1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Lula has high hopes for Brazil's international role

Philipp Lichterbeck
February 9, 2023

'Brazil is back' will be one of the main messages of President Lula da Silva during his trip to the US. He has ambitious foreign policy plans; some analysts are skeptical though.

Brazilian President Lula da Silva at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia
Lula was sworn in as Brazil's president for the third time in January 2023Image: Sergio Lima/AFP

When Brazilian President Lula da Silva arrives in Washington on Friday, he will be embarking on the most high-level meeting in a series of bilateral foreign policy meetings signaling that Brazil is back on the global stage. Former President Jair Bolsonaro isolated Brazil internationally, but his successor is moving full steam ahead to change that. Latin America's largest country wants to get back onto the international stage, not only economically but also politically.

The talks in Washington will likely focus on the Ukraine war and the tense relationship between the US and China. On both issues, Brazil has resisted siding with the West and has instead defined its own neutral position.

Guilherme Casaroes from the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo described this approach to DW as "equidistance." He explained that it was in the tradition of Brazilian diplomacy to take a neutral stance between power blocs. "Brasilia's foreign policy is guided by a universalist vision," he said. "The maintenance of good relations with the whole world and the positioning of oneself as a potential mediator in conflicts." Thus, after the interruption caused by Bolsonaro, Lula was bringing Brazil back in line with this approach.

US President Joe Biden
Lula is scheduled to meet his US counterpart Joe BidenImage: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

'Country of peace'

This is why it makes sense that on the one hand, Lula has described Russian President Vladimir Putin's war of aggression as a "blatant mistake" ­­and, on the other, he has rejected a request by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to supply ammunition for Leopard tanks destined for Ukraine. He said that Brazil was "a country of peace" and that it had fought its last war with Paraguay in the 19th century. 

However, this decision is also based on economic considerations. For example, the very existence of Brazil's agricultural industry depends on fertilizer from Russia and Belarus.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brasilia
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Brazil in January and met the new presidentImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

What is clear is that Lula sees Brazil as part of a multipolar world, as a representative of the global South refusing to get involved in the conflicts between the power blocs of the northern hemisphere, as this would not be beneficial.

This seems to have been understood in Washington. John Kirby, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications in the White House, told DW: "The United States is not out there twisting arms. (…) In the end, it comes down to every country making the decision that it is comfortable making because these countries also have sovereign, national defense needs of their own and we respect that."

'China continually undermines a rules-based order'

Important relationship with China

The same applies to Brazil's relationship with its largest trading partner China, one of the US' main geopolitical rivals. "You can't underestimate that. The trade balance with China is clearly favorable for Brazil," Carlos Melo of the Insper Institute of Education and Research in Sao Paulo told DW.

Brazil exports huge amounts of soy, meat and iron ore to China, which has financed major infrastructure projects in Brazil. The importance of cooperation is underscored by the fact that China's central bank is now seeking a yuan clearing deal in Brazil, which would facilitate cross-border transactions as well as encourage investment. Thus, Melo said, it is important to Brasilia that it maintains as good a relationship with Beijing as it does with Washington. It is no coincidence that Lula will be travelling to China to meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in March.

If Lula, who argues that peace must finally be talked about, were to have his way, China would also play an important role alongside Brazil in his international Ukraine mediation proposal. "Lula is a friend of ambitious foreign policy proposals," said Casaroes, who expressed skepticism about the proposal, explaining that the president overestimated his diplomacy skills: "Lula is convinced that he is a great mediator, which can be explained by his trade unionist background."

Pressure to reform UN Security Council

In his talks with US President Joe Biden, Lula will also probably bring up Brazil's bid for a reform of the UN Security Council and a permanent seat on it, which he says is his country's right on the basis of its size and economy. Brazil has sought this for several years now, alongside Germany, Japan and India.

Thomas Traumann of the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV) in Rio de Janeiro suggested that Lula would probably also want to discuss the Amazon rainforest in his negotiations with Washington and Brussels. He said that the Bolsonaro government had been particularly alienated by the US and Europe because of the ongoing destruction of the ecosystem, which is so important for the stability of the global climate. "Lula has recognized the opportunity that the Amazon represents for Brazil," Traumann said, adding that Lula had made it clear that protecting it was a priority for his government.

Traumann, who is close to Lula's Workers' Party (PT), also said that Brazil's ambition to become more important in foreign policy was highlighted by the fact that it wanted to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which was remarkable considering that certain members of the PT had always been against becoming members of this "club" of developed countries. "The mood changed after Brazil's Economy Minister Fernando Haddad met with OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann at the World Economic Forum in Davos."

The Amazon rainforest
Protecting the Amazon is one of Lula's prioritiesImage: Jens Büttner/dpa/picture alliance

Reaffirming regional leadership in Latin America

However, before really being able to fulfil his global ambitions, Lula will first have to reestablish Brazil's leadership role in Latin America. In January, he traveled to Buenos Aires for the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which his predecessor had pulled Brazil out of, and met both the president of Argentina as that of Uruguay. "The point was to reaffirm Brazil's regional leadership role," said Casaroes, adding that this was the basis of Brazil's global political engagement.

A decisive factor could well be whether Lula will be able to persuade Uruguay not to leave the South American free trade bloc Mercosur and not to conclude a bilateral trade agreement with China. A key to this would be the free trade agreement between the EU and Mercusor that Lula would like to wrap up as soon as possible after some adjustments. Melo said that the agreement was a "priority" for the president: "Not only for economic reasons, but also because it brings international prestige."

Casaroes said that in the end, this was about Lula and posterity:  He "governs a deeply divided society, and it will be difficult, except in the fight against hunger, to leave a great domestic legacy. He will seek this in foreign policy."

This article was translated from German.