SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Under Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil was an international pariah. Not my words, but those of the former foreign minister: Apparently it was “good to be an outcast.” I do not miss these people.
When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office in January, after defeating Mr. Bolsonaro, it was widely hoped that he would guide Brazil back to the international mainstream. The early signs were good: In November, even before assuming the presidency, Mr. Lula traveled to COP27 in Egypt, and there was an amiable visit to the United States in February. Then Mr. Lula started going off script. In a frantic few weeks, he made efforts to initiate peace talks in Ukraine, criticized the supremacy of the U.S. dollar, traveled to China and hosted Russia’s foreign minister.
Many in the West have been outraged, with one commentator accusing him of offering “political support for anti-American despots.” It’s a tempting view, especially when Mr. Lula — as he did while in China — paints Russia and Ukraine as equally responsible for the war. But all the same, it is mistaken. Taken together, Mr. Lula’s moves amount less to an attempt to thwart the West than to advance Brazil’s national interests — as well as a commitment to alleviate poverty and hunger in the global south. In line with the country’s history of multilateralism, and sensitive to its needs, Mr. Lula is charting his own course.
China is the big one. Mr. Lula’s visit to Beijing in April, where he met President Xi Jinping amid much fanfare, put several noses out of joint. But the visit, coming after trips to Argentina and Uruguay, was surely to be expected. China, after all, is Brazil’s top trade partner, importing enormous quantities of iron ore, soybeans and, increasingly, meat. For its part, Brazil imports from China, well, pretty much everything — from pesticides and semiconductors to the shiny trinkets and gadgets that fill our dollar stores.
Economic interest alone could explain the trip. But Mr. Lula himself made plain that the visit had other motives. “We have political interests,” he said, “and we are interested in building a new geopolitics so that people can change the governance of the world.” The comment was of a piece with a previous obsession of Mr. Lula’s, when he was president from 2003 to 2010, to shake up the perceived Western dominance of international institutions such as the World Trade Organization and secure greater representation for developing countries in the United Nations. In this project, China is an obvious ally.
Mr. Lula’s itinerary showed the centrality of this concern. Before all else, his first appointment was to watch his successor as leader of Brazil in 2011, Dilma Rousseff, take office as the president of the New Development Bank in Shanghai. Popularly known as the “bank of the BRICS” — the acronym for the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — the institution aims to act as a counterweight to the wealthy nations of the global north. In his accompanying speech, Mr. Lula claimed it could “free emerging countries from submission to the traditional financial institutions that intend to govern us,” pointedly criticizing the International Monetary Fund.
This is the heart of the matter. To many leaders of developing countries, the global financial system — overseen by the I.M.F. and the World Bank and administered in U.S. dollars — serves to squeeze poorer nations, locking them into debt repayment programs and forestalling investment in infrastructure and welfare. At the New Development Bank ceremony, Mr. Lula said he asks himself “every night” why all countries are forced to do their trade backed by the dollar. While that sounds like a recipe for bad sleep, the concern is not in itself unreasonable.
Much more worrying was the free pass Mr. Lula seemed to give China. It’s one thing to proclaim, as he did after a visit to Huawei’s research center in Shanghai, that “we have no prejudice in our relationship with the Chinese.” But it’s another altogether to declare that Taiwan is not an independent state while saying nothing about human rights violations or state surveillance. Such silence shows that Mr. Lula’s approach, generally described as a return to “pragmatism,” has its moral costs.
Yet Mr. Lula is also drawing on a Brazilian tradition in foreign policy, based on the principles of multilateralism, nonintervention and the peaceful settlement of conflicts. That’s what lies behind his refusal to sell weapons to Ukraine and efforts to convene a “peace club” of neutral nations to mediate talks between Ukraine and Russia.
A just end to the brutal war in Ukraine is to be desired, of course, but Mr. Lula has gone about his aim strangely. He has accused the United States of “stimulating the war” and the European Union of not talking about peace — and even said that “the two countries decided to go to war,” implying that Ukraine was also to blame for the conflict. Earlier in April, he suggested that Ukraine could hand over Crimea to end the war.
Such comments have not gone unnoticed. Russia’s foreign minister, on a tour of Latin America that controversially included Brazil, expressed his gratitude. Others were less pleased. A U.S. official accused Mr. Lula of “parroting Russian and Chinese propaganda,” while an E.U. spokesman reiterated that Russia was the only one to blame. Ukraine’s foreign ministry spokesman, while diplomatic, made clear his unhappiness.
Chastened, Mr. Lula soon backed down, underlining that his government “condemns the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.” Even so, he continued to advocate a “negotiated political solution” to the war and reiterated his concern “about the global consequences of this conflict.” There’s no reason to think he’s being disingenuous. For food security, peace and sustainable development — in Brazil and the world over — Mr. Lula seems willing to forfeit the good will of his democratic friends in the West.
Brazil is a pariah no more. Instead, it’s a pragmatist.
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