Ernesto Araujo in Brasilia, November 2018.
Adriano Machado / Reuters

In November 2018, Jair Bolsonaro, then Brazil’s president-elect, made an explosive announcement: he would be appointing Ernesto Araujo to the position of foreign minister. This would have been a controversial appointment under any circumstances: Araujo, 51, had for most of his career been an undistinguished career diplomat within Brazil’s foreign service, the Itamaraty, and he had only recently achieved ambassadorial status, a middling rank in the corps. His colleagues described him as competent and bookish, but he was the most junior candidate for the top job in a country with an especially hierarchical diplomatic corps.

These were not normal circumstances. After spending years in Washington diligently promoting the policies of successive presidents from Brazil’s left-leaning Workers’ Party, in 2017 Araujo had shocked his colleagues by publishing a deeply conservative essay titled “Trump and the West” for the Itamaraty’s official journal. In the essay, Araujo denounced the United Nations and other so-called globalist forces for attempting to supplant true nationalism, which in his view arises from “gods and ancestors” rather than appeals to chimerical “values.” The West, Araujo wrote, was united neither by alliances nor by commitments such as human rights; it was a “community of nations” bound by “the scars of the past,” from the Greeks’ victory over the Persians at Salamis to the Allied landing at Omaha Beach.

Araujo did not stop there. Citing reactionary intellectuals, including Oswald Spengler and Julius Evola, he claimed that the “whole liberal and revolutionary tradition” since the Enlightenment had been based on a “rejection of the past”—a “rejection of heroes, rejection of religious worship, and rejection of the family”—culminating in the contemporary “postmodern man, who has no soul.” These philosophical errors, Araujo argued, had led to a crippling lack of self-confidence on the part of Western civilization. The West was now unwilling to defend itself against the internal threat of “postmodern ‘liberal’ ideology” and the external threat of rival civilizations in Asia and the Muslim world. Yet U.S. President Donald Trump, by promoting a nationalism based on the “bonds of culture, faith, and tradition,” had rejected this fatalism. Trump, in Araujo’s grandiose turn of phrase, was “Western civilization’s Hail Mary pass,” and it was vital for Brazil to align with him.

Trump, in Araujo’s grandiose turn of phrase, was “Western civilization’s Hail Mary pass.”

Araujo’s sophisticated, far-right rhetoric marks him as perhaps the most intellectual in Bolsonaro’s camp. His thinking hints at both the theoretical undercurrents propelling Bolsonaro’s movement and at Araujo’s own possible actions as foreign minister—from closing the book on Brazil’s close involvement in the UN to seeking an unprecedented alignment with the United States and Israel. Araujo is all the more a man to watch for his demonstrated desire to become an intellectual voice for right-wing nationalism. Now he has a bully pulpit, and he will be attempting to use it.

AN INTELLECTUAL AMONG THE POPULISTS

For his cabinet, Bolsonaro has chosen a mix of highly competent administrators and ideological figures whose convictions seem to have been more qualifying than their skills. Sergio Moro, the justice minister, is an example of the former: he earned a sterling reputation as the judge leading Operation Car Wash, the investigation into political corruption that brought down former President Dilma Rousseff. Araujo, however, belongs to the latter category. His relative youth and junior status in the Itamaraty suggest that absent his reputation as a far-right thinker he would not have been picked for the job.

Araujo’s nomination owes something to the influence of another figure currently reshaping Brazilian conservatism: the right-wing intellectual Olavo de Carvalho. Long viewed as marginal in Brazil, Carvalho, who lives in the United States, has in recent years risen to prominence through his YouTube videos, in which he praises Bolsonaro and condemns the mainstream Brazilian right’s obsession with laissez-faire economics. These videos gained Carvalho a wide following on social media in the run-up to the 2018 election, and his popularity secured him a spot on Bolsonaro’s transition team. When “Trump and the West” came to his attention, Carvalho posted the article on social media and passed Araujo’s name to the incoming administration. In the meantime, Araujo continued to publish articles fulminating against “cultural Marxism” and political correctness on his personal blog.

In his blog posts, Araujo aligned himself with pro-Trump sections of the American right. He has praised the conservative website American Greatness, approvingly citing an article by an anonymous Brazilian author who criticized negative English-language reporting on Bolsonaro and defended the then candidate’s focus on public security. After being named foreign minister, Araujo wrote an essay for the New Criterion, whose editor, Roger Kimball, is a prominent Trump supporter. In that essay, Araujo defended the resurgence of Christianity as a force in Brazilian politics, arguing that public faith was the key force behind Brazil’s “political and spiritual rebirth”—his term for both the corruption investigations and Bolsonaro’s election. And on January 7, he published a bizarre op-ed in Bloomberg, in which he attacked the work of the twentieth-century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose “deconstruction of the human subject,” he claimed, lay at the root of “our current globalist totalitarian ideology.” Araujo argued that the postmodern denial of independent thought and human agency—the notion that our ideas are mere social constructs, according to his version of Wittgenstein—had made Brazil passive on the world stage.

In his inaugural speech as foreign minister, delivered on January 2, Araujo unveiled a plan to reorient Brazil’s foreign policy and reform the ranks of the Itamaraty. The assembled diplomats had probably never heard anything like it. Araujo heaped praise on countries he wanted to see Brazil emulate: Trump’s United States, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, Matteo Salvini’s Italy, and Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Condemning Brazil’s global role in past decades as little more than that of a craven servant of globalism, Araujo declared that from now on, Brazilians ought to read “less Foreign Affairs and more Clarice Lispector,” referring to one of Brazil’s most famous writers. Although Lispector was a Jewish immigrant who criticized Brazil’s right-wing military dictatorship, Araujo was suggesting that Brazilians would be better served by paying attention to their national heroes rather than foreign policy experts. He opined on social issues, denouncing abortion, then scolded the foreign ministry for its arrogance, declaring that it had become estranged from the nation whose interests it was supposed to represent: “The Itamaraty cannot think it is better than Brazil.”

Araujo at a meeting of the Lima Group in Lima, Peru, January 2019.
Araujo at a meeting of the Lima Group in Lima, Peru, January 2019.
Mariana Bazo / Reuters

MINISTERIAL PROSPECTS

For Bolsonaro, Araujo’s virtue is that he appears to be a true believer in the new president’s project of allying Brazil with the Trump administration. Araujo’s convictions are both more sophisticated and more extreme than Bolsonaro’s own: the president seems more ideologically flexible than his foreign minister, and needs to maintain the loyalty of the military figures in his cabinet, who are skeptical about aligning too strongly with the United States.

Araujo’s ideological commitments, however, make him unlikely to back down when faced with resistance from the generals or from Itamaraty’s bureaucracy. And such resistance is likely: Araujo’s January 2 speech will have alienated many in the foreign ministry, which leans left, prides itself on a strong commitment to multilateralism and human rights, and distrusts the United States. In Brazil, moreover, the foreign minister is normally drawn from the ministry’s top ranks. Bolsonaro’s team may have simply chosen Araujo because they were glad to find an Itamaraty bureaucrat whose views at least partly aligned with their own.

Without clout in the foreign service, Araujo will need Bolsonaro’s support in order to enact his agenda. Much will depend on his ability to establish a personal rapport with Bolsonaro and his sons, who seem set on playing a conspicuous role in foreign policy. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a Brazilian congressman, traveled to Washington in December, where he met with Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio as well as Donald Trump, Jr. Araujo will also need to court Filipe Martins, 30, an academic and special assistant to Bolsonaro who secured Araujo his post and who has recently been named as the liaison between the president and the foreign ministry. A disciple of Carvalho with an active social media presence, Martins espouses a more tongue-in-cheek version of Araujo’s nationalism. In October, for instance, he posted an image of himself wearing a “Deus Vult” t-shirt. Deus vult is Latin for “God wills it”—literally a reference to the Crusades, it became a popular right-wing meme during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Martins has also cultivated ties with the American right, meeting with former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon in November.

An early test for Araujo came at a January 4 meeting of the Lima Group—eleven Latin American countries plus Canada—who are opposed to the increasingly autocratic rule of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. Araujo arrived at the meeting determined to obtain a robust consensus for sanctions or other concrete penalties against Maduro, but a joint statement criticizing Maduro and expressing support for Venezuela’s powerless legislature was all that he could secure. Worse, Mexico, now ruled by the left-leaning President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, refused to sign.

Araujo has set himself apart among Bolsonaro’s allies with his comprehensive, learned, and extreme view of world history and his sense of Brazil’s place within it. It remains to be seen whether he will make his mark as a renegade statesman who profoundly alters the trajectory of Brazilian foreign policy or whether his ideas will be a footnote to the more pragmatic attitudes of the rest of Bolsonaro’s team. A fan of American football, Araujo makes frequent references to Hail Mary passes in his writing. If he truly wishes to transform Brazil’s place in the world, he may soon be in need of one.

  • NICK BURNS is a Research Assistant at the Hoover Institution and an intern at the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute.
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