Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was in Washington, D.C., last Friday for meetings with President Joe Biden and, earlier in the day, with Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Just over a month into his unprecedented third term, Lula is eager to turn the page on the calamitous administration of Jair Bolsonaro. Lula is traveling the world, visiting Argentina and Uruguay to signal a recommitment to South American integration, hosting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Brasília, and meeting Biden to reset Brazil’s relationship with the United States. His aim is clear: restore Brazil’s reputation as a country that can collaborate with almost anyone.
Lula and Biden seemed to hit it off. A private meeting scheduled to take 15 minutes lasted almost an hour. Numerous reports pointed out the rapport the two men seemed to enjoy in the Oval Office, and Biden accepted an official invitation to visit Brazil at some point before the end of his term. Afterward, Lula called Biden the most worker-friendly president in US history, a dubious assessment the Brazilian president said was largely shared by union officials he met with on his last day in Washington. Lula and Biden had previously spoken over the phone, with the US president congratulating Lula on his election, his inauguration, and expressing his support after the antidemocratic insurrection in Brasília on January 8, but this was their first time meeting in person. The hope for both sides is that direct personal engagement can lead to the implementation of policies that both countries see as shared priorities.
In a joint statement released after their meeting, the two leaders committed to working together on several issues that are uncontroversial for their respective political projects—combating climate change and racism, supporting democracy and human rights. These are substantive matters that these hemispheric powers can and should be working closer to address. Biden, for example, reportedly said he will work with Congress to contribute $50 million to the Amazon fund, a mechanism through which foreign governments can contribute to preservation efforts in the world’s largest rain forest. Although the Brazilian government was hoping for more, this contribution—and US officials indicated that it was just an initial investment—is being hailed as an illustration of Brazil’s renewed stature in global affairs. (By contrast, Bolsonaro threatened violent retribution for any government that intervened in the Amazon.)
But there are also areas of disagreement that will test the relationship. Lula and Biden, the statement read, “deplored the violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine by Russia and the annexation of parts of its territory as flagrant violations of international law and called for a just and durable peace.” This is the strongest language that the Brazilian government has used to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Lula had previously offered oblique critiques of Vladimir Putin, but he had also suggested there was blame enough to go around and that parties uninvolved in the conflict should mediate a peaceful resolution. That position was discordant with the Biden administration’s insistence that it is up to Ukraine to decide when to talk peace and that, until then, the United States will continue to provide arms, aid, and other forms of support.
Lula was evidently willing to harden his stance on Russia somewhat, though the language in the joint statement framed the criticism as primarily having to do with “the global effects of the conflict on food and energy security.” Notably absent was any mention of China. Indeed, loose talk of a nascent cold war with China often includes discussion of Beijing’s moves in South America, where it is funding infrastructure and resource-extraction projects. The US government is looking to respond to what it perceives as a challenge in its purported sphere of influence. As Rocio Fabbro wrote recently in Foreign Policy, “U.S. interest in Latin America is, as in so many places, spurred by the specter of Chinese incursion.”
Rather than talking tough, as his predecessor did, Lula has highlighted Brazil’s ties to China, which in recent years has become Brazil’s largest trading partner. That is not a relationship Lula will be willing to jeopardize. The reason is not because of some deep ideological affinity between his left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) and the Chinese Communist Party, as Bolsonaro and his allies would have it. While there are some elements in the PT who feel sympathy toward China and Russia, harking back to the Cold War when they were counterweights to US hegemony, Lula does not seem to have any sentimental attachment to either of them. What he does think is that Brazil gains nothing by assuming an aggressive posture, especially toward China. The things that raise suspicion of China in Washington are just not major concerns in Brazil. Harvesting IP? Resisting NATO advances? Interfering in US elections? None of them are big issues for Brazilians.
Lula and those close to him know that Chinese and Russian leaders do bad things. But they’re especially attuned, even if good diplomatic form keeps them from saying so explicitly, to what they see as the hypocrisy of the United States. They recall that the NSA under the Obama administration spied on then-President Dilma Rousseff and Petrobras, the state-owned oil company. They point to the role of the US Justice Department in helping to legitimize Lula’s arrest, not to mention, of course, US involvement in the 1964 coup and the dictatorship that followed. So Lula does not intend to sour relations with Russia or China based on the complaints of Washington. Instead, Lula, like several Brazilian leaders before him, will pursue Brazilian interests on a case-by-case basis independently of what the US position is on a given matter.
Not much is known regarding the agenda for Lula’s trip to China, tentatively scheduled for March. Trade will certainly be top of mind. As China begins to recover from Covid-19, the hope is that it will once again seek to expand its commercial relationship with Brazil. Those ties were a key part of Lula’s successful first stint in office. In fact, his economic achievements two decades ago are sometimes blithely attributed entirely to China’s voracious appetite for Brazilian commodities. That was an important asset, to be sure, but critics who ascribe Lula’s positive record to good luck fail to account for smart policy-making in Brasília. Lula’s hope is to again marry a productive trade relationship with China with bold domestic policies that can kick-start a virtuous cycle for the Brazilian economy. With that in mind, it would not be a surprise if Lula’s trip to China lasts longer than his remarkably short visit to Washington, which was less than 48 hours.
None of this is to say that Lula is anti-US. He is, however, skeptical that US supremacy is benign or mutually beneficial. He is perhaps the leading advocate in the world today for establishing a bigger role for the Global South on the world stage, revising the UN Security Council to counter not just US dominance but also Russia and China. The New Development Bank (NDB)—known unofficially as the BRICS bank after the loose confederation of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa identified at the dawn of the 21st century as key developing economies—also links Brazil to those countries. Established in Brazil in 2015 during the Rousseff administration, the NDB offers financing for infrastructure projects and other major spending initiatives in emerging markets across the Global South. Lula has just named Rousseff as the head of the NDB. His instinct is to resist choosing between Russia, China, or the United States. To its credit, the Biden administration has not made Lula publicly take sides.
Lula clearly believes that Brazil, as the world’s fourth-largest democracy, can play a stabilizing role in the world, mediating on issues in which US credibility is compromised. Lula came to Washington, for example, seeking buy-in for his proposal to create a small group of nations with no involvement in the Ukraine-Russia war to negotiate a peaceful end to that conflict. (He found no interest.) Lula will almost certainly seek a lead role in reducing the temperature in the Western Hemisphere when it comes to the status of Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. In his last time office, Lula sought to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program, a move the Obama administration did not view favorably. Lula’s first move won’t be to openly challenge the United States but instead to offer alternative paths to resolution on major points of contention. That is the role he sees for Brazil—not an antagonist but a government that can find ways to work with just about any country.