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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro doesn’t like his look. That’s a big part of why he’s substituting the ambassadors to Washington and 14 other A-list foreign posts, Brazil’s biggest foreign-service makeover in recent memory. The mission: “Not to present the government and president as if they were racist and homophobic,” Bolsonaro told journalists in Brasilia last week, on the eve ofhis first bilateral visitto the United States and a meeting with his campaign idol, President Donald Trump.
If there’s one place Bolsonaro doesn’t have to explain himself, it’s in Washington, where civility, institutional backstops and the rules of democratic decorum are being cut down faster than the Amazon. What’s less clear is how the Western Hemisphere’s ranking disruptors-in-chief will manage their announced “new beginning,” and whether Latin America’s economy of record can put the feeling to good use at home and beyond.
The renewed friendship itself is important. Brazil and the U.S. have not always seen the world the same way. “For most of the last two decades, good relations with the U.S. were not a priority,” said Jose Pio Borges, president of the Brazilian Center for International Relations, in reference to 2003 to 2016, when Brazil was ruled by the soft left and still gringo-allergic Workers’ Party. “We had no conflicts, but saw no major advances.”
In that context, the agenda for Bolsonaro’s trip looks a bit like diplomacy as usual. The two governments are scheduled to sign agreements and protocols on technology safeguards for a Brazilian satellite launching station, bilateral security, two-way trade, and a new energy forum including investmentin nuclear power.
Brazil wants Washington’s blessings to become a major non-Nato ally—with enhanced access to U.S. defense technology—and more ambitiously to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the pact of the most advanced economies. As a good will gesture, Brazil is expected to drop visa requirement for U.S. visitors, though the U.S. is unlikely to return the favor.
But Brazil’s broader expectations couldn’t be grander. Bolsonaro emulated Trump’s sawed-off populism, promising to make “Brazil great again” and retrieve politics from the swamp of socialism. Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo, a career diplomat who lately has veered sharply to the right, went further, declaring Trump the Western world’s“Hail Mary.” Arriving in Washington on Sunday, Bolsonarotweeted: "For the first time in a while a pro-American Brazilian President arrives in D.C."
Far more than bilateral bonhomie is in play, however. Analysts caution that as the junior partner in the alliance, Brazil is vulnerable to capture by an imported agenda. “Automatic alliance with any world power can be problematic. Close relations shouldn’t be capitulation,” warned Roberto Abdenur, a former Brazilian ambassador to the U.S., Germany and China.
Theoretically, Brazil’s seasoned diplomats and technocrats have the policy acumen and global mileage to negotiate with testy powers and overweight allies. Brazil boasts its own heft in the World Trade Organization (presided over by a Brazilian) and is a respected voice in the Inter-American Development Bank, the United Nations and the G20. And the soft power pull of its music, food, rainforest and futebol’s ballet on grass have endeared the country to foreigners.
Unfortunately, the hard-right political makeover in Brasilia has inspired Araujo to clear the house of graybeards while promoting their subordinates: “colonels giving orders to generals,” as disconcerted diplomats put it. That’s a prerogative of new management—Araujo has never headed an embassy—but the upheaval has left Itamaraty, as the foreign ministry is known, short of its most seasoned envoys and bereft of institutional memory.
“The minister has grown authoritarian and isolated,” senior diplomat Paulo Roberto de Almeida told me. “He shuts himself in his office and hardly consults the ministry’s divisions anymore,” he said. Almeida should know: He was recently removed from his post as president of the ministry’s International Relations Research Institute after inviting independent debate on foreign policy through his personal blog.
Among those reportedly snubbed under the new command was the ministry’s most knowledgeable Venezuela hand, “a person who’s read all the cables and follows all the developments in Caracas,” one serving diplomat told me. That’s an inexplicable oversight at a time when Brazil is trying to lead the regional conversation about rescuing Venezuela from authoritarian collapse.
Squandering experience is bad enough. Itamaraty’s ideological turmoil threatens to make it worse. In an hour-and-twenty minutemaster classto aspiring diplomats in Brasilia last week, Araujo said he’d had enough of the encomiums to “third worldism, anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism” and bets on errant “partners unable to help our development.” Alongside his leader, Araujo has bet on rapprochement with Washington as a kind of existential redemption.
And forget China: As far as Araujo is concerned, Brazil’s finest moment was when the U.S. led the way, not just in international trade but setting the world’s moral and political compass. Brazil’s way forward? Combine “freedom and greatness” to reclaim the nation’s rightful place in the march of “Christian” civilization.
That’s stirring stuff for the pulpit or the lectern, but makes for dicey foreign policy. The caveat goes double for Brazil, a nation that ought to spread its alliances, not funnel them, much less fix its fortunes on the humors of a mercurial populist in Washington. “It’s not a strategy. It’s a messianic message,” said O Estado de Sao Paulo in alead editoriallast week.
Some analysts note that Bolsonaro’s politics are a work in progress and that the campaign passions and articles of faith will fade as the grind of governing sets in. Cooler heads in Brasilia, especially the retired generals in Bolsonaro’s kitchen cabinet, are credited with muting the Washington-inspired rhetoric about invading Venezuela, moving Brazil’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, quitting the Paris Agreement on climate change, and falling in behind Trump in his trade quarrel with China. “I see hopeful signs in the moderating influence of the military ministers and especially in Vice President Hamilton Mourao,” said Abdenur.
But Bolsonaro still surrounds himself with incendiaries like Araujo, self-styled adviser and freelance philosopher Olavo de Carvalho, and Bolsonaro’s youngest son Eduardo, who fancies himself a parallel foreign minister. Consider the inclusion of disgraced former Trump strategist Stephen Bannon on the guest list for Bolsonaro’s welcome dinner at the Brazilian embassy. “It’s a mistake to think that military cabinet members have won the upper hand and created a cordon sanitaire for policy initiatives,” said a well-placed diplomatic source.
The tough talk “is part of a shared worldview that got Bolsonaro elected and is also driving foreign policy,” said the diplomat. “I don’t see him just letting this go.” This week’s visit is likely to bear out that proposition.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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