Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Bolsonaro’s 5 Key Foreign Policy Challenges in 2019

Reading Time: 4 minutesThe new president’s foreign policy revolution creates unprecedented risks for Brazil – and depends on untested international partnerships.
Reading Time: 4 minutes


Reading Time: 4 minutes

To say that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s foreign policy views are controversial would be an understatement. Extreme positions on matters ranging from climate change to migration, and recent attacks on “globalism” and “cultural Marxism” by Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo, have already affected Brazil’s reputation abroad, and not for the better. The following analysis, however, will leave out any criticisms of Bolsonaro’s overall foreign policy approach (which I have offered on previous occasions) and instead look at the five key challenges stemming from the foreign policy philosophy that he has embraced.

Challenge #1: Assure tangible mutual benefits from strategic partnership with the United States

Bilateral ties with the United States are the centerpiece of Brazil’s new foreign policy. To win over critics, Bolsonaro must show that he is able to fundamentally transform the nature of the relationship and provide tangible evidence of how Brazil will benefit from moving closer to Washington. That is easier said than done. U.S. President Donald Trump is a notoriously transactional president and has little incentive to create the long-term partnership Brazil’s foreign minister dreams of. Trump’s decision to stay away from Bolsonaro’s inauguration, and send Secretary of Defense Mike Pompeo instead, shows how hard it will be to establish a true bromance between Bolsonaro and his idol (compare the decision to that of Barack Obama, who sent his vice president to Dilma Rousseff’s inauguration in 2014).

From Trump’s point of view, there are important limitations to the relationship: opening the U.S. to Brazilian products such as steel and soy would hurt his own electorate ahead of what promises to be an epic re-election campaign in 2020. Even if Trump would like to help Bolsonaro, he is unlikely to overcome resistance in a House of Representatives now dominated by Democrats – who have recently voiced their criticism of Brazil’s new president.

There is potential for deepening ties, however. For example, unilaterally offering a visa waiver to U.S. tourists, despite a tradition of reciprocity when it comes to visa policies, would help promote tourism in Brazil, which punches below its weight when it comes to attracting international visitors. Brazil could also seek more profound cooperation in fighting transnational crime, strengthening border protection, and establishing closer coordination in the realm of anti-terrorism. This last issue could gain relevance after Brazil moves its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a step Bolsonaro has promised but that could make Brazil and its citizens abroad a possible target. In military affairs, too, there is potential for broader cooperation with both countries. Finally, Bolsonaro will ask for explicit U.S. support when it comes to Brazil’s OECD candidacy.

To an important extent, Bolsonaro’s foreign policy will be measured by the progress he makes vis-à-vis ties to the United States.

Challenge #2: Regain leadership in the regional response to Venezuela

Bolsonaro’s second key foreign policy challenge will be to regain the role of agenda-setter in the Venezuelan crisis, after having been relegated to a mere bystander since 2013. Rather than pushing for radical options such as military intervention, a move rightly discarded by Vice President Hamilton Mourão during the campaign, Brazil’s regional leadership will be measured by its capacity to mobilize and align the region, including skeptics such as Bolivia and Mexico.

This strategy requires systematic and patient diplomacy that can only be achieved if others feel Brazil is committed to regional cooperation in other areas too. Pursuing that policy will become far more complicated if President Mauricio Macri fails to win re-election in Argentina later this year. In addition to aligning positions on how to deal with the regime of Nicolás Maduro, achievable steps would be to lead on a regional strategy to allocate and integrate Venezuelan migrants and on how to provide more humanitarian aid to the country.

Challenge #3: Reduce tension between religious nationalists, the military and free-traders

A good part of the damage inflicted on Brazil’s international reputation since Bolsonaro’s election in October is a product of the new government’s views on human rights, climate change and so on. But another, potentially avoidable problem has been the constant infighting and flip-flopping between the three centers of power: the pro-Trump anti-globalists and religious forces, the military faction, and the neoliberal economists.

The first group has been able to dominate the news cycle, to the chagrin of both the generals and the economists, who regard Araújo’s rhetoric as a threat to their plans. Overcoming these tensions will be hard, but Bolsonaro will have to do more to signal to outside observers that the first camp will refrain from intervening in Finance Minister Paulo Guedes’ attempt to liberalize Brazil’s economy.

Challenge #4: Damage control, in particular with China, Argentina and the EU

Even policymakers supportive of Bolsonaro privately admit that the new administration will have to do more to reduce frictions that have emerged with traditional partners during these first weeks. Bolsonaro will have to explain to Macri how he envisages the future of the bilateral relationship (given that he will break with tradition and visit Chile first), and what Brazil’s stance vis-à-vis the Mercosur trade bloc will be.

Given Bolsonaro’s position on climate change, a topic dear to European governments, ties with the EU will have to be rethought based on this policy divergence. An early trip to China will help overcome the skepticism that has taken hold in Beijing when it comes to Brazil.

At the same time, it’ll be crucial to avoid a brain drain in the foreign ministry. While it is natural that key posts should be held by ambassadors minimally sympathetic to the president’s worldview, sidelining qualified technocrats just because they voiced criticism during the campaign would weaken Brazilian foreign policy.

Challenge #5: Articulate a vision for the BRICS presidential summit, which Bolsonaro will host in November

In November, Bolsonaro has the unique chance to look statesman-like when he hosts the 11th BRICS Summit. He’ll welcome leaders from China, India, South Africa and Russia, in addition to the many other leaders the host nation usually invites as part of an “outreach summit.” For the meeting to be a success, Bolsonaro will need to offer a vision of what he would like the BRICS grouping to look like in the future, and what will be the key ideas Brazil will offer during its temporary one-year long BRICS presidency, which started this month.


Reading Time: 4 minutes

Stuenkel is a contributing columnist for Americas Quarterly and teaches International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. He is the author of The BRICS and the Future of Global Order and Post-Western World: How Emerging Powers Are Remaking Global Order.

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Tags: Bolsonaro, Brazil, Brazil-U.S. ties, Ernesto Araujo, foreign policy
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