What Will the U.S. Election Mean for Brazil’s Diplomacy?

China’s growing influence in Latin America and climate change will both continue to shape the future of the bilateral relationship.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands before a dinner with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands before a dinner with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on March 7. Alex Brandon/AP

While U.S. presidential elections traditionally attract limited attention among the Brazilian public, few observers in Latin America’s largest country are indifferent to the 2020 campaign. That is because Brazil’s populist leader, Jair Bolsonaro—often dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics”—has made alignment with U.S. President Donald Trump a centerpiece of his foreign policy. During his first visit to Washington as president, Bolsonaro used a press conference in the White House to announce that he “firmly believed in Donald Trump’s reelection.”

Late last month, in response to a debate comment from Trump’s Democratic rival, Joe Biden, in which the candidate suggested making a global offer of $20 billion to end deforestation and alluded to unspecified economic consequences, Bolsonaro replied in an all-caps tweet that “OUR SOVEREIGNTY IS NONNEGOTIABLE,” adding that he would not accept “bribes” or “baseless threats.”

Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles also publicly responded to Biden’s offer, posting: “Just one question: Biden’s $20 billion in aid, is that yearly?”

Still, analysts in Brazil have been cautiously optimistic about the future of U.S.-Brazilian ties in the event that Biden defeats Trump in November. In an interview with Bloomberg, foreign minister Ernesto Araújo said that “despite some adjustments, [Brazil’s government] would be able to maintain a very positive agenda under a possible Democratic administration,” further pointing out that “while Presidents Bolsonaro and Trump have built a very close relationship that has brought mutual benefits, the advancements happened between Brazil and the U.S., not between two presidents.”

It is worth asking, then, how a Biden victory in November would affect ties between the United States and Brazil. While Biden’s foreign-policy advisors are unlikely to support many of Bolsonaro’s policies, they will be aware of Brazil’s relevance when it comes to one of the United States’ main strategic concerns in Latin America: containing Beijing’s growing influence. Indeed, Democratic strategists largely agree with Trump that China should be treated as a disruptive competitor. If Biden wins, the United States would continue to have an active interest in convincing Bolsonaro to exclude Huawei from the bidding process to build the country’s 5G telecommunications infrastructure, scheduled to take place in 2021. With a population of over 200 million and a high percentage of smartphone usage and ownership, Brazil is one of the main prizes in the emerging tech war between Washington and Beijing. In the same way, there is reason to believe that cautious efforts to facilitate trade ties between the two countries may continue as well under a Biden administration. Broader strategic concerns, optimists believe, would have a greater impact than the profound personal and ideological differences between Biden and Bolsonaro.

Drastic changes also seem unlikely given that compared to the United States’ major foreign-policy challenges, including contentious relationships with China and Russia, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the global migration crisis, Brazilian politics do not figure among the most pressing concerns. Even in Latin America, the country often appears behind priorities such as migration and developments in Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela. Just like under former U.S. President Barack Obama, Brazil may end up fairly far down the list of priorities in a potential Biden administration. The busier Biden might be dealing with other foreign-policy challenges, the better for the Bolsonaro government, since it would help the relationship stay under the public radar in the United States.

However, such stability may be unrealistic. A close examination of his international record suggests that Bolsonaro has consistently used foreign policy as a tool to satisfy his most radical supporters, even if doing so comes at a significant economic or strategic cost to the country—an approach that is likely to continue regardless of any change of administrations in the United States.

Three examples stand out. First, Bolsonaro chose to become one of Latin America’s first leaders to embrace anti-China rhetoric during his presidential campaign, and he even visited Taiwan and then proclaimed on Twitter, that his government would end, as he put it, previous governments’ tradition of being “friendly with communist regimes.” Most observers expected him, once elected, to tone down his rhetoric, and Bolsonaro indeed traveled to China during his first year in office to affirm his commitment to strengthening ties. And yet continued attacks on China by his allies and followers have led to a rebuttal of unprecedented severity by the Chinese government earlier this year. Brazil-China ties today are marked by mutual distrust and could easily worsen further with continued comments by Bolsonaro allies—a likely scenario given the frequent need to divert public attention from domestic challenges. Last week, after being criticized by supporters on social media, Bolsonaro said the government will not purchase a Chinese-made coronavirus vaccine and questioned its safety “due to its origin,” adding that Brazilians would not be “anyone’s guinea pig”—even after his health minister had confirmed Brazil’s inclusion in the immunization program.

In short, Bolsonaro opted for the political benefit of continuously whipping up anti-China sentiment among his most loyal followers, even though it could provoke a crisis with Brazil’s most important trading partner, which purchases 34.1 percent of Brazilian exports. (Only 9.7 percent go to the United States, Brazil’s second-most-important export destination.) For either a Trump or Biden administration, then, the tightrope Bolsonaro walks with regard to China shows that Brazil’s president is willing to take enormous risks on the foreign-policy front to keep his radical followers energized.

Second, Bolsonaro has not embraced a pragmatic foreign-policy stance where one of the country’s historic political and economic partners, Argentina, is concerned. When it became clear that his preferred candidate, Mauricio Macri, would lose the Argentine presidential election in 2019 to center-left candidate Alberto Fernández, observers argued that Bolsonaro would have no choice but to establish a productive working relationship with his Argentine counterpart. After all, it would be impossible to coordinate the complex bilateral relationship between South America’s largest countries unless the two presidents got along reasonably well. Instead, the opposite happened. Bolsonaro ridiculed Fernández by visiting a Brazilian border town and telling his audience that they should prepare for Argentine refugees fleeing from the economic ruin the Peronist would unleash. Brazil’s president then refused to attend Fernandez’s inauguration, as previous Brazilian presidents had done with Argentine winners. Despite efforts by Argentina’s ambassador in Brasília to establish a working relationship, little suggests Bolsonaro has any interest in repairing ties—the political benefit of issuing warnings of an impending communist takeover across Latin America is too great.

Finally, Bolsonaro’s refusal to adopt a more moderate environmental stance in the face of growing European pressure has surprised many observers, who believed Brazil’s powerful agribusiness would convince the president to not to endanger ratification of the historic European Union-Mercosur trade deal, which negotiators agreed upon in 2019 after 20 years of arduous debates. Indeed, by ridiculing European environmental concerns as little more than protectionist excuses or neocolonial efforts to undermine Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon, Bolsonaro has torpedoed the efforts of Germany, the greatest beneficiary of the deal, and given limitless ammunition to the Austrians, Irish, and French, who are skeptical about the deal. After growing pressure from environmental movements, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said she has “considerable doubts” about the ratification of the deal. The reason for Bolsonaro’s strategy is simple: Easing environmental regulation was one of his key campaign promises and is a priority for miners, loggers, and members of other key sectors of his electoral coalition.

This could pose challenges for U.S. cooperation under a potential Biden administration when it comes to climate change, a topic a Biden administration would almost certainly prioritize. Yet given how forcefully Bolsonaro has lashed out against criticism from France and Germany, he would be expected to do the same if U.S. cabinet members or leading Democratic lawmakers speak out against Brazil. If the growing global reaction to the yearly fires in the Amazon are any guide, Biden would not be able to hide behind EU leadership on the matter but would face strong domestic pressure to take a tough stance against Bolsonaro’s environmental policies—indeed, as the Biden campaign recently stressed, climate concerns would be at the heart of U.S. diplomacy. The bilateral relationship is likely to be troubled from the start if Biden were to be elected.

These are formidable obstacles to a productive bilateral relationship between Biden and Bolsonaro, with potentially dire consequences for the two politicians’ capacity to address regional challenges together. Should he win, Biden is expected to signal a fresh start for U.S.-Latin American relations, as with most other foreign-policy priorities. He would almost certainly reverse course on Cuba policy and overhaul U.S. immigration policy. This would strain the relationship with Bolsonaro, who has been supportive of Trump’s approach, and make broader cooperation between Washington and Brasília more difficult on issues such as transnational crime, deforestation, and the pandemic, none of which can be addressed effectively by one nation alone.

A Trump win would not be entirely good news for the bilateral relationship, either. The Trump-Bolsonaro partnership ultimately produced very few results, particularly when compared to initial optimism and expectations of increased trade and the pushing out of Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro. In fact, trade between the two nations has recently fallen to the lowest level in 11 years, and the prospect of new U.S. tariffs on Brazilian products has been a continued source of tension. Trump’s reelection would not guarantee significant progress in the relationship.

If Biden wins, however, the bilateral relationship will require a heavy dose of realism and awareness that things will be very difficult from the start. In this sense, it’s not unlike Biden’s promise to revive bipartisanship at home; working with the “Trump of the Tropics” may be about as difficult as reaching across the aisle to the opposition in Washington.

Oliver Stuenkel is an associate professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. Twitter: @OliverStuenkel

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