspire to have.
There are already steps – external to the government – to begin diplomatic recovery. The Diplomacy for Democracy Institute (IDIP) and the Democratic Front for Foreign Policy are two examples (IDIP, 2021; The National Interest, 2021). Both are embedded in the challenge of thinking and proposing lines of international action in the post-Bolsonaro era. The undoing of the damage passes through a foreign policy that rescues good practices in foreign policy and that is articulated with national problems, projecting Brazil to the prominent place we desire in the international arena.
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Eduardo Maia (2021) "The ongoing (lack of) course of Brazilian foreign policy under Bolsonaro". Brazilian Research and Studies Blog. ISSN 2701-4924. Vol. 2 Num. 2. available at: https://bras-center.com/the-ongoing-lack-of-course-of-brazilian-foreign-policy-under-bolsonaro/, accessed on: September 27, 2021.