The triumph of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, in Brazil’s 2022 presidential elections marked nothing less than the salvaging of the country’s democracy. The presidency of his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, had weakened the key pillars of the Brazilian system: rule of law and the cohesion of state institutions, democratic consolidation achieved since the country emerged in 1988 from decades of military dictatorship. In effect, Lula’s win represented a revival of democracy and a rejection of atavistic authoritarianism.

Brazil’s 77-year-old president has now begun his third term in office (he had two terms between 2003 and 2010). He faces major challenges on all fronts. Much as in the United States, the country is polarized and many Bolsonaro supporters refuse to accept the result of the election, an angry conviction that led to riots in the capital of Brasilia in January. Brazil has changed since Lula was last in power and so, too, has the world. Lula’s foreign policy must account for an international order that is more fragmented, competitive, and fraught than it was two decades ago.

Bolsonaro left Brazil’s foreign policy adrift. When he departed office, Brasilia had yet to determine how it should position itself in the context of the growing rivalry between China and the United States. It had turned its back on concerted action in its South American backyard. And thanks to the climate denialism of Bolsonaro and his lieutenants, its environmental policy was in tatters.

Lula’s government must now pick up the pieces. Brazilian policymakers have long insisted on the virtue of a multipolar world order, but that insistence will be tested by the inescapable competition between China and the United States, the world’s two greatest powers. Lula must chart a course between these two countries, which are both essential partners for Brazil. On the global stage, Brazil can once again play a key role in the effort to curb climate change, a project largely forsaken by Bolsonaro. And in its own neighborhood, Brazil should use its size and economic heft to help buttress stability and prosperity in the region. If Lula can manage to balance idealism and pragmatism, he can set Brazil on a course to recover the prestige and relevance it lost under his predecessor.  


When Lula first became president, in 2003, Washington and Beijing were not yet near-peer rivals. The United States still conducted itself as the world’s sole superpower. Although growing rapidly, China did not demand to be recognized in the same league as the United States. Nor did Brazilian policymakers have to worry about how their decisions might play simultaneously in China and the United States. Today, the competition between the great powers has invariably affected Brazil’s interests in various international arenas, including in Latin America, where the two countries are jostling for influence. The U.S.-Chinese contest represents an enormous challenge for the Lula government in the short term and for Brazilian foreign policy in the long term.

The foreign policy of the new Lula administration should be based, above all, on balancing between the powers. It cannot hope to replace one with the other: both are indispensable. The United States is Brazil’s biggest investor and China its biggest trading partner. Both countries are equally important for Brazil’s technological development. For example, when it comes to semiconductors, both China and the United States want to increase their investments in expanding elements of the chip supply chain in Brazil. The Lula administration cannot afford to lose any of these investments as it seeks to reindustrialize the country.

Brazil can recover the prestige and relevance it lost under Bolsonaro.  

To be sure, Brazil has been disappointed by U.S. conduct in the last 20 years. Brazilian policymakers have long felt that Washington has neglected their country and Latin America more broadly, with the region only receiving U.S. attention when a major foreign power—nowadays China—tries to extend its influence there. Brazil and the United States now face two major challenges in their bilateral relations. First, Brasilia and Washington need to identify and then define the important areas in which both can cooperate. In a February meeting in Washington, Lula and U.S. President Joe Biden agreed that both countries were committed to addressing climate change and defending democracy. Second, both sides need to have a clear sense of where they disagree and where future disagreements might arise. U.S. diplomats, for instance, have failed to draw Brazil into forthrightly backing Ukraine in its war with Russia, a conflict that Brazil wants no part of. Brasilia and Washington can set up a permanent working group to mitigate these points of friction and, little by little, smooth away potential tensions. Obviously, diplomats will not be able to resolve every issue. Countries the size of Brazil and the United States cannot be expected to agree on every aspect of international and regional order.

Brazil must eschew rigid alliances and embrace the more flexible partnerships in keeping with the notion that international order is becoming increasingly multipolar. In some cases, Brazil will gain more by working with the countries of the global North. By the middle of this year, Lula will try to finalize the free trade agreement between the European Union and the Mercosur countries—Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Lula’s administration may also consider acceding to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a plan put in motion by his predecessors but derided in sectors of the Brazilian left. In other cases, however, Brazil will seek more suitable partnerships in the global South. China has signaled, for example, its interest in signing a trade agreement with Mercosur.

The war in Ukraine has put Brazil in a tricky position. It cannot fail to condemn the Russian invasion, nor can it completely oppose Russia, its partner in initiatives such as the BRICS grouping (which brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Lula has floated the notion that a group of nonaligned countries, including Brazil, could help bring the two warring parties to the table and end the war. It is one thing to have a position about the war at a multilateral level and quite another to try to mediate a very intricate conflict, in which Brazil has limited capacity to influence events on the ground. Lula’s undeniable qualities as a negotiator may come up against the hard limits of incompatible Russian and Ukrainian interests.

In multilateral forums, such as the UN Security Council, Brazil aspires to assume new responsibilities when it comes to global security. Under Lula, it should not deviate from the fundamental principles of its foreign policy, including a commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes, international law, multilateralism, and human rights. At a broader level, Brazilian officials have called for international organizations, especially the UN Security Council, to better address threats to peace, as well as pandemics, refugee crises, trade wars, cybersecurity, food insecurity, and, crucially, climate change.


Under Bolsonaro, Brazil abandoned its position as one of the lead actors in addressing the climate crisis. Lula hopes to right the ship and regain the prominence Brazil had and the leadership role it played in fighting climate change before Bolsonaro’s presidency.

Brazil’s Amazon rainforests, the cliché goes, are “the lungs of the earth,” absorbing huge quantities of carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen. And yet these forests are under pressure, threatened by ranchers, farmers, and miners. The fight against deforestation in Brazil is of global interest. Lula’s government—unlike Bolsonaro’s—will likely implement strict existing laws intended to protect the Amazon. But beyond enforcing legal protections, Brazilian society must better understand the value and purpose of preserving the forest. To achieve this wider societal goal, the state must encourage efforts to develop bioindustries in the Amazon that take advantage of its resources without leading to deforestation—such as through the cultivation of acai berries—and empower local communities and indigenous groups. In so doing, the new Lula administration believes it will be able to best address the climate crisis in the most efficient way possible.

Unfortunately, the necessary public and private investments in science, technology, and innovation to realize this initiative still fall far short of what is needed. Brazil and its Amazonian neighbors must take advantage of the commitments assumed by all signatories of the Paris agreement to seek sufficient financing and green technology. To this end, Lula’s government hopes to give new impetus to the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, a multilateral forum based in Brasilia that promotes sustainable development in the Amazon basin but has never been fully used since its creation in 1995. Brazil could take its climate policy to a new level by creating a multilateral initiative that might be called the World Amazon Forum, a venue to bring together all countries and political actors interested in securing the Amazon for future generations.


In this context, Brazil needs to redouble its efforts in its own backyard of South America, its natural space for action. A Brazil disinterested in South America, as it was during Bolsonaro’s administration, only deepens possible problems. Engaging in dialogue with fragile and imperfect democracies, and even with autocratic states such as Venezuela, is better than ostracizing them. Isolating such actors leads only to the resurgence of authoritarianism and generates political and social instabilities.

Nevertheless, Brazil needs to determine how it wants to exercise its leadership and promote development in the region. Bolsonaro treated South America as an impediment to his country’s future. Lula must seek a new approach to South America, recognizing that his country can drive the region’s integration. Brazil can offer the countries of South America benefits that no other South American state can: a large consumer market, the financial capacity of its national development bank, cooperation on broader security issues, and diplomatic heft.

For Brazil to be able to project its power and preserve its influence, it will be necessary to make concessions. Regional leadership comes with costs. These concessions, for the most part, are economic and could hurt the interests of certain Brazilian economic sectors. Opening up its domestic market to particular exports from neighbors, such as bananas from Ecuador or textiles from Peru, could signal the country’s willingness to pay the price of leadership. If Brazil does not offer its neighbors extra incentives to integrate their economies with the Brazilian market, the Lula government runs the risk of seeing powers from beyond the region take over supply chains and further interrupt South American integration.


Of course, when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. The new Lula government must determine how to channel its energy and resources to the right initiatives. Foreign policy is a public policy and, as such, it must represent the demands of Brazilians and meet their most pressing needs. Brazil’s number one priority is to decrease its shameful inequality; as measured by the Gini coefficient, the country is one of the most unequal in the world. Brazil’s foreign policy should guide all its initiatives toward this essential goal by focusing on the issues of food security, climate change, sustainable agriculture, regional integration, technological development, and market access. Any action that deviates from this fundamental objective should not be considered a priority.

After the tumult of the Bolsonaro years, Brazil can reassert itself as a valuable force on the international stage. The world has changed since Lula’s first tenure as president, and Brazil’s foreign policy needs to adjust to address current and future challenges. Lula now has a tremendous opportunity to construct a new doctrine, one that is cohesive, credible, and innovative. Brazil is back, and it can play a positive, even indispensable role in the region and in the world.

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  • HUSSEIN KALOUT is a Research Scholar at Harvard University. He served as the Special Secretary for Strategic Affairs in the Brazilian government between 2017 and 2018. He is a member of the International Advisory Board of the Brazilian Center for International Relations.
  • FELICIANO GUIMARÃES is Professor of International Relations at the University of São Paulo and Academic Director of the Brazilian Center for International Relations.
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