Bolsonaro Offers Biden an Olive Branch

This week’s climate summit offered the Brazilian president a fresh opportunity to engage with the new U.S. administration.

By Augusta Saraiva, a former intern at Foreign Policy, and Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during a pronouncement on new COVID-19 emergency aid.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during a pronouncement on new COVID-19 emergency aid at the Planalto Palace in Brasília, on March 31. Mateus Bononi/Getty Images

At this week’s virtual climate summit hosted by Washington, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has adopted a conciliatory tone with the Biden administration, a sign two of the largest countries in the Western Hemisphere’s relationship could finally stabilize after the Brazilian leader had refused to recognize U.S. President Joe Biden’s election for weeks.

The new approach from Brasília, including conceding to the Biden administration’s demands for greater action on climate change, which pledges to reach carbon neutrality 10 years ahead of schedule and eliminate illegal deforestation, is a late recognition of the American partnership’s centrality, former officials and experts told Foreign Policy. That marks an abrupt about-face for a mercurial leader who saw in former U.S. President Donald Trump a kindred spirit.

“There has been this realization on the Brazilian side that just because the United States wants to work with Brazil, it doesn’t mean that the United States is desperate to work with Brazil,” said Anya Prusa at the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute.

Trump and Bolsonaro shared a populist tilt, but former officials and U.S. diplomats have long hoped the relationship would rely less on personal relations and more on strong defense and economic ties—regardless of who is in power. In recent years, Brasília and Washington have cooperated on different fronts, from military partnerships that sent hundreds of Brazilian service people for training in the United States to regional efforts to solve the political crisis in Venezuela. Ahead of Trump’s loss, Bolsonaro even managed to strike a mini trade deal with his U.S. counterpart.

But the relationship’s framing has changed, and Biden has threatened more than once to stop dealing with Bolsonaro if the Brazilian leader does not change his rhetoric and take practical steps to tackle climate change. Although Trump saw Brazil as a possible South American bulwark against China and a regional ally that could put pressure on Venezuela, the Biden team is trying to push Brazil, one of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters as deforestation in the Amazon rainforest continues to surge, to reclaim its role as a regional leader on climate change. And Bolsonaro, engulfed by bad news of late, appears to be playing along: giving into some U.S. requests for more ambitious action on climate change that once seemed like a non-starter, a sign of greater flexibility from the embattled populist.

“What I think you’re witnessing now is a repositioning effort by the government, which was late in recognizing political realities in the United States,” a former senior U.S. diplomat said. “That doesn’t mean the government in Brasília has become something other than it is. Bolsonaro is still a populist and a nationalist leader, but it does indicate greater pragmatism in trying to see where there’s common ground.”

“Mr. President, we could not agree more with your call for establishing ambitious commitments on the climate agenda,” Bolsonaro said during Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate on Thursday in a restrained speech that deviated from his usual fiery oratory. Biden later cited Brazil as one of the countries that brought “encouraging announcements” to the summit.

But many in Washington doubt Bolsonaro’s sincerity. A bilateral agreement on climate meant to be announced during this week’s summit fell through after almost 200 Brazilian nongovernmental organizations, backed by Democratic lawmakers, urged Biden not to deal with the Bolsonaro administration. In a letter to Biden earlier this month, Democrats in Congress called on the United States to condition aid to progress on deforestation and stopping environmental crimes. Earlier this week, John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, said Bolsonaro’s words must come accompanied by “immediate actions.” This week, a dozen Brazilian and U.S. public figures, including actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Jane Fonda, urged Biden to refuse to make any environmental deals with Bolsonaro.

“The United States agrees to be partners with Brazil to combat climate change and meet ambitious goals,” Todd Chapman, the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, said on Twitter in the aftermath of Bolsonaro’s speech, adding it is time to “lead by the example.”

But even though the Brazilian leader appears to be pushing for common ground, there’s a catch: Bolsonaro has agreed to curb illegal deforestation in the Amazon rainforest by 40 percent, but only if the United States and the international community pony up at least a billion dollars in aid to Brazil. In 2019, Germany and Norway halted billions of dollars in funding for the Amazon rainforest in response to Bolsonaro’s failed response to deforestation.

Even as Biden has shifted the relationship to focus on climate change instead of competition with China, some in Brazil worry Washington might be turning a blind eye toward Brasília to maintain a decades-old partnership.

In the past months, Bolsonaro has tried to not only fill the armed forces and police with loyalists but has also lashed out at the Supreme Court on multiple occasions. Last week, the president replaced the superintendent of the largest Amazon state of Amazonas after the official urged the Supreme Court to open an investigation against Bolsonaro’s environment minister for alleged environmental crimes related to illegal logging.

“In the United States, there’s this perception that democracies are only under threat if countries are aligned to China and Russia,” Celso Amorim, who served as foreign affairs and defense minister under three Brazilian presidents, told Foreign Policy. Bolsonaro’s effort “to destroy not only institutions but also democratic values is very strong,” he said.

But in Washington, the Biden administration doesn’t seem to want to jeopardize what has traditionally been one of its most important relationships in Latin America over Bolsonaro’s peccadillos at home.

“Americans understand pretty well that Brazil’s foreign policy today is very aligned with them; they are pragmatic,” said Mariana Kalil, a geopolitics professor at Brazil’s War College, adding that as long as the Bolsonaro administration “is aligned with Washington and doesn’t disrespect human rights too much or commit ecocide, they will tolerate it.”

Augusta Saraiva is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @gutavsaraiva

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Tag: Brazil