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Brazil losing credibility under Bolsonaro

Alexander Busch
May 19, 2019

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has found himself to be persona non grata in New York. And Brazil may encounter similar hostility elsewhere in the world as well while he remains leader.

Jair Bolsonaro in Texas
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Agencia Brazil/M. Corrêa

What was meant to have been a glitzy New York ceremony that saw Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro awarded a "Person of the Year" prize ended up provoking a heated and prolonged bout of political mudslinging.

The Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce intended to honor Bolsonaro, along with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, at a gala held in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The annual soiree, generously funded by US and Brazilian companies, is a long-established event where investors and entrepreneurs vie for an exclusive chance to network with the winners.

This time, however, everything went wrong.

First, sponsors of the museum voiced objections, calling for the event to be canceled because of Bolsonaro's right-wing populist and misanthropic views. Then, when an alternative venue for the awards ceremony was slated at a hotel, the first of the event sponsors jumped ship. 

Brazil puts economy over the rain forest

To top it all, the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, then chimed in, saying Bolsonaro was not welcome in the city because of his "homophobic and racist views."

In response to the opposition, Brazilian diplomats managed to relocate the event to Dallas, Texas, where the president's 24-hour visit on May 15-16 went largely unnoticed. De Blasio mocked Bolsonaro for being too cowardly to show his face in New York.

De Blasio's stance can be seen as motivated by domestic US politics: As a Democrat, he is keen to burnish his reputation as a staunch human rights activist. However, his lack of hesitation in insulting Brazil's democratically elected president indicates just how much Brazil has now been weakened on the world stage. After all, de Blasio is not known to have protested against economically influential despots from Asia and the Middle East who have previously visited his city.

People holding up banners at an anti-Bolsonaro protest in New York
Members of the Brazilian community in New York protested at Bolsonaro's planned visitImage: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/E. McGregor

Conservatives also give the cold shoulder

Even Bolsonaro's conservative supporters in the USA did not come to his rescue. In the end, he was forced to pick up the prize from what is virtually a provincial outpost. And not a single high-ranking US business partner or politician could be persuaded to attend the event in Texas.

Brazil is rapidly losing its relevance in world politics. This decline did not begin with Bolsonaro's inauguration in January but his presidency has certainly accelerated it.

The country's global influence began to dwindle about five years ago apace with the downward turn of the economy. Until then, Brazil relied primarily on its "soft power" to achieve its foreign policy aims, in contrast to the "hard power" of the US, Russia, or China.

These terms, coined by US foreign policy expert Joseph Nye, are used to differentiate the means in which a country uses to bring about its objectives. "Hard power" is when a country asserts itself by virtue of its economic, financial and military might. Brazilian diplomats traditionally operated using "soft power" — an approach that was reinforced in the 2000s when the country came to be ranked as the world's eighth largest economic power, demonstrating its global importance as a supplier of industrial raw materials and energy.

Students protesting against Jair Bolsonaro
Bolsonaro has also faced protest at home over cuts to higher education spendingImage: Reuters/A. Machado

Lost influence   

Brazil was once able to win over negotiating partners with the forthcoming manner employed by its diplomats. It carved a positive image of itself as a multiethnic tropical culture capable of bridging social differences between black and white, rich and poor.

By these means, the country scored some surprising successes in the climate debate and world trade because its diplomats were able to forge alliances across continents and between industrial, emerging and developing countries.

But Brazil's "soft power" has been on the decline for some time now. This is partly because, at the zenith of its economic success 10 years ago, Brazil increasingly became a rival to industrialized countries in the agricultural, energy and raw materials sectors — economic power does not really fit the picture of a tropical "soft power." But with its economic decline, Brazil has now lost even more credibility and clout: A "soft power” without a dynamic economy is equally unconvincing.

The damage to Brazil's image is now continuing at an even faster rate.  Bolsonaro's domestic and foreign policy is bringing about the polarization that he promised during his election campaign — a promise that won him many votes. And he clearly bases his foreign policy on a friend-or-foe premise that will rule out the forging of any surprising global alliances. He and Brazil will have to come to terms with the fact that they may no longer be welcomed everywhere with the same open arms they once used to encounter.

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