At the COP27 climate summit in Egypt last week, Brazilian president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was hailed for his pledges to end illegal deforestation and combat global warming.
But in his speech to delegates, Lula — who takes office on January 1 — also laid out an expansive vision for Brazilian foreign policy in the next four years. He emphasised multilateralism, renewed efforts towards Latin American regional integration, deepening ties with developing nations and his desire to reform the UN.
“I want to say that Brazil is back. We’re back to reconnect with the world,” said the 77-year-old, who complained that Latin America’s largest nation had largely been isolated by the west during the tenure of incumbent leader Jair Bolsonaro.
For Celso Amorim, Lula’s top foreign policy adviser, the speech in Sharm El-Sheik was a clear signal that Brazil was ready to be more ambitious in its foreign policy agenda.
“It has started already. There is going to be a big emphasis on combating climate change, deeper integration with Latin America — specifically South American integration — and renewed relations with Africa,” said Amorim, who served as foreign minister during Lula’s first stint in office between 2003 and 2010.
“Reform of global governance will be a part of it as will good relations with the US and good relations with China,” he said, adding that Brazil welcomed recent comments from US president Joe Biden that there was no need for a “new cold war” between the superpowers.
Amorim said there would be a focus on reviving Unasur, the Union of South American Nations — a bloc originally formed by the late Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chávez to counterbalance US influence — and reinforcing the South American trade bloc, Mercosur, but “keeping its essence, which is a customs union”.
He said Lula’s administration would work towards finalising the long-stalled EU-Mercosur trade agreement, but that both sides wanted adjustments, potentially “in the form of a side letter”.
“We have to have some flexibility in terms of being open to develop new industries, green industries, and have more freedom to produce medicines and vaccines. We want to see very clearly the fine print on these issues.”
Brazil has long argued for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and in his speech in Egypt, Lula called for an overhaul of the body, saying the world was not the same as in 1945 — a demand echoed by Amorim, who said the broader G20 group of leading economies was “closer to what the world needs”.
Diplomats in Brazil’s foreign ministry, known as Itamaraty, have broadly welcomed Lula’s rhetoric, which signals a return to multilateralism. Under Bolsonaro, Brazil focused on bilateral ties with the US under former president Donald Trump, and other nations led by populist leaders, such as Hungary and Israel.
The far-right leader delayed recognising Biden’s election victory in 2020 and inflamed international opinion with his lax attitude towards protecting the environment and disdain for Covid-19 vaccines.
“Lula and Amorim are certainly more active. Lula understands the importance of diplomacy more than most presidents. That’s good news for us,” said one diplomat in Brasília.
“They also tend to say the right things internationally, starting with the positions on the environment, so we won’t be embarrassed that often.”
Rubens Ricupero, a former top diplomat and government minister, said that Lula had found a “dream subject” with the environment. “It can give him a lot of dividends in terms of prestige and acknowledgment without any immediate cost.”
Lula, however, will face challenges depending on how he chooses to engage with Russia as well as authoritarian regimes in Latin America, Ricupero said.
The president-elect shocked western observers earlier this year when he suggested Kyiv was as responsible for the war in Ukraine as Moscow. He also faces regular and withering criticism at home for the friendly ties between his Workers’ party and autocratic governments in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba. Last year, he said Cuba “could be like Holland if it didn’t have the [US] blockade”.
“Lula remains stuck in the past when dealing with these issues, especially when you compare him with the new wave of leftist presidents in LatAm, such as Gabriel Boric in Chile, who clearly condemned the Russians,” said Ricupero. “Lula and his party still carry a legacy of anti-Americanism and they tend to see conflicts, like the Ukraine war, through the eyes of the traditional non-aligned movement.”
Amorim, who is a potential candidate to resume his role as foreign minister, played down Lula’s comments on Ukraine but said the world needed to “be urgent about peace”.
“Yes, Russia was wrong and should be condemned. But sanctions don’t solve the problem and proceeding indefinitely will not solve the problem,” he said.
“We have to negotiate through a small group of countries, including the US, Turkey and China — someone that is capable of persuading [Russian president Vladimir] Putin,” he said, adding that Brazil’s mostly peaceful history would make it a good broker.
In Lula’s previous two terms, Brazil saw its membership of the Brics bloc with Russia, India and China as an important tool for global co-operation.
For Sergio Amaral, a former ambassador to Washington and adviser at the Brazilian Council of International Relations, the big challenge will be for Lula to balance the relationship between China, Brazil’s largest trading partner, and the US.
“My main concern is we should not take sides. We should have good relations with China but not to the detriment of the US.”
The US president called Lula to congratulate him soon after his election victory last month and the president-elect has spoken about his desire for a bilateral meeting as soon as possible.
“Good relations do not mean a green light for everything,” said Amaral. “But we share common values now and this paves the way for a more positive agenda.”