The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
For seven minutes at least, Jair Bolsonaro sounded nothing like himself. When Brazil’s president addressed the Leaders Summit on Climate, which the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden convened on April 22 and 23, even skeptical observers noted Bolsonaro’s change in tone. Instead of insisting that the Amazon was “practically untouched” by fires or blaming a “lying and sensationalist media” for stirring up controversy over Brazil’s environmental policies, as he did at the United Nations General Assembly in 2019 and on countless other occasions since, a visibly subdued Bolsonaro vowed to end illegal deforestation by 2030 and achieve emission neutrality by 2050. He emphasized that Brazil is “open to international cooperation.” The Brazilian media remarked that the president even wore a green tie.
Has the leader who once embraced the nickname “Captain Chainsaw” and who has overseen a more than 40 percent increase in annual deforestation rates since taking office really changed his policy? Or was the speech a cynical—and ultimately doomed—attempt to manipulate global public opinion? After all, Bolsonaro is increasingly isolated abroad and faces rising political pressure at home due to his disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the emergence of an unexpectedly strong challenger for reelection next year.
Since the moment the speech ended, diplomats from Brussels to Washington to Beijing, as well as civil society and the 35 million residents of the Amazon basin itself, have been debating how much stock to place in Bolsonaro’s words—if any at all, given his record. The fate of the world’s largest rainforest and the global quest to ameliorate the effects of climate change hang in the balance.
Bolsonaro’s speech was almost certainly prompted by changes that began on November 3, when the Brazilian president’s ally and professed “idol,” former U.S. President Donald Trump, lost his bid for reelection. Trump’s climate skepticism had given Bolsonaro some cover from global criticism, not to mention boycotts and other sanctions, as deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rose to a 12-year high in 2020.
Bolsonaro waited longer than any other prominent world leader except North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to recognize Biden’s electoral victory. But he appears to have since concluded that he needs to change at least his rhetoric if he is to retain U.S. support for his foreign policy priorities—bilateral trade and military cooperation, for example, or accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a club of mostly rich nations. In March, Bolsonaro fired his divisive foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, a professed “anti-globalist” who had called Biden “poorly informed” on the Amazon issue, in what seemed like recognition that the world has changed.
Has the leader who once embraced the nickname “Captain Chainsaw” really changed his policy?
For its part, the Biden administration—particularly through its climate envoy, John Kerry, and its diplomats on the ground in Brazil—deserves credit for helping create an atmosphere in which Bolsonaro can make changes without feeling cornered. Working behind the scenes, State Department officials pleaded with peers elsewhere in the government and on Capitol Hill not to confront Bolsonaro in inflammatory terms on Twitter or elsewhere. In prior talks, some European countries had made the mistake of floating ideas such as international intervention in the Amazon. The Americans instead emphasized Brazil’s sovereignty while conveying that climate change will dictate Biden’s foreign and domestic policy to an extraordinary degree.
As one former U.S. diplomat told me, “Brazil discovered that it couldn’t trade the Amazon for China”—meaning that cooperating with Washington in its escalating rivalry with Beijing would not be enough to convince the United States to stay silent during the upcoming fire season. In fact, Brazil has requested $1 billion in immediate international funding to combat the fires—but the Biden administration has resisted, saying that Brazil must first present concrete results to prove that it can be an effective partner.
Bolsonaro’s speech, however, was most likely motivated above all by domestic concerns. The Brazilian president’s approval numbers have been steadily sinking as elections approach in October 2022. His environmental policies have always been out of step with public opinion: a recent IBOPE poll found that 92 percent of Brazilians believe that climate change is real, and 77 percent said that protecting the environment should be a priority even if doing so damages the economy. Much of Brazil’s business establishment, whose support was key to Bolsonaro’s 2018 election victory, has lobbied furiously for the president to stop deforestation, fearful that the growing international pressure could hurt its bottom line.
The most formidable challenger Bolsonaro is likely to face in the 2022 election is former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose 2003–10 government oversaw an 80 percent decline in Amazon deforestation rates. Already, Bolsonaro has anticipated this contest by moderating some of his stances—for example, he has begun wearing a mask much more often than he used to in public. And he may anticipate a need to further reduce his number of vulnerable flanks in the months ahead: Brazil’s Congress just began an inquiry into Bolsonaro’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left a higher confirmed death toll in Brazil than anywhere but the United States. The results of this investigation are likely to dominate headlines through the coming months.
Bolsonaro has ample political reason to pull back from his most extreme positions on climate.
Brazil's president has ample political reason to pull back from his most extreme positions on climate. But even if Bolsonaro sincerely wants to reduce deforestation, it seems highly questionable that he can. Over the past two years, Bolsonaro has systematically and intentionally gutted funding and staff for the very institutions that he would need to ensure a turnaround, particularly IBAMA, the nation’s environmental agency. Mindful of this record and fully aware that Bolsonaro may only be fibbing, the White House has said that it is not willing to wait until 2030 to see progress—rather, it wants to see deforestation in Brazil fall year-over-year in 2021.
But Bolsonaro made only one significant short-term announcement at the climate summit and that was a proposed doubling of money for “environmental monitoring.” Such a measure would increase the budget for such efforts only by about $50 million, which environmental groups say would be unlikely to make much difference. The day after his speech, Bolsonaro signed a 2021 federal budget that actually cut environmental funding by 24 percent, prompting even further skepticism in the Brazilian and the international media, although officials insist they still plan to seek the announced increase from Congress in the coming weeks.
In the end, Bolsonaro’s speech probably did buy him some time to produce results with the U.S. government and some others in the international community. But their focus will now shift to the numbers: satellite data tracking fires and forest cover loss, which will be impossible for Brazil to obfuscate or explain away. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon actually fell in January and February but spiked again in March to levels 12 percent higher than the same month a year before. The annual fire season begins in earnest in July.
If the upward trend continues, the Biden administration may feel compelled to punish Bolsonaro particularly harshly to convey its displeasure at being hoodwinked on such a large stage. The options range from a hardening of the rhetoric from the White House (which could fuel more grassroots calls for boycotts of Brazilian products) to a withdrawal of support for Brazil’s OECD membership—or even, some observers say, punitive tariffs similar to those Trump employed against China, on the grounds that Brazil’s management of the Amazon poses a threat to U.S. national security. Any of these measures would be bad for Brazil’s economy, which hasn’t shown healthy growth in more than a decade, and may ultimately lead Bolsonaro to regret raising expectations he could not meet.
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