Brazil’s Love Affair With Diplomacy Is Dead

A leader in liberal internationalism is about to turn its back on the world.

President Jair Bolsonaro waves a Brazilian flag while addressing supporters during his inauguration ceremony in Brasilia on Jan. 1, 2019. (Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images)
President Jair Bolsonaro waves a Brazilian flag while addressing supporters during his inauguration ceremony in Brasilia on Jan. 1, 2019. (Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images)

Among the world’s emerging powers, Brazil has been a peerless supporter of what has come to define international liberalism in the postwar years, especially a commitment to multilateralism, open markets, and the defense of liberal values, such as democracy, diversity, and human rights. The newly inaugurated administration of President Jair Bolsonaro now promises to change all that. Although he earned widespread notoriety for his racist, misogynistic, and homophobic remarks, his lasting legacy may end up his foreign policy. The rest of the world shouldn’t underestimate the scale of Brazil’s pending retreat from the international liberal order.

To be sure, Brazil has stamped international liberalism with its own ambiguities and quirks. Brazilian foreign policy is noted for its strategic “South-South” alliances with illiberal regimes such as those in Iran, China, Turkey, Cuba, and Venezuela, which put the country pointedly at odds with its professed support for democracy and human rights. International liberalism in Brazil has also been timid on economic liberalism. Even at the peak of the neoliberal era, in the 1990s, Brazil remained leery of privatizations and deregulation. And no major country in the Americas put more barriers on free trade than Brazil. Instead, it has emphasized the social and cultural dimensions of liberalism, often aiming to act as the conscience of the international community by standing up for progressive causes when other countries are either unwilling to or incapable of doing so.

Brazil embraced international liberalism after it became a full democracy, in 1985, as a soft power bid to fulfill a long-standing ambition of carving for it itself a role in global affairs commensurate with its large size. The high-water mark of this embrace came during the long reign of the Workers’ Party from 2003 to 2016, under the presidencies of Luiz Inácio da Silva, universally known as Lula, and Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president, which made Brazil the face of the global left. During their time in office, Brazil embraced the role of enforcer of ethics and morality on the global stage even as it made itself the target of outside scrutiny, which, in turn, exposed the underbelly of Brazilian democracy for everyone to see, including widespread corruption, rampant violence, and vast inequality.

It is hard to think of a progressive cause not championed by Brazil on the global stage in the last three decades, starting with the environment. In 1992, just a few years after leaving military rule, the country put the international environment movement on the map when it hosted the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. One of the largest and most ambitious events ever sponsored by the United Nations, the Earth Summit encouraged the world’s community to reconsider economic development and to find ways to slow down the stress that humans are putting on the planet. Thousands of environmental activists, business leaders, and politicians made their way to Rio de Janeiro, alongside some 10,000 journalists, ensuring unprecedented attention to the environment and setting the stage for the advent of a “global green regime.”

By the end of the 1990s, after the success of Brazil’s National AIDS Program—arguably the most effective domestic response by any national government to HIV/AIDS (the program guaranteed universal access to antiretroviral HIV treatment, based on the view that health care is a basic human right)—the country had assumed global leadership in the fight against the epidemic. Seeking to impose its model worldwide, Brazil threatened to break international patent laws and produce the antiretroviral HIV drugs domestically, even in the face of U.S. economic sanctions, contending that it was immoral for Western pharmaceutical companies to expect poor countries to pay Western prices for antiretroviral prescriptions. This shaming campaign by Brazil led to the World Trade Organization’s 2001 Doha Declaration, which affirmed the right of low-income countries to import and produce generic versions of essential medicines.

Under Lula, Brazil became the gold standard for fighting economic inequality by cutting the poverty rate from 9.7 percent to 4.3 percent of the national population; this translates to rescuing more than 20 million Brazilians from poverty. Key to this success were social programs such as Bolsa Família, or family purse, which aim to break the cycle of poverty by giving direct cash transfers to poor families in exchange for their commitment to keep their children in school and up to date with their medical checkups. According to the World Bank, a key partner in the Lula administration’s anti-poverty efforts, Bolsa Família became “a reference point for social policy around the world,” with similar programs now in place in more than 40 countries. It also became the inspiration for global initiatives to end hunger such as the U.N. Zero Hunger Challenge.

Triggered by dramatic LGBT rights advances at home—such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, ahead of the United States—Brazil has led the international community in pressing for the civil rights of the LGBT community. In 2011, Brazil and other countries introduced the U.N. Resolution on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, a document that draws a direct connection between gay rights and human rights and that calls for the decriminalization of homosexuality. This landmark resolution was the first time that the U.N. had made such a statement about homosexuality. Curiously, this was the same resolution that the George W. Bush administration opposed, in 2008, for fears that it would embolden the U.S. gay rights movement.

Last, but not least, in the wake of the Edward Snowden surveillance scandal, which revealed that the United States had spied on its allies, Brazil included, Brazil positioned itself as “a champion of internet freedom.” It co-sponsored, with Germany, a 2013 U.N. resolution that was the organization’s first major statement on privacy in decades. In 2014, Brazil hosted Net Mundial, a global gathering of governments, nongovernmental organizations, academics, and captains of industry that successfully demonstrated how a global multistakeholder approach to international governance of the internet could work. According to a report from the Brookings Institution, Net Mundial allowed Brazil the opportunity to “showcase its successful domestic Internet governance model.” The linchpin of this model is the Brazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, which Human Rights Watch regards as “a model for other nations seeking to enact legislative measures that enshrine protection of human rights online.”

Regrettably, the guardrails that many hope will curtail Bolsonaro’s domestic agenda will do little to curb his capacity to transform Brazilian foreign policy. Many expect that Bolsonaro’s authoritarian leanings will be tamed by the courts, which lately have showed extraordinary autonomy, as can be seen in Lula’s conviction on corruption charges.  Despite enjoying the support of Brazil’s most conservative political groups, such as the evangelical movement, agrarian oligarchs, and law enforcement, Bolsonaro is likely to clash with the Brazilian Congress, which is famously fractured due to a sea of small and weak political parties. And he is certainly on a collision course with Brazilian civil society, which in recent years has demonstrated its capacity to influence the behavior of politicians as well as their fate. The wave of public demonstrations against Rousseff in 2013 set the stage for her impeachment in 2015. But none of this will matter for Bolsonaro’s ability to upend Brazil’s international liberalism, given the powers that the Brazilian Constitution grants him to shape foreign policy.

Not surprisingly, Brazil’s retreat from international liberalism is already afoot. Foreign Affairs Minister Ernesto Araújo, a climate change skeptic (he has referred to climate change as a Marxist plot), has announced that Brazil will pull out of the Paris climate change agreement, something inconceivable only a few months ago. Brazil has also withdrawn its candidacy to host the 2019 U.N. climate change conference. This is all in keeping with Bolsonaro’s anti-globalist views and anti-environmental stance. During the campaign, Bolsonaro promised to allow mining and agricultural companies to expand their business activities into previously protected areas of the country, such the Amazonian forests.

Brazil’s retreat from international liberalism could not have come at a less opportune time, with the international liberal order reeling from rising authoritarianism in Russia and other post-communist countries and the Trump administration’s willingness to flaunt its disregard for liberal values—attacking the press, hindering multilateralism and international trade agreements, and embracing strongmen such as Russian President Vladimir Putin. Things for the international liberal order will likely worsen before they improve, with the impending departure from office of Germany’s Angela Merkel, the sturdiest defender of the international liberal order in the West, and no apparent heir on the horizon other than France’s Emmanuel Macron.

But with crisis comes opportunity. Brazil’s retreat from the international liberal order opens room for other countries in the global south to step up to the plate. Certainly, no other emerging power matches what Brazil has been able to accomplish in recent decades, to say nothing of its profile as a large, multiracial, capitalist democracy. South Africa, however, comes closest. Other major Latin American democracies with a big international profile—such as Argentina and Chile—could help fill the void. Both are under right-wing rule, but their leaders (Argentina’s Mauricio Macri and Chile’s Sebastián Piñera) are political pragmatists with moderate social views. They are also strong supporters of open markets and multilateral institutions, and they have not shied away from criticizing the trade and immigration policies of the United States under President Donald Trump.

On the other hand, the current crisis of the international liberal order offers the chance for its reformation. In no small measure, the future of the international liberal order hinges on the successful spread of liberal values such as democracy and human rights throughout the global south, home to the world’s fastest-growing countries and some of its largest economies. Yet the developed West has resisted opening the governing bodies of the institutions of the international liberal order to the global south. Indeed, the governing structures of the international liberal order, especially the United Nations, remain virtually unchanged since they were established after World War II.

It is telling that for all that Brazil has done to strengthen and expand international liberalism, the developed West has never seen fit to reward Brazil with what it wants most from the international system: a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Brazil has had to make do with the next best thing. According to the Brazilian foreign ministry, it is tied with Japan as the country most often selected by U.N. members to occupy a nonpermanent seat at the Security Council, a sure sign of the high esteem that Brazil enjoys around the world. Maybe the cure to the ills of the international liberal order rests on making it more open and diverse to countries like Brazil before they elect dangerous populists like Bolsonaro.

Omar G. Encarnación is a professor of political studies at Bard College and author of Democracy without Justice in Spain: The Politics of Forgetting.