Once a major backer of America, Lula is now choosing a different path
At a meeting in the White House with US President Joe Biden on 10 February, Brazilian premier Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva reiterated his neutrality, once again demurring on joining the US-led global front against Russia. Although the leaders issued a communique detailing their agreement on the need to defend democracy, Lula refused to shift Brazil’s neutral position over the war in favour of Ukraine.
Both Lula and Biden have styled themselves as defenders of democracy against the election-denying shenanigans of their respective populist predecessors, former presidents Jair Bolsanaro and Donald Trump respectively. Yet the fact that Lula refuses to march in step with the US-led war effort in Ukraine significantly complicates the American diplomatic effort to use the war in order to strengthen its global leadership. Brazil is not alone in its scepticism of the Western war effort either: India has also maintained neutrality, continuing to buy oil from Russia.
Taking these two enormous democracies together, Brazil’s 214 million people and India’s 1.4 billion considerably outweigh NATO’s combined population of roughly 949 million. This is without even quibbling about the democratic credentials of NATO member states such as Turkey, North Macedonia and Montenegro, let alone EU member states, given EU leaders’ expressed hostility to popular self-government. Even this basic data makes a mockery of the effort to portray the war in Ukraine as a new front in the struggle between the massed ranks of the ‘free world’ on the one side and an authoritarian bloc of Russia and China on the other.
Despite efforts by supporters to whitewash his record, Lula is by no means the natural choice to lead a global non-aligned movement. On the foreign policy front, he was long a dutiful lieutenant under the not-so-ancien regime of US-led unipolarity. During his earlier time in office from 2003-2010, Lula even helped prop up the Monroe Doctrine — the notorious right claimed by the US to interfere in the affairs of neighbouring states in the Americas. While the US was embroiled in its invasion of Iraq in 2003, Lula obligingly offered up Brazilian forces for a UN-led multinational military expedition dispatched to Haiti in 2004. This was intended to relieve a Franco-US military intervention that had helped eject the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Even the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti became notorious, compounding the country’s many miseries by importing cholera, rampant sexual abuse by peacekeepers, and lethal urban pacification campaigns brought over from the Brazilian favelas. Lula provided not only troops but also leadership for the mission, with senior Brazilian officers serving as viceroys for what increasingly took on the form of a colonial-style occupation.
The boost to the profile and role of Brazil’s military was not only felt in Haiti, but also at home, as Brazilian peacekeepers provided cabinet fodder and political support for Bolsanaro’s government. Perhaps Lula has at least learnt that forever wars tend to militarise politics back home, a lesson still not absorbed in the US. Late last year the Brazilian President’s team reportedly rebuffed inquiries by the US as to whether the incoming government would be willing to lead yet another multilateral military expedition to Haiti to restore public order.
The very fact that a hitherto loyal supporter of the US empire is now willing to publicly break with the country over the NATO proxy war in Ukraine is not just further evidence that the unipolar international order is over. More importantly, it shows that there is more to democracy than NATO. At the global level, we should fully expect democratic governments to differ between themselves: governments that reflect popular views from around the world will, by necessity, have different reactions to world events. Recognising a plurality of competing interests in place of doctrinaire assertions of globalist uniformity is the first step to building a better functioning international order.