The Foreign Policy of Brazil's Lula

Only a year ago, president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was widely feted as the man who had turned Brazil into a competitive powerhouse, the China of Latin America. That’s not what has tongues wagging now. Rather than using Brazil’s prominence to press outlier regimes to respect human rights and comply with international rules on using nuclear power, Lula suddenly seems bent on ducking controversy and accommodating demagogues. He routinely trades bear hugs with Hugo Chávez, even as the Venezuelan leader silences the media and harasses opponents. Brasília’s diplomats abstained on a vote “deploring the grave, widespread, and systemic human-rights abuses” in North Korea. Lula canceled a visit to the tomb of Zionist founding father Theodor Herzl but found time to garland Yasir Arafat’s grave. And in February, Lula posed for a photo op with Fidel Castro as protesters a few kilometers away mourned the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a political dissident who died after an 85-day hunger strike in a Havana jail.

The most troubling aspect of Lula’s foreign policy has been his courtship of Iran. Last year, during the bloody aftermath of the fraud-ridden Iranian elections, the Brazilian openly defended Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “democratic” victory and compared the Green Revolution demonstrations to the pouting of sore losers after a football match. He has since spoken out for Iran’s right to enrich uranium for nuclear energy and downplayed warnings by the major powers, the U.N., and the International Atomic Energy Agency that Tehran is ginning up a bomb. Lula has also offered to serve as a go-between for Washington and Tehran, but critics warn than nuclear diplomacy is no place for freelancers. “Trying to have the world notice you is fine, but that depends on what you want to get noticed for,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas.

This trend is part economic opportunism. Trade between Iran and Brazil has surged 40 percent, to $2 billion, since Lula took office in 2003. But the cost is Brasília’s suddenly tense relationship with Washington, which is likely to turn a few degrees cooler with Lula scheduled to visit Iran on May 15.

Exacerbating Brazil’s prickly foreign policy is a struggle within its foreign service, where a strain of anti-Americanism dating from the Cold War still runs deep. Until two years ago, the foreign-service academy required young diplomats to read scores of second-tier, neo-Marxist works with such titles as Brazil and the United States: Dangerous Relations. (The syllabus has since been reformed.) Lula himself has seemed driven to accumulate political capital at home by cultivating forgotten patches in the developing world. Nearly all of the 35 embassies he has opened since taking office are in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia. But with the October elections looming, his Southern foreign policy now looks more like a sop to the left-wing Workers Party rank and file who never swallowed his conservative economics. “The heated foreign policy is all for the campaign trail,” says Luiz Felipe Lampreia, a former Brazilian foreign minister.

A more generous reading is that Brazil is still a relative newcomer to the world of high-stakes diplomacy and suffers from a sort of beginner’s anxiety. “Foreign policy requires intellectual capital,” says Matias Spektor, a Brazilian foreign-affairs specialist. “Brazil is still ill prepared to engage in a globalized world.” Now, asLula’s swagger growsbolder, the risk is that he is sending foreign policy on a political jag with little coherence, thereby squandering the remarkable legacy of pragmatism and evenhandedness that have been the country’s anchors for the most of the last decade.