By Pascale Trouillaud
The video was painful to watch, but spoke volumes to Brazil’s isolation on the world stage: President Jair Bolsonaro awkwardly meandering alone around the room as other G20 leaders chatted amiably in Rome last year.
Political analysts say the international influence of Latin American giant Brazil has shrunk under Bolsonaro, the far-right incumbent fighting an uphill battle to win re-election next month.
His ideologically driven foreign policy and disregard for diplomatic etiquette have overshadowed Brazil’s one-time role as a heavyweight in the world arena, experts say.
“The country is going through a period of relative international isolation and a major reputational crisis,” says Fernanda Magnotta, coordinator of international relations at the FAAP institute in Sao Paulo.
“Not many people want to have their picture taken with our leaders these days.”
She attributes that to a government where “decision-making is centralized around the administration’s most ideologically driven faction: the president, his sons and closest advisers.”
Whether it is a surge of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest or rows with China and the Arab world, Bolsonaro, who has made relatively few trips abroad as president, has managed to alienate a substantial part of the international community since taking office in 2019.
His most recent faux pas came Sunday, when he drew criticism for using a visit to London for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral to hold a thinly veiled campaign rally.
The Bolsonaro administration’s closest ties are with hardline conservative governments that are themselves isolated on the world stage: Hungary, Poland and especially Russia, which Brazil has chosen not to sanction for its invasion of Ukraine.
Brazilian diplomacy has ceased to be seen as “a means for promoting economic ties and become a means for building far-right alliances for internal political gain,” says Rodrigo Goyena Soares, a historian at the University of Sao Paulo (USP).
Even in its own neighborhood, Brazil has lost influence with insults aimed at a new wave of left-wing governments — such as Bolsonaro’s put-down of Argentina’s “bad choice” in electing President Alberto Fernandez in 2019.
Things got off to a bad start when images of huge wildfires in the Brazilian Amazon sparked international outcry in 2019.
France came away particularly incensed, after Bolsonaro got into a spat with counterpart Emmanuel Macron over the environmental destruction — and resorted to mocking First Lady Brigitte Macron’s appearance.
Ties have not exactly improved.
Just last month, Bolsonaro’s economy minister, Paulo Guedes, said of France: “You better start treating us right, or we’re going to tell you to go fuck yourselves.”
“It’s unheard of in Brazilian diplomacy — in diplomacy, period,” says Goyena Soares.
Bolsonaro bet all his diplomatic chips on his political role model, former US president Donald Trump.
“Bolsonaro’s Brazil aligned itself unprecedentedly with Trump’s United States,” says Felipe Loureiro, of the international relations institute at USP.
But “the alignment was with Trump and Trumpism,” he adds.
US-Brazilian relations have soured since President Joe Biden took office last year.
Bolsonaro was one of the last world leaders to recognize Biden’s win, as the defeated Trump fought in vain to overturn the election result.
It was “another bleak departure from Brazil’s foreign policy tradition of non-interference in other states’ affairs,” says Loureiro.
Diplomatic to-do list
The Brazilian foreign ministry, a venerable institution known as “Itamaraty,” after the palace where it is headquartered, got a jolt when Bolsonaro named obscure diplomat Ernesto Araujo, a die-hard supporter, as foreign minister.
A Trump-loving, China-bashing, climate change-skeptic, the “anti-globalist” Araujo turned Brazilian diplomacy on its head.
Forced out in March 2021 amid a seemingly endless series of imbroglios, Araujo was replaced by the comparatively tame Carlos Franca.
But some analysts point to Bolsonaro’s congressman son Eduardo as the real force in Brazilian diplomacy.
The man leading Bolsonaro in the polls for the October 2 election, leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), is vowing to restore Brazil’s international standing and slash Amazon deforestation if elected.
Often more popular abroad than in Brazil, the charismatic but tarnished Lula would have to “reopen dialogue with every country… and resume South-South cooperation between Latin America and Africa,” says Magnotta.
Lula would also have to “renegotiate the terms of Brazil’s alliance with the US,” develop a proper China policy and seek “a rapprochement with the European Union around environmental issues,” says Goyena Soares.