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Brazil’s Lula reaches out to China and Russia, stoking US unease

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Picture: Sergio Lima / AFP) – In this file photo taken on February 3, 2023, Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is presented with the credentials of China’s ambassador to Brazi,l Zhu Qingqiao, at Planalto Palace in Brasilia

By Ishaan Tharoor

In hindsight, it may have been a high-water mark in the relationship between the administrations in Washington and Brasília. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva called on President Joe Biden in the White House in February. The visit came weeks after far-right protesters in the Brazilian capital had stormed the major institutions of the country’s federal democracy in an angry challenge to Lula’s election as president. Their failed insurrection in some ways mirrored the experience of the United States with the Capitol riot two years prior and loomed over the meetings between the two leaders.

A joint statement from Biden and Lula affirmed their pledge “to work together to strengthen democratic institutions” and “continue to reject extremism and violence in politics.” On a number of other fronts, including concerns over human rights and climate change, they seemed to be in happy ideological agreement as left-leaning leaders of the Western hemisphere’s largest democracies.

But the easy optics of the moment belied the deeper differences that lingered and only grew more pronounced in the weeks thereafter. Lula skipped Biden’s second Summit for Democracy at the end of last month and did not join Biden’s declaration there condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Lula also didn’t agree to an earlier request from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to send munitions to help Kyiv’s war effort.

Instead, on a major trip to China at the end of last week, Lula called on the United States and the European Union to “stop encouraging war” and “start talking about peace.” The tenor of his remarks elicited a biting reaction from the Biden administration.

“Brazil has substantively and rhetorically approached this issue by suggesting that the United States and Europe are somehow not interested in peace or that we share responsibility for the war,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters in Washington. “In this case, Brazil is parroting Russian and Chinese propaganda without at all looking at the facts.”

Oleg Nikolenko, a Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Lula’s approach “puts the victim and the aggressor on the same scale and accuses countries that help Ukraine defend itself against deadly aggression of encouraging war is not in line with the real state of affairs.”

By contrast, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was in Brasilia this week as part of a four-nation tour of Latin America, welcomed Lula’s remarks. “As for the process in Ukraine, we are grateful to our Brazilian friends for their excellent understanding of this situation’s genesis,” Lavrov said, referring to Lula’s apparent ascribing of blame for the conflict on Western powers as well as Ukraine. He also hailed Lula’s initial efforts to push forward a “peace club” of countries outside the West to help mediate between Moscow and Kyiv, thanking the Brazilian president “for striving to contribute to finding ways to settle” the conflict.

During his first stint in power from 2003 to 2010, Lula seized upon Brazil’s surging economy to expand his country’s role on the world stage. He was a founding champion of the BRICS grouping of major economies outside the West – bringing Brazil together with Russia, China, India and later South Africa – and celebrated those connections on his recent trip to China, where he called on the informal bloc to help wean the world off its dependence on the US dollar. His visit to Beijing was also a reminder of Brazil’s significant interest in maintaining close ties to its biggest trade partner.

Yet that doesn’t automatically constitute a direct challenge to Washington. As analysts noted, Lula is standing in a deep tradition of “nonaligned” Brazilian foreign policy, one which does not hew in the United States’ direction, but nor does it seek to act in antagonism to the West. (Although his rhetoric about Ukraine has clearly ruffled feathers in Washington).

“Brazil will continue its traditional non-alignment, non-interventionist approach to foreign policy, seeking to maintain close diplomatic relations with strategic partners, which include both the United States and China,” wrote Valentina Sader, Brazil lead at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Centre. ”At the same time, Lula will continue to push for the rethinking of the global order to reflect current times, carving out that relevance for Brazil.“

Lula and his allies make no apologies for wanting to reshape the architecture of global politics, an international order long dominated by the West. “Brazil wants to reform world governance,” Celso Amorim, a senior adviser to the president, told my colleagues Moriah Balingit and Meaghan Tobin. “We would like to have a world governance which does not look like the present (UN) Security Council.”

Other countries in the so-called Global South have also chafed against the Cold War redux that took hold in the West in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They condemn the war, in some instances more forcefully than others, but don’t have any interest in tethering their agendas to those of Washington and Brussels. The coming months may see these voices grow louder.

“While the Brazilian idea of a ‘peace group’ is at quite a basic stage, other non-Western states, from Mexico to Senegal, have advanced similar notions during the war,” wrote Richard Gowan, U.N. director of the International Crisis Group. “Lula claims to have discussed his proposals with a wide range of leaders, including US President Joe Biden. He will have ample opportunities to advocate for it through the course of the year at events like the G20 summit in New Delhi in September.”

To this end, the latest edition of Foreign Affairs – headlined “The Nonaligned World” – is quite timely. It navigates the gulf between the West and the “rest,” at a moment when transatlantic solidarity is as tight as it has been in years. Yet Biden’s rhetoric about the values of the “free world” rings hollow in nations that have long bristled at the United States’ legacy of imperial overreach and hypocrisy.

“If the next two decades are like the last two, marked by the West’s confused priorities and failed promises, multipolarity in the global system will come to mean more than greater economic competition,” wrote David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, in this issue. “It will mean strengthened ideological challenges to the principles of Western countries and weakened incentives for non-Western countries to associate or cooperate with the West. Instead, liberal democratic countries that support a rules-based global system need to think and act with long-term strategic purpose as they engage with the rest of the world. China has been doing so since 1990.”

More the reason, argued Matias Spektor, a professor of international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Sao Paulo, for the Biden administration and its Western allies to take the concerns of countries like Brazil more seriously.

“The countries of the global South are poised to hedge their way into the mid-21st century. They hedge not only to gain material concessions but also to raise their status, and they embrace multipolarity as an opportunity to move up in the international order,” Spektor wrote in Foreign Affairs. “If it wants to remain first among the great powers in a multipolar world, the United States must meet the global South on its own terms.”

The article was first published in The Washington Post