The Brazilian elections have just concluded. Former President Lula has accomplished a dramatic comeback by winning the elections for the Brazilian presidency. Elections that received the most international attention of all Brazilian elections since the restoration of democracy in 1985.
This is because they not only have a bearing on the future of the democratic system in Brazil and possibly the developing world but also because it took place at a time when developing countries lack effective leadership that can guide them during the political and economic instability of the present international system.
With the war in Ukraine and the confrontation between Russia and the West and the possibility that this would morph into a new Cold War or as some are predicting a Third World War pitting Russia and China against the West, many developing countries are yearning for the revival of non-alignment or at least some form of neutrality.
In a previous article last May in this newspaper, I lamented about the difficulty of reviving the Non-Aligned Movement in its original form. However, I expressed the hope that a new arrangement comprised of at least some major developing countries is possible.
Brazil was never a member of NAM. But it largely observed and in fact in many instances took even more progressive positions than the movement, especially on the issue of disarmament.
On the other hand, Brazil remains one of the most active and effective members of the Group of 77 which is primarily concerned with economic matters.
Moreover, it is a member of two of the most important international economic blocs the G20 and BRICS.
During President Bolsonaro, Brazil chose to de-emphasize its traditional leadership role amongst developing countries and opted to align itself with the US on many issues, this was particularly true on the issue of the environment during the Trump administration when the dangers of environmental degradation were downplayed. A total reversal of its traditional position.
Now with the election of former President Lula, there is an expectation that Brazil may provide the required impetus to create the kind of leadership the developing world needs to manage the transition to a new world order that corresponds better to the interests of the developing countries.
Given the narrow margin the Lula won by, there is understandable skepticism about the possibility that Brazil will be able to build on the role it traditionally played in championing the cause of developing countries. During the period when Lula was president, Brazil further enhanced its profile as a leader of developing countries. Much of that stature was due to President-elect Lula being supported by first-class diplomatic corps. Lula was so effective that President Obama called him “probably the most popular politician in the world“.
But the Brazil of today is not the Brazil of 2003-2011. Then it was the sixth-largest economy.
Today Brazil is the twelfth largest economy. Since mid- 2014, it has been suffering from the worst economic crisis since the restoration of democratic rule thirty years ago.
But more importantly, it is a polarized country as the elections have demonstrated. Split virtually in the middle between left and right. Lula will have to deal with a right-wing majority not only in parliament but also amongst the governors including the three most important states: São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Minas Gerais which account among themselves more than 40% of the total GDP of the country.
Lula will therefore face an uphill battle in seeing his domestic agenda through. In his past administration, he proved to be a pragmatist. He was able to implement the central plank of his agenda by lifting some twenty million Brazilians from poverty, while at the same time he was able to maintain a constructive relationship with the business community. This of course required skillful political maneuvering, but it was also helped by a booming economy, fuelled by high commodity prices.
The situation now is different. Lula no longer possesses ample resources to recreate the old formula. But he is a pragmatist and should be able to get the best deal for his constituents and at the same time maintain a constructive relationship with the business community which accounts for the overwhelming majority of economic activity.
However, when it comes to foreign policy matters it may be different. Like many continental countries such as the US and Russia, the majority of the Brazilian population pays scant attention to the outside world. This affords the Brazilian President and his government ample leeway in pursuing an active foreign policy.
While Brazilian diplomacy favored economic and trade agendas under Presidents Sarney, Collor, and Cardozo ( 1985 - 2002), the rationale was that issues of trade and development, particularly easing trade barriers for developing countries, de-politicization of foreign aid and transfer of technology, were the were fundamental to extricate Brazil from the economic crisis it was facing.
Under Presidents Lula and Rousseff, Brazil widened its agenda to include peace and security, environment, and human rights.
It is therefore expected that Brazil under Lula will resume a leadership role on the entire gamut of international affairs.
On economic matters, it will be aided by the fact that it is a member of the G20 and BRICS. It also enjoys excellent relations with not only the US and Europe but also Russia and China. In fact, China is now Brazil’s most important trade partner accounting for 32.41% of its total foreign trade (compared to 10.34% for the US). Brazil is also one of the largest recipients of direct foreign investments from the EU. It also maintains very close relations with many African and Asian countries, particularly India, Indonesia, and South Korea.
On political matters, Brazil is in a unique position to take a balanced and constructive position.
Brazil could afford to adopt a neutral position on most international political matters because it does not have real enemies. Although it shares frontiers with nine countries, it has not fought a war since the Paraguayan War ( 1864-1870 ). Also its large size and relatively long distance from Europe, Asia, and Africa, where most of the conflicts took place, together with the flexibility afforded by the lack of ideological orientation of the regime - military or civilian- afforded it the luxury of being able to take a balanced position. It was therefore content to adhere to a position of strict adherence to the principles and purposes of the UN Charter.
Today with the possibility of a new Cold war casting its shadow, the world desperately needs an active core of developing countries that enjoy balanced relations with the main protagonists that are competing to shape the international system.
Also given the rising rhetoric about the possible use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, a renewed effort on arms control and disarmament is badly needed. Serious deliberations and negotiations on disarmament issues have been neglected for too long. Brazil, under President Lula, can contribute to the much-needed leadership in this regard.
No serious reform of the international system is possible without the reform of the UN, in particular the Security Council as well as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Brazil elected 11 times as a non-permanent member of the Security Council- more than any other non-permanent member - has the necessary experience and practical knowledge to make an important contribution towards this end.
Likewise, a reform of the Bretton Woods institution, the World Bank, is necessary for establishing a more democratic international economic system. Brazil can use its economic clout and the excellent relations it enjoys with the countries that have the largest economies to achieve this objective.
Developing countries are in desperate need of leadership.
The challenge is how to articulate a vision around which developing countries- with their diverse and sometimes contradictory interests - can coalesce, and transform that into a framework for practical action that can help developing countries effectively navigate the treacherous waters caused by the rivalry between the West on one side and Russia and China on the other.
Clearly, Brazil, under the leadership of Lula can make a substantive contribution in this regard.