What Happened to Lula? | Foreign Affairs


Few leaders could claim, on taking office, to have induced sighs of relief from both Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden. Yet in January 2023, that is exactly what Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did. His narrow victory over Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing extremist and an admirer of Donald Trump, sparked optimism across borders. Democratic leaders everywhere saw Lula’s win, which returned him to power for a third term after a 12-year hiatus and a stint in prison over corruption charges, as the herald of an antiauthoritarian tide. Autocrats the world over relished him as a seasoned statesman with a reputation for standing up to the West. And developing countries of all kinds recognized him as someone who knows better than most how to exact concessions from the global North. “Brazil is back,” read headlines, as Lula seized the spotlight.

But during his first year in office, Lula has struggled to translate his vision for a more progressive global order into action. His foreign policy thus far has been beset by diplomatic missteps that have strained relations with partners in both the West and the developing world. His statements and actions have cast doubts on his role as peacemaker, coalition builder, and champion of the marginalized. His commitment to environmental leadership has been marred by his decision to turn Brazil into the latest petrostate. And his grand design overlooks his country’s most pressing threat: the explosive expansion of criminal networks that are working hard to turn Brazil into a failed state and that are undermining the ecological integrity of the Amazon rainforest.

To fix these problems and deliver on his vision of a progressive international order, Lula will have to change course. He must reengage partners in the West and Latin America after a year of growing estrangement. He must unequivocally come out in defense of democracy in neighboring Venezuela. He has to craft a new set of climate policies, ones that allow him to use Brazil’s newly discovered oil reserves without becoming another regressive member of OPEC. And Lula must revamp the country’s intelligence apparatus and better coordinate with outside partners to reverse the dangerous growth of Brazil’s criminal networks.


Before taking office, Lula suggested that his foreign policy ambition was to bridge the vast gaps between the rich North and the developing South. He promised to actively pursue international cooperation, facilitating dialogue between the West and the rest, and he declared that Brazil would, again, lead Latin America. His administration hoped to secure major policy victories at the next G-20 summit and at the 2025 UN climate change conference—both of which Brazil will host. To this end, Lula has unveiled plans to launch a global initiative to combat hunger, facilitate the flow of climate finance toward developing countries, and help Africa secure seats in global governance institutions.

Yet since assuming power, Lula has made a sequence of costly mistakes. He committed his first foreign blunder with the United States. The Biden administration broke with tradition to all but endorse Lula during his campaign, cautioning Bolsonaro against using unconstitutional interventions to stay in power. Lula, however, has not leveraged the United States’ rare opening to advance his vision. Instead of pushing Biden on the long list of deliverables Brazil wants for the G-20 and the climate conference, Lula squandered his goodwill by blaming the war in Ukraine on President Volodymyr Zelensky, NATO, and ultimately the United States. A much-anticipated presidential meeting between Biden and Lula produced meager outcomes, leaving the bilateral relationship in a fraught and constrained state.

Brasília has legitimate grievances with Washington. In October, the United States single-handedly blocked a Brazilian-led UN Security Council resolution for a Gaza cease-fire, which Lula’s government had heavily campaigned for in close consultation with American officials. And Lula is persuaded that the U.S. Department of Justice was behind his imprisonment over a vast corruption scandal, marring his relationship with Washington (although evidence of U.S. involvement remains thin at best). But with the G-20 summit in Rio de Janeiro on the horizon, just after the U.S. elections in November, Brazil cannot afford this estrangement. Biden, after all, could easily torpedo Lula’s initiatives by either ignoring or opposing them.

The initial enthusiasm that greeted Lula’s return has dissipated.

The United States is not the only Western country Lula is alienating. His comments on the war in Ukraine and his penchant for describing NATO as a source of instability have made him less popular among European countries, as well. Germany and Portugal, Brazil’s closest partners on the continent, have felt particularly slighted, unable to decipher the president’s aims. These tensions have been compounded by the collapse of trade talks between the EU and Mercosur (a South American trade bloc led by Brazil), which was prompted by French agricultural protectionism and Mercosur disunity. Given that the EU plays a central role in doling out foreign aid, financing climate projects, and reforming international institutions, this discord could cost Lula his ambitious G-20 agenda.

Such failures in the global North might be less concerning if Lula had racked up victories in the global South. But he hasn’t. In South America, the initial enthusiasm that greeted his return to office has dissipated. He failed to dissuade Uruguay from seeking trade deals with China outside Mercosur, a move that severely weakens Brazil’s influence in its region. Lula’s bid to revive the Union of South American Nations proved futile. And his vocal endorsement of the unsuccessful Argentine presidential contender Sergio Massa, coupled with his absence from the inauguration of the victorious right-wing candidate, Javier Milei, have unsettled Brazil’s closest relationship. Its regional plans are contingent on the tacit support of Argentina, which has enough diplomatic influence to bolster or hinder its neighbor’s initiatives. As a result, any enmity between Lula and Milei could seriously undermine the former’s ambitions.

Lula has also run into trouble with fellow leaders on the South American left. He is engaged in a public rift with Colombian President Gustavo Petro over oil drilling in the Amazon. Brazil’s geographic distance from Mexico has made it hard for Lula to cooperate with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, better known as AMLO, on critical issues for Lula, such as his G-20 agenda or the election of the next secretary-general of the United Nations. Lula has offered unwavering support for Venezuela’s purportedly left-wing but brutal, kleptocratic autocracy, yet this stance has earned the ire of progressive leaders elsewhere in the region—including Chilean President Gabriel Boric. Lula’s support for Venezuela has also backfired. In December, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro threatened to invade Guyana, dragging Brazil into a regional dispute that could lead to war.

Maduro and Lula in Brasília, Brazil, May 2023

Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters

Lula believes he can strengthen his international hand by partnering with China to secure concessions from the West, so he wants to closely coordinate policy with Beijing. “The BRICS is the most important development in world politics in recent times,” reasoned the presidential adviser Celso Amorim last January, referring to a consortium of non-Western states. (The acronym stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.) “The group has awakened Western nations to the need to strengthen the G-20, which ought to be the main institution [for global governance].” But even if Amorim’s assessment is correct, Brazil can gain support from the global North for Lula’s progressive vision only if his country maintains clear autonomy; any hint of subservience to China will draw Western backlash. And for all the government’s positive talk about China’s rise, ties between Beijing and Brasília are not particularly close. The Chinese continue to play hardball on UN Security Council reform, which could land Brazil a permanent seat, as well as when it comes to bilateral trade and investment. China’s growing diplomatic clout in South America could also make it hard for Brazil to advance its interests in the region.

It still makes sense for Lula to partner with China and other BRICS members, especially since they can help him achieve his G-20 goals. Yet his uncritical collaboration with these states exposes him to accusations of hypocrisy. Lula is known for his readiness to call out Western violations of international law, but he has been silent about China’s brutal oppression of Uyghurs and India’s crackdown on dissent. He has also been quiet when it comes to Russia’s indiscriminate killing of civilians in Ukraine. Confronted by the media about Alexei Navalny’s death in prison, Lula said the world should wait for forensic results before blaming Putin. And although Lula condemned the October 7 Hamas attack, he created an uproar in mid-February by declaring that “what is happening in the Gaza Strip with the Palestinian people has not occurred at any other moment in history—actually, it has, when Hitler decided to kill the Jews.”

Leaders everywhere, of course, have loudly criticized Israel’s war in Gaza, so Lula is far from alone. But to be a successful progressive voice and advocate at a time when the world is so profoundly divided, Lula has to establish himself as a broker who is intensely focused on finding pragmatic solutions. He cannot express moral outrage only when it is convenient.


Fortunately for Lula, changing tack is possible. In Brazil, the executive branch has unilateral authority to set foreign policy. And for all his missteps, Lula still wields a unique set of strategic and diplomatic assets that can help him claim global leadership.

At a time when almost all major powers are coping with war or its specter, Brazil’s geographical and political distance from the primary zones of conflict allow Lula to try to refocus global attention on the scourges of poverty and inequality. The country has sovereignty over the Amazon—the planet’s most extensive rainforest—and is a top-tier food producer, giving it a major say in climate governance. And Brazil, with its turbulent but instructive history of democratic resilience and poverty alleviation, can provide other developing states with insights on how to push back against the threat of populist extremism.

Lula’s eight-decade journey from hardship to the presidency remains a source of universal admiration, earning him a superstar reception everywhere he goes. This personal allure is not cosmetic; it is a testament to his pivotal role in lifting millions of people from poverty, which he continues to do. In the first year of his third term, Lula secured legislative backing to pass a sweeping tax reform, skillfully quelled a populist insurrection, and aligned military factions. He introduced policies that have effectively slowed Amazon deforestation. Following in Biden’s footsteps, he unveiled an ambitious industrial policy alongside plans for a green transition. And despite uncertainty about Brazil’s future economic trajectory, GDP growth in Lula’s first year impressively neared three percent—more than triple earlier market projections. These triumphs have reinforced Lula’s political capital. A recent Atlas Intel poll shows that 58 percent of Brazilians rate his administration positively.

Lula still wields a unique set of strategic and diplomatic assets.

Yet the best card in Lula’s deck is simple serendipity. The fact that Brazil will host both the G-20 summit in 2024 and the COP30 conference in 2025 means that Lula will have two global stages on which to unveil and champion a progressive foreign policy agenda centered on poverty reduction, equitable representation for emerging states, and climate justice—a reshuffling of the deck in favor of the global South. These summits demand the painstaking construction of big-tent coalitions. But this is a task at which Lula should excel, provided he can rework relations with other world leaders.

Lula can start by rebuilding ties with the United States. He should do so by focusing on his administration’s mutual interests with Biden, such as the green transition and food security, and by encouraging the White House to follow through on its professed commitment to UN reform. He should make the case that Brazil’s G-20 conference will offer a showcase for the Biden administration to promote a progressive global order, one that distinguishes it from the policies Trump would pursue. But Lula should also initiate dialogue with Republican counterparts now in the event the GOP wins in 2024, capitalizing on his innate capacity for engaging ideological adversaries. Although Trump is an unpredictable politician, Lula managed to craft excellent and profitable relations with former Republican President George W. Bush, even as Brazil staunchly and publicly opposed the Iraq war.

Lula must rebuild ties with other countries in South America, as well. Here, humility will be key. Lula should acknowledge that Brazil’s recent domestic turmoil has tarnished its brand, not least because the cross-border corruption scandals unearthed during Lula’s tenure eroded trust in the country and implicated numerous South American leaders. A better Latin America policy also entails a new approach to Venezuela. Lula has historically protected Venezuela from external criticism, even as it immiserates its people, by arguing that any liberalization is contingent on the regime’s acquiescence. But the reality remains that without concerted international pressure, liberalization is unlikely. As a result, Lula must stop defending Venezuela’s autocrats.

Brazil will have to cooperate with NATO in the South Atlantic.

To be a true progressive leader, Lula will need to make strides on climate change. His administration may have slowed deforestation rates, but it must make fundamental changes to Brazil’s increasingly carbon-intensive economy if it wants to stop rising emissions. It will have to realign the country’s voters, agricultural sector, and industrial sector toward sustainability in a way no Brazilian government has done before. To succeed, Lula must introduce legislation to compensate the losers of the ecological transition, such as farmers and ranchers, so they do not fight as Brazil makes the switch. He should reconsider his November 2023 initiative to fully integrate Brazil into OPEC and instead harness the country’s oil reserves as a catalyst for its green transformation, channeling revenues into sustainable energy initiatives. He should modernize Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company, to lead in eco-friendly innovation. Finally, Lula must root out criminal actors in the immensely complex Amazon region, which are responsible for much of Brazil’s deforestation.

Lula must also take on organized crime more broadly. Successive Brazilian administrations, including Lula’s, have allowed the country’s gangs to grow in size and scope, resulting in groups that are now powerful enough to seriously challenge the authority of the state. Criminal rings influence politics at all levels of government, co-opting state institutions that oversee roads, ports, airports, border controls, financial systems, and even law enforcement and the armed forces. They also control cross-border illicit trades in narcotics, counterfeit goods, auto parts, and human beings. The toll on ordinary Brazilians has been brutal. With an average of 110 murders per day, Brazil’s homicide rate is one of the highest in the world. The country is home to 17 of the globe’s 50 deadliest cities.

With respect to crime, there will be no strictly national solutions. Brazil’s criminal networks span many borders, so reversing the trend will require deep international cooperation of the kind not only that Brasília is unused to but that its foreign policy elites have also traditionally rejected. Yet the country will have to work with poorer and weaker neighbors to clean up their security forces, which have sometimes fallen under the sway of criminal organizations. Lula must also reorient Brazil’s intelligence apparatus—which Bolsonaro tried to train on domestic opponents—toward tracing and rooting out gangs, wherever they operate. And Brazil will have to cooperate with NATO in the South Atlantic. Working with the alliance may be toxic to Brazilian diplomats and military officials, but it’s simply a fact that many of Brazil’s criminal networks are transatlantic. As a result, the country needs to collaborate with Europe.

Revamping Brazil’s grand strategy is a formidable task, and the timing is urgent—the G-20 summit is just ten months away. But if Lula plays his cards right, he can still mend strained partnerships and rebuild his reputation as a diplomatic broker. He can help stabilize his region and his country. He can, in other words, deliver on the core promise of a progressive global order: using diplomacy to solve problems, even as fires proliferate in a politically fragmented world.



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