The New Brazil Embraces the Post-American Order
Celebrated by Biden and Western elites, anti-American leftist Lula has unsurprisingly moved Brazil much closer to China and Russia.
The rise of the post-American world didn’t begin during the Biden administration, but President Joe Biden and the Washington foreign policy establishment seem to be doing their best to accelerate it.
The way the Biden administration has been handling the Ukraine and the Taiwan crises and its obsession with spreading the American woke revolution abroad is alienating many of the United States’ actual or potential allies.
The perception by many people around the world is that the U.S. is becoming too fragmented and polarized domestically and that the domestic culture wars are influencing its international behavior too much, and threatening to spread its domestic fragmentation and polarization to other parts of the world.
In addition, there is a growing perception among many other world leaders who have never been very sympathetic to the U.S. that its growing internal fragmentation and erratic foreign policy combined with the rise of China provide a unique opportunity for the acceleration of the transition to a new, post-American global order.
Macron's recent state visit to China seems to represent the first type of response. During his visit, Macron called for “strategic autonomy” from the U.S., as, in his view, the “great risk” Europe faces is getting “caught up in crises that are not ours.” He also suggested that Europe should become less reliant on the U.S. for weapons and energy and less dependent on the “extraterritoriality of the U.S. dollar.” The call for less strategic dependence on the U.S. has been echoed by other European leaders, including the European Council president, who said that the E.U. should not “blindly, systematically follow” Washington.
Lula’s state visit to China, which came shortly after Macron's, seems to represent the second type of response to American difficulties in preserving the old international order. Lula traveled to China with a delegation of over seventy people. In addition, more than two hundred Brazilian business leaders flew to China to participate in meetings and events related to the official visit. Fifteen agreements were signed between the two governments on topics such as science, information technology, agriculture, and investment.
While in China, Lula attended the inauguration of Brazil’s former President Dilma Rousseff as the new president of the BRICS bank in Shanghai. “Every night,” he said in his speech, “I ask myself why all countries have to base their trade on the dollar.” He went on to ask: “who decided it was the dollar after the disappearance of the gold standard?”
He also visited Huawei's headquarters, declaring that it was a “demonstration that we want to say to the world that we don’t have any bias in our relationship with the Chinese, and that no one will prohibit Brazil from improving its relationship with China.” As he was wrapping up his visit, he announced that the strategic partnership he was pursuing with China was part of a larger vision for the international order: “We want to raise the level of the strategic partnership between our countries, expand trade flows and, together with China, balance world geopolitics.”
As a traditional anti-U.S. Latin American leftist loyal to his long-time comrades in the region, it was obvious for less biased observers that in the contest between the U.S. and China, he would side with China. No serious analyst with some familiarity with Lula's ideological preferences and loyalties could have sincerely believed that, when faced with the choice between the old American-led order and a new Chinese-led or multipolar order, he would opt for the former. Yet the Biden administration (and, more broadly, Western elites) celebrated Lula’s replacement of Bolsonaro, arguably the most pro-U.S. Brazilian president in the country's history.
Lula is often portrayed by Western analysts as a “pragmatist,” in contrast to ideologues such as Venezuela’s Maduro. However, Lula has never hidden from anyone that his primary allegiance is to the Latin American left and to the same causes that have galvanized and united it for decades. Like his comrades, he has always seen Western (and especially American) “imperialism,” or simply U.S. regional hegemony, as a major (if not the main) enemy to be fought.
Latin American economic and political unity would be necessary for success on this front, and for this reason the pursuit of such a unity has become the cornerstone of Lula's political vision. That he perceived U.S. fingerprints on the operation that led to the demise of his political party, the ouster of Rousseff from power, and his arrest could only increase his determination to work for new regional and global orders if an opportunity arises.
Lula’s visit to China comes just four and a half months after he took office for a third term as president of Brazil. His somewhat tumultuous and contested electoral victory in 2022 by the narrowest margin in the history of Brazil’s presidential elections was enthusiastically celebrated by Western elites. Just a few years earlier, Lula had fallen from grace with the same elites when he, nineteen members of his political party, and executives who worked for state companies during his and Rousseff’s administrations went to jail for what many have claimed was one of the greatest corruption scandals in modern history.
Illustrative of the change of attitude of Western elites toward Lula is Barack Obama's public statements about him through the years. In 2009, during a G20 meeting, Obama said upon greeting Lula: “That’s my man, right there,” and referred to him as “the most popular politician on Earth.” Eleven years later, however, Obama wrote in one of his several autobiographies that Lula “reportedly had the scruples of a Tammany Hall boss,” and that “rumors swirled about government cronyism, sweetheart deals, and kickbacks that ran into the billions.”
By 2022, Western elites were again enamored with Lula. Clearly, what changed perceptions of Lula from 2009 to 2022 was the rise of right-wing populist movements around the globe around 2016 and, in Brazil's case, the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018.
In 2019, the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled that Lula should be released from jail after staying behind bars for 580 days until all appeals of his corruption and money laundering convictions were exhausted. In 2021, it annulled previous courts’ decisions, alleging that a lower federal court that convicted him lacked jurisdiction and that the judge responsible for his initial conviction was biased. Of the eleven criminal charges against Lula, he was declared innocent in three and the other proceedings were prescribed or annulled. Lula became a free man and free to run for political office again, which he did, by launching the presidential campaign that would send him to Palácio do Planalto for a third time.
As Lula took office, the expectations were high among Western leaders for greater Brazilian cooperation on two of their top current priorities: on climate change (and especially with respect to the preservation of the Amazon rainforest), and in the current struggle against the perceived threat posed by authoritarian states to the liberal international order, and especially in their effort to assist Ukraine in its resistance to Russia’s invasion.
Almost four months into Lula's presidency, the new Brazil seems to have fallen short of expectations on both fronts. On the environmental front, Amazon deforestation has increased rather than decreased. When it comes to the expected support for the goal of preservation of the U.S.-led international order against the perceived authoritarian threats, Lula has seriously disappointed. When the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz traveled to Brasília to try to convince Lula to contribute to the war effort in Eastern Europe by providing ammunition to German anti-aircraft guns, Lula refused to provide it.
During his meeting with Scholz he said that while he believes that Russia should not have invaded Ukraine, he also believes that responsibility for the war should not be attributed solely to Russia. “But I still think that when one won't, two won't fight,” he declared. From then on, Lula would make several additional public statements about the war that put him increasingly at odds with the United States, such as that Ukraine should cede Crimea to Russia and that the United States should stop stimulating the war and seek peace.
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In the meantime, he allowed Iranian warships to dock in Rio de Janeiro, restored relations with Venezuela’s Maduro and sent an emissary to meet with him and then with Putin in Russia, and, soon after he returned from China, Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov was welcomed in Brasília. During his meeting with Lavrov, the Brazilian foreign minister told reporters that Brazil opposes sanctions against Russia and called for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine.
China has secured an important victory with Lula’s election and the Biden administration’s and other Western leaders’ celebrations of him as a major partner. It has secured more solid ties with a key Latin American nation. And at the same time, Biden's celebration of Lula and hostility toward Bolsonaro has alienated those in Latin America who have traditionally supported closer relations with the U.S., making them potentially less hesitant to accept China’s presence in the region.
In other words, Biden has been able to alienate those traditionally supportive of closer ties with the U.S. while at the same time managing to solidify the relations between China and those traditionally hostile to the U.S. in the region. That’s quite an accomplishment. One that will likely have major consequences for Latin America and the U.S., strengthening authoritarian forces in the region and further undermining U.S. security and influence in the world.