Connect with us



How Brazil’s Lula Will Balance China and the U.S.

Foreign policy will be key to Lula cementing his legacy. His first task internationally is to strike a balance in relationships with China and the U.S., Brazil’s two foremost partners.

brazil lula foreign policy china us
Brazil could find itself in a difficult position if tensions between the U.S. and China rise. (Image Credit: Ricardo Stuckert/Government of Brazil)

Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was scheduled to visit his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping at the end of March. Beijing would have been Lula’s fourth international destination in less than 100 days in office.

Lula had to cancel his trip, which was set to include 200 business people, after catching pneumonia. His administration had hoped the China visit would alleviate political pressure at home.

Since returning to the presidency (his previous term was 2003-2010), Lula has already been to visit partners in the South American trade bloc Mercosur, Argentina, and Uruguay, and recently flew to Washington DC for conversations with US president Joe Biden and members of the Democratic party over infrastructure investments, trade, and climate change.

Globetrotting seems like quite an effort for a 77-year-old, third-term president who faces a deeply divided society. But Lula does it with a smile on his face. Since he first took office 20 years ago, the former metalworker has risen to the challenge of international diplomacy as a natural negotiator with political charm.

Building Political Legitimacy

As Lula kicks off his third term, foreign policy will be a tool for building his own domestic political legitimacy. His reputation currently appears to be greater abroad than at home.

Always a determined player on the international stage, Lula’s administration spearheaded the construction of Unasur, a South American organization set up to offset U.S. economic and political power in the region. He also forged several alliances in the developing world.

Although Lula left office in 2010 with an impressive 83 percent approval rating, much of his political capital waned in the years that followed. This was largely thanks to his successor Dilma Rousseff’s pitiful economic performance and the mounting accusations of graft against top figures in his Workers’ party.

But despite being indicted and imprisoned for corruption in early 2018 (at which point his domestic popularity plummeted), the admiration of foreign figures has endured. Some even visited Lula in prison, protesting what they called political persecution of the former president.

So, at the age of 77 — and with health problems — a big diplomatic play might be his best bet of leaving a presidential legacy.

Challenges of a New World Order

But Brazil’s capacity as a meaningful international player will depend on the administration’s ability to navigate a world that is fundamentally different from the one of the early 2000s.

The country is not in its best shape, either. In the years following Lula’s first two terms, Brazil went through a decade of decline, introspection, and isolation.

Much of this is down to his immediate predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. On Bolsonaro’s watch, Brazil ranked second, at 700,000 recorded deaths, in total COVID fatalities. Massive areas of rainforest were burned, and the lands of the Yanomami indigenous people were devastated by large amounts of mining.

So, while Lula must capitalize on any residual international popularity to relaunch Brazil as a global player, he has a lot to do to restore his own country’s economy and heal the wounds of a divided society.

Lula’s first task internationally — a tough challenge — is to strike a balance in his relationships with Washington and Beijing, Brazil’s two foremost partners. So far, his new administration’s even-handed strategy has worked fine. But if tensions between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping lead to further political instability — or if a Republican with a zero-sum approach to China gets elected in 2024, Brazil could find itself in a difficult position.

Lula has attempted to anticipate these problems by offering to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine. It was a way to dodge criticism by western powers, who wanted Brazil to engage in military assistance to the Ukrainian government — while still preserving Brazil’s longstanding ties with Russia.

Lula’s take on the war is part of what researchers have dubbed “active non-alignment.” It is part of a broader Latin American strategy to safeguard policy space and instruments for national development strategies in an increasingly polarised international order. By offering itself as a high-profile mediator, Brazil wants to maintain trade and cooperation with all sides in the conflict.

Lula’s Balancing Trick

But Russian-Ukrainian peace appears to be a long way off — and it will hardly come via mediators from the developing world. If Lula wants to create a legacy, he needs to build on Brazil’s preexisting capacity, in both multilateral and regional terms.

One possible way is to restore Brazil’s activism at the United Nations. He must also reestablish cooperation in issues as diverse as climate change, biodiversity, indigenous rights, vaccines, food security, and development.

Another way is to rebuild South American integration. Regional organizations such as Mercosur and Unasur could help bolster global supply chains in critical sectors like energy and food that have been disrupted by the war in Ukraine. To do so, Brazil must reclaim its role as the continent’s center of economic gravity.

But there is an obstacle: Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. A persistent political, economic, and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has exposed the dangers of left-wing authoritarianism. Lula is one of the few leaders who have open channels with Maduro and may be able to help the country work towards a national reconciliation.

The question is whether Lula wants to get involved. Unlike left-wing leaders who recently rose to power in Chile and Colombia, Lula and the Workers’ party have been unapologetically sympathetic towards dictators such as Venezuela’s Maduro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.

Overcoming the Brazilian left’s outdated views on authoritarian socialism and anti-imperialism may be as daunting a challenge for the Lula administration as leaving a sound diplomatic legacy. But both steps are necessary if Lula really wants to make a difference in the region — and the world.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

By submitting your info, you agree to our terms of use.

Guilherme Casarões is a professor of political science at the São Paulo School of Business Administration (FGV/EAESP).

Prigozhin challenges Putin Prigozhin challenges Putin

How Yevgeny Prigozhin Could Threaten Putin From the Right


when will ukraine war end putin zelensky when will ukraine war end putin zelensky

Ukraine Takes the War Into Russia


China russia allies xi putin China russia allies xi putin

After Putin: How Russia Might Rethink Its Alliance With China


China and corruption in Latin America China and corruption in Latin America

How China Uses Corruption to Influence Latin America


China in Latin America China in Latin America

China Expands Economic Reach Into U.S. Backyard


South Africa balancing Russia China and the US South Africa balancing Russia China and the US

How South Africa Balances China, Russia, and The West


What is the Euclid spacecraft What is the Euclid spacecraft

Euclid Spacecraft Will Transform How We View the ‘Dark Universe’


Imran Khan released from jail Imran Khan released from jail

This Round Goes to Imran Khan

South Asia


By submitting your information, you are agreeing to our terms of use.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

By submitting your info, you agree to our terms of use.