Source: @LulaOficial / Twitter.
The rise and fall of world powers has been a focus of intense scholarly interest. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the dawn of U.S. hegemony in the second half of the twentieth century, scholars of multiple disciplines have tried to assess whether the replacement of an established power by a rising one needs to involve major military conflicts. No agreement exists, but, in most cases, wars have expedited this type of transition, especially when the declining and rising powers do not share historical paths of cultural traditions. Regardless of the case, the world is witnessing today a crisis of the Western-centric domination of the last 400 years, with a likely return to an Asia-centered economic dominance. It is unclear how the process will unfold, but it is certain that nations historically tied to the European-U.S. center of power—particularly those in the so-called “The Other-West” like in Latin America—will face a challenging course in trying to (re)positioning themselves amidst this changing world order.
Of special relevance in the Latin American context, Brazil, the largest nation and economy of the continent, and a country that historically managed well to sustain a course of largely autonomous but close relations with the hemispheric hegemon, finds itself today in an especially challenging position. China has become the most significant economic player for Brazil, surpassing the United States. Within the BRICS—a loosely defined but nonetheless effective multilateral block that has helped reshape the economic and geopolitical balance of the world in the last two decades—both countries have come to pursue aligned projects to reshape the global context. Examples include the creation of the BRICS Bank, a multilateral funding agency for developmental projects in the Global South that could overshadow the traditional role played by the World Bank.
In the early 2000s, Lula managed to become Brazil’s first president with a working-class background. In power, he deepened the course of erecting a social welfare state in one of the world’s most unequal economies and innovated with ambitious foreign policy initiatives. Brazil seemed to be emerging on the world stage as the most promising democracy and diplomatic actor in the developing world. Tragically, this auspicious path was not sustained. Now, in his third mandate as president, Lula has the challenging tasks of rebuilding the country’s democratic institutions and repositioning his country in the world after the tragic years of the troubling administration of Jair Bolsonaro.
The timing for delivering on both fronts could not be worse, though. The domestic and global contexts are very different from the one when Lula became president for the first time, and what was then seen as the pursuit of an autonomous and assertive line of foreign policy—which fits well into the diplomatic history of the country—is now interpreted by many in Brazil’s and international communities as divisive, inappropriate, or even a betrayal of Brazil’s traditional Western alignments.
Interestingly, all Lula has tried to do in his foreign policy actions in his first months as president has been to try to revive the impressive achievements of his first administrations, when Brazil managed to sustain good relations with its traditional allies and trading partners, such as the United States and the European Union, while also expanding economic, diplomatic, and strategic projects with countries around the world, particularly among other rising powers, such as India and China.
To promote his most recent goals, Lula attended a Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations (CELAC) meeting in Buenos Aires, where Brazil declared its interest in strengthening its ties with the region. Soon after, he visited Biden in Washington, DC, where both leaders professed their mutual defense for democracy and shared interests in more environmentally sound patterns of development, particularly in the Amazon region. After this trip, Lula visited China, where commercial agreements were signed, and then went to Europe to meet with traditional allies.
Besides not acknowledging that the Brazilian leader visited both old and new allies, Lula’s treatment from Brazilian and international media outlets lacks the necessary historical perspective. For over a century, Brazilian diplomatic efforts have defended multilateralism, peaceful resolution of conflicts, and self-determination. Moreover, its foreign policy has been largely defined by the need to serve as an instrument of the country’s development. Therefore, Lula’s overtures to traditional and new trading partners and defense of the need to find ways to resolve the stalemate in Ukraine are not surprising. Perhaps some of his statements about the war could have been phrased in more diplomatic language. However, he is right in pointing out that Brazil can serve as an intermediary towards peace, which in fact can only be achieved with Russia brought into the negotiation table—an invitation that Brazil has a privileged position to present.
Speculations about Brazil’s shifting allegiances in the rising economic, geopolitical, and diplomatic rivalry between the U.S. and China notwithstanding, the fact is that Brazil can’t afford to pick a side in these disputes. If China now exerts tremendous economic influence in carrying over the bulk of Brazil’s impressive agribusiness exports, Brazil’s economic, cultural, diplomatic, and historical ties to the United States and Europe are not to fade any time soon.
It is unclear whether Lula can revive the balancing act that he conducted so well 20 years ago. Economic and geopolitical global disputes are ever more prone to include a military dimension, and the war in Eastern Europe has no end in sight. Although Brazil could indeed play a peace-making role, neither side of the conflict seem ready to talk peace. At the same time, soon after Lula’s visit to China, the U.S. government increased by tenfold its economic commitments to the Amazon Fund—demonstrating that in this ever more divided and conflictive world, Brazil still has a role to play and that automatic alignments with any country are not in the best interest of a complex and powerful nation like Brazil.
Rafael R. Ioris is a Professor of Latin American History at the University of Denver and a Research Fellow at the Washington Brazil Office.