The foreign policy of Lula’s 3rd administration: Brazil’s challenges in a world in crisis

/ Online Transmission - Zoom

Under the leadership of President Lula, Brazil can be part of the solutions to some of the leading global problems, such as the environmental and climate crisis, the democracy crisis, and the rapidly increasing inequalities between and within countries. To expand its influence in a world stricken with crises, Brazil needs to face its own and contribute to overcoming the global ones—two maneuvers that can reinforce each other. 

Brazil is important enough to aspire to a prominent position in the world, but the new administration’s foreign policy should prioritize negotiation arenas where the country has more sizeable weight, such as the environment and climate change. The better the foreign policy coordinates the performance of the different government areas and maintains a systematic dialogue with private-sector and civil society organizations, the greater that more-sizeable weight will be.

The new administration must be sensitive to the changes the world has undergone since the end of Lula’s second term (2011). It must also reflect the broad alliance of democratic forces that led him to his third presidential term—still in the beginning stages. Those were some of the main takeaways from this webinar. The event gathered a former Foreign Affairs minister, a former minister of the Environment, and a Brazilian foreign policy researcher.

“Brazil has a diplomatic and political capital that Lula consolidated in his previous presidential terms (2003-2011). However, the 2023 world is distinctly different from what Lula dealt with in the first decade of the century. And so is Brazil. Hence the importance of adjustments and reassessments to the repertoire of what has been done in the past, both for internal and external reasons,” said former Foreign Affairs Minister Celso Lafer, current acting chairman of the FHC Foundation Board of Directors.

“It is senseless for Brazil to act as if it stood alone from the world, as the previous Bolsonaro administration did, because we are part of the problems and, historically, we have demonstrated the ability to be part of the solutions. That doesn’t mean taking action in every crisis in the world. Calibrating wills and capacities is essential when sitting at international tables and within arenas where we could have more influence,” said Laura Trajber Waisbich, an International Relations PUC-SP graduate with a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Cambridge and a postdoc from the University of Oxford. She is currently a senior researcher at the Igarapé Institute and Oxford.

“Faced with the absence of global leaders, Lula’s return as Brazil’s President sparked great optimism. Brazil has the unique and alternative aspects to play a leading role internationally, but what is our ambition? You have to have the audacity to build the future internally and externally,” said former Minister of the Environment Izabella Teixeira, current co-chair of the United Nations Environment Program’s International Resource Panel (UNEP-IRP).

Lafer: Foreign policy must go beyond the Workers’ Party
and reflect the range of support for Lula

“Lula’s election in 2022 resulted from a comprehensive coalition of supporters, which was fundamental to his success in the runoff in an incredibly polarized country. Therefore, the diplomacy of Lula’s third term must have the sensitivity to expand its validation. It has to go beyond Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, in Portuguese) own references and become a component of governance, without losing its identity, of course,” said Celso Lafer.

In addition to the already announced change of direction in the environmental area, which has internal and external dimensions, the former chancellor discussed some of the challenges before the third Lula administration:

- A revaluation of the Latin American context with the resumption of the Argentina/Brazil partnership under new terms, the role of Mercosur, and regional cooperation – “Our region is more fragmented and divided than it was in his previous presidencies. Therefore, it requires a renewed, unifying presence in Brazil”;

- An innovative emphasis on the Amazon Cooperation Treaty, a region shared by eight countries and French Guiana – “The preservation of the forest and sustainable development to guarantee living conditions for the Amazon’s population also intersects the environmental agenda, and it is of interest to the whole world”;

- The shift of the global diplomatic axis from the West to the East, a long-lasting movement with profound impacts – “From the great expeditions in the late 15th century until recently, the West (for better or worse) had the primacy in controlling the history of the world. A shift in the tectonic plates of international life is eroding that with the change in dynamics from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

- The growing relevance of the competition between the U.S. and China for hegemony in the international system and its consequences in the current geopolitical distribution of power – “It is a must to manage our relationship with these two prominent actors on the world stage. Their dynamics impact international trade and the Brazilian and South American economies, with repercussions on our regional insertion”;

- The scope of the war in Ukraine, whose unilateral invasion by Russia breaks away from the standard of what is acceptable by international norms – “Brazil is also affected by the direct and indirect effects of the Ukrainian crisis and, in the face of Putin’s unacceptable action, Brazil historically aligns more with the vision of the U.S. and European countries, evidently recognizing differences derived from the specific nature of Brazil’s international insertion”;

- The multilateral trading system, governed by rules within the World Trade Organization (WTO), went into crisis, which favors the power of the large trade blocs Brazil plays no part in – “During Lula’s previous administrations, Brazil could count on the effectiveness of the rules within a legal framework of universal scope. The paralysis of the WTO has changed that. Considering the Mercosur situation, how can Brazil contribute to updating the international trade system and strengthening trade ties with other countries and regions?”

When asked about Lula’s idea of creating a “peace club”—possibly including countries such as China, India, Turkey, and Brazil—to contribute to a solution to the war in Ukraine, the former foreign minister was cautious: “China has already demonstrated alignment with Russia. India, too. Because of its proximity to the region in conflict, Turkey is already a relevant stakeholder. Brazil weighs too much risk to try to exceed our measure of action concerning this severe problem. If we are talking about peace, I would focus on addressing the Venezuela issue, where Brazil has a more powerful influence.”

“One should not neither underestimate nor overestimate the weight of Brazil or what is within reach of its diplomacy. The third Lula administration does not face the risk of underestimating it, but given President Lula’s personality, overestimation is a risk,” warned the professor emeritus from the University of São Paulo’s Institute of International Relations (IRI-USP).

Waisbich: The world is experiencing a confluence of crises,
and Brazil needs to choose where to act

The world is experiencing a “poly-crisis”—a confluence of overlapping crises—with unprecedented complexity, requiring a sense of urgency and a more think-outside-the-box approach than in the recent past. 

“We have a multi-dimensional environmental crisis caused by the destruction of the environment and biodiversity, by air, land and water pollution, by excess plastic and garbage, all added to global warming and threatening the continuity of human and non-human life on Earth,” said Laura Trajber Waisbich, Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Cambridge.

But we also have a social crisis caused by inequality between and within countries, characterized by poverty, hunger, and the abandonment of vast populations. That leads to violence, illegal immigration, and civil and inter-country wars—silent wars. In recent years, with the Covid-19 pandemic, we have had several setbacks in the fight against these crises,” continued the researcher. 

Lastly, we also have a profound political crisis, expressed through the democracy crisis with the erosion of democratic institutions and the emergence of new types of authoritarianism, which originated in elections. Brazil is one of the breeding grounds of this process that affects the developed and developing world,” said Waisbich, who is also affiliated with the Centro de Estudos da Cooperação Sul-Sul (Articulação SUL) and the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP).

“It is in this extremely complex and multi-dimensional context that we must debate new visions and projects for Brazilian action in the world. Not every country has the capacity to be part of the solutions to the problems of the planet. Brazil does, but after the Bolsonaro administration’s diplomatic denialism, the country needs to rebuild its foreign policy on a new foundation. There is no room for abstention,” he said.

Waisbich agreed with Lafer that the third Lula administration’s foreign policy must surpass PT’s traditional foreign policy. That policy is outdated in the face of the planet’s multiple challenges and does not reflect the views (political or socioeconomic) of the other forces supporting the administration: “The foreign policy of the new administration cannot be a continuation of that practiced in Lula’s first two terms. Brazil needs to do some renegotiating and updating to step back into a different and much more complex world.”

After stating that crises must be strategically chosen before taking action, the international relations expert suggested that Brazil has experience in the social agenda and can contribute to the world in that capacity. “The social agenda was a soft-power asset in Brazil, especially during the Lula years. We showed we could solve problems through public policies such as SUS (Unified Health System), vaccination campaigns, and technology-driven deforestation monitoring. Unfortunately, not all of those have been sustained, but they can and should be recovered and offered to the world as contributions Brazil can make,” he concluded.

Teixeira: The global governance system is not prepared to deal
with contemporary problems

“We did not foresee the Covid-19 crisis, we did not foresee the outbreak of war in Europe, nor were we prepared to face them. That shows global political and institutional shortsightedness, and the entire multilateral governance system is in crisis. There is simply no installed capacity in the UN system or other international institutions to adequately deal with today’s problems,” said biologist and environmentalist Izabella Teixeira, who played a central role in international climate negotiations when she headed Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment (2010-2016).

Teixeira called for a renewal of the international system and a new global pact based on the idea of global commons, in which the planet’s resources and the technology created by humans can be shared for the good of all, sustainably.

According to the UNEP-IRP co-chair, diplomacy today is no longer only done inside palaces, nor is it the exclusive responsibility of governments. “It goes beyond the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It must involve all other ministries and autonomous [government] agencies, also federal, state, and municipal governments, and have a permanent dialogue with the private sector (companies and workers), civil society, universities, research institutes, and NGOs,” she said. “A country’s foreign policy is multi-stakeholder. Therefore, we need to strengthen network diplomacy,” agreed Laura Waisbich. 

Teixeira recalled that Brazil is one of the 15 countries that maintain diplomatic relations with all other nations on the planet, but it needs to translate that advantage into a contemporary leadership with a creative and innovative look. “We must make our contribution to new lifestyles and consumption habits, participate in the ongoing industrial transition, add value to sustainable agro-industry, and bolster family farming and food security. If Brazil does its homework correctly, it benefits the world,” she said.

The former minister said that Brazil needs to understand the Amazon’s role on the planet once and for all: “Of course, we need to stop deforestation, but this is an agenda that we had already put into practice and was well underway. The preservation of the Amazon depends on multiple well-coordinated actions, which requires the participation of all those involved at the national, continental, and international levels.”

“The challenge is to put a contemporary foreign policy in place that affirms us as a low-carbon society and economy committed to peace, democracy, social justice, and diversity. We do not want to forever be the country of the future, but rather a better country in the future, with a place well-situated in the world. And that trajectory does not allow further setbacks,” she concluded.

Watch the full webinar (in Portuguese).

Learn about the Timelines Project:

Environmental Policies: The environmental movement and key decisions since Brazil’s re-democratization

Otávio Dias is the content editor at Fundação FHC. He is a political and international affairs journalist, a former correspondent for Folha de São Paulo in London, and former editor of the website. Portuguese to English translation by Melissa Harkin, CT and Todd Harkin – Harkin Translations.

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