“Brazil is back.” That has been Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's refrain for the better part of the last year, with the president deploying the snappy slogan to cast Brazil — and himself — as a leader of the Global South no longer content to abide the world's outdated workings.
Last year, Lula thwarted the reelection bid of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, who showed little interest in geopolitics or diplomacy during his four years in office. Lula, by contrast, has crisscrossed the globe and visited 21 countries in recent months, from the United States to China, Italy to India, Argentina to Angola. He has sought to boost Brazil's cred with each state visit and speech, one multilateral forum after another.
On Tuesday, his address at the U.N. General Assembly will mark his return to that rostrum for the first time since 2009, the last year of his previous presidency’s second term.
“We will see references to the ‘Brazil is back’ narrative, as Brazil seeks to more broadly project itself as a country that not only wants to preserve, but also lead the reforms of the multilateral system in the coming years,” said Oliver Stuenkel, an associate professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university in Sao Paulo. That will also serve to contrast himself with Bolsonaro, who wasn't seen as a reliable supporter of multilateralism.
Lula's election victory last year was the narrowest in Brazil's modern history, and the danger of fierce polarization in Brazil's young democracy was evident even after he took office. Bolsonaro supporters stormed the capital in an attempt to oust him from power.
Many thought Lula would need to stay home to focus exclusively on domestic issues and healing a riven society. But he has simultaneously pursued a whirlwind of international touring more typical of a president's second term.
PUSHING FOR GLOBAL GOVERNANCE — BRAZIL-STYLE
During Lula’s travels, he has pushed for global governance that gives greater heft to the Global South and advocating diminishing the dollar’s dominance in trade. He has made clear that Brazil has no intention of siding with the United States or China, the world’s two largest economies and Brazil’s two biggest trading partners.
And he has refused to join Washington and Western Europe in backing Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion, instead calling for a club of nations to mediate peace talks. After the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin's arrest, Lula said he would review Brazil's membership in the court.
Lula’s comments on some of these issues have already raised eyebrows in Washington, or even drawn criticism. Some are likely to be present in his speech on Tuesday.
“I expect Lula to give very strong speech in defense of the Global South, in defense of a multipolar order with a much bigger role for the U.N., and the need for wealthy countries, including the U.S., to pay their fair share on climate issues,” said Brian Winter, a longtime Brazil expert and vice president of the New York-based Council of the Americas. “I don’t think Lula will pass up an opportunity to champion these causes in front of the world.”
When Lula took office in January, some in the Biden administration had expected him to become a staunch ally, but there has been recognition that he is more a partner who, Winter says, “will not fundamentally change his world view.”
Biden and Lula are scheduled to hold a bilateral meeting in New York on Wednesday and participate in an event with labor organizers, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Friday. Brazilian and American presidents, who speak first and second at the general assembly, also typically meet backstage for a few minutes beforehand. That didn’t occur last year with Bolsonaro in office.
Regarding the Ukraine war, at least, Biden appears to have become more willing to look past differences with complicated allies that he badly needs to keep close for the sake of stability. His pragmatic approach was on display the G20 summit in New Delhi this month in his friendly interactions with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Those two leaders have not shied from saying no to Biden and have paid little regard when he raises concerns about their human rights records.
Lula’s divergences with Washington were on display as recently as this weekend as he rekindled relations with Cuba and denounced Washington’s policy toward the Caribbean island. Cuba “is the victim of an illegal economic embargo. Brazil is against any unilateral coercive measure,” Lula said in Havana on Saturday, adding that Brazil opposes its inclusion on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Lula likewise visited Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro in May. There, he said allegations of the country’s authoritarianism stem from a false narrative — despite widespread political arrests and election interference as well as threats to journalists. Some in Washington had initially hoped Lula could be helpful in advancing a shared agenda in Venezuela, Winter said.
LULA HAS COMPETITORS IN HIS LEADERSHIP BID
Lula isn't alone in his ambition to enact a vision for the developing world of his making. Modi has endeavored do the same, saying in an independence day speech last month that “India is becoming the voice of the Global South.” And India has greater economic and strategic importance to the world than Brazil, which makes Lula’s quest to occupy that role more challenging, according to Thomas Traumann, a Brazilian political analyst.
That was perhaps evident earlier this month when Modi announced the African Union's entry into the G20. Its chair, Azali Assoumani, walked swiftly across the room and the two men shared a warm bear hug. As they stood embracing, Lula remained seated while applauding a few feet away and nearly out of the camera frame. Afterward, he shook Assoumani's hand briefly.
Lula will have his chance to welcome foreign leaders for important multilateral fora in coming years, as well, hosting the G20 next year and likely the U.N. climate conference in 2025.
Already Lula has been at least one of the “most important voices in defense of reshaping the political and economic architecture established after the Second World War,” if not the most important, said Paulo Peres, a political scientist at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. And his speech Tuesday will reflect Brazil's longstanding demands — namely, a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council — as well as Lula's efforts to date this year.
Said Peres: “The opening speech is the culmination of these past months, where Lula has been working to reposition Brazil on the international stage.”