by Philip Pilkington
Tuesday, 1
November 2022
Analysis
17:00

Lula is no friend of America

Washington's goodwill may be short-lived
by Philip Pilkington
Lula has a history of making anti-western statements. Credit: Getty

Over the weekend, in a highly contested election, former Brazilian President Lula da Silva was returned to office. After the defeat of Jair Bolsonaro, the ‘Trump of the Tropics’, sighs of relief could be heard across Western capitals, especially in Washington DC where anything that invokes memories of Trump brings with it a predictable attack of the vapours.

Yet, judged on a purely realpolitik basis, Lula’s win could be extremely problematic for the West and, particularly, for the United States. The reaction to Lula’s win feels like a warning signal that Western political elites have become so inward-looking and obsessed with their own domestic culture wars that they cannot grapple realistically with the enormous geopolitical challenges that the third decade of the 21st century is throwing their way.

Lula is a Leftist of the Latin American old school. This school views Western, and particularly American, influence in the region as ‘imperialistic’. In 2019, for example, while serving time in prison for corruption charges, Lula penned a letter in which he opposed Brazil’s role in American sanctions against Venezuela. “We cannot turn Brazil over to imperialism,” he wrote.

In an interview in 2020, Lula went further still and accused the United States of being behind his imprisonment. “Today,” he said, “we know that there were clear [US] Department of Justice interests in… my imprisonment.” Whether there is any truth to these claims or not, it shows Lula’s attitude toward the country now lauding his return.

Today, breaking free from the West means growing closer to the emerging BRICS+ bloc and, especially, to China. One of Lula’s former aides confirmed this when he told Reuters that his erstwhile boss’s administration would put aside the strained relations that sometimes existed between Bolsonaro and the Chinese. These relations were strained because Bolsonaro tended to favour greater engagement with the United States over their geopolitical enemy.

“Virtually everyone I engage with here is hoping that Lula wins,” said Karen Costa Vazquez at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing. “While this doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of the institutions or the government, there’s a sense he’d be more open-minded to cooperation.” Lula’s disposition to the rising BRICS+ is not exactly a secret, nor are his ties to the bloc purely economic. Back in May he enraged the Ukrainian government by stating that their country shared blame for the war with Russia, while American and EU leaders were also criticised for their handling of the invasion. As with his comments on Venezuela, Lula can often be a gadfly when it comes to American foreign policy.

Considered in this light, the reception of the election outcome in the West is nothing short of bizarre. Western leaders are signalling that Lula is preferable to the more pro-Western Right-wing populist alternative. Clearly, internal culture wars have completely demolished their capacity to make rational, objective decisions on extremely important aspects of foreign policy.

As the evidence mounts, it is becoming increasingly clear how hard it will be for Western leaders to navigate the enormous geopolitical shifts that we are going to witness these next two decades. It has been obvious since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine how off-balance they are. Equally, it has been obvious that they no longer possess a coherent plan of action with which to move forward. Now it appears that they will support foreign leaders who work actively against their interests. So long, that is, as these foreign leaders carefully craft their message to appeal to fashionable Western elite attitudes.

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Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
25 days ago

It’s actually not that complicated. Populism has replaced Socialism as the greatest fear of the ruling class, so, logically, they prefer a socialist to a populist. Lula sounds like a classic third world socialist railing against imperialism and capitalism. He’s the sort of creature they can understand and deal with, because socialism is the devil they know, they know how to fight it and incorporate the best parts of it to serve their interest. They fear populism because they don’t understand it. They don’t understand where it came from or how it continues to have success. Trump and Bolsonaro are the devil they don’t know. Further, they never had that good a grasp on realpolitik or human nature in the first place, and now they’re also irrationally frightened that their world is coming apart, which it is, not that they can do much about it besides drag their feet and slow down the process. Western governments are littered with triumphalist, ‘end of history’, true believers who can’t accept that the unipolar moment has passed and that we’re moving toward a multipolar world that will more closely resemble pre-WWI nationalistic competition than the post-WWII consensus. They’re clinging to the past instead of planning for the future.

J Bryant
J Bryant
25 days ago

Great article. If (and, sadly, it remains a big “if”) the Republicans regain control of Congress in the midterms, I wonder if that will change the tone or substance of the US’s foreign policy, and perhaps bring a measure of realism to the table?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
25 days ago

I thought that the US electorate were ill served when they had to choose between Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton, but to have the choice of Mr Bolsonaro and Mr Lula – shudder!

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
25 days ago

Ideology blinds you to reality. This is true for every political movement.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
25 days ago

It was an aspirational choice.
USA or Venezuela? Voters marginally chose the Venezuelan aspiration. Pie in the sky and starvation in the streets. Let’s hope they don’t get too far towards that goal.

Luis Carballo
Luis Carballo
24 days ago

You can never be amazed enough of United States faulty politics towards Latin America. For the first time, the biggest economies are under socialist anti-American governments. While Biden gives $40 billion to one of the most corrupt countries in Europe for a war that is lost, he keeps his negligent view of the countries south of his border. For Americans, Latin America is just a source of illegal immigrants and the playground for some of their corporations. The problem is that China doesn’t see it that way and it might be too late for 200 years of negligence.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
25 days ago

Countries whose internal tensions outweigh outside dangers grow short-sighted. The reverse is also true.

Matthew Stewart
Matthew Stewart
25 days ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

It’s impossible to work out an agreed-upon reversal of this statement. There are too many terms. Internal/External. Outweigh/don’t outweigh. Dangers/non-dangers. Short-sighted/far sighted. Grow/Shrink. There are many, many possible ways to “reverse” the statement. Which way are the thumbs up people approving?

Last edited 25 days ago by m6stewart
evan dyer
evan dyer
25 days ago

Everything here about Lula’s old-school kneejerk anti-Western impulses is true.
What’s missing is the reason people in the North prefer him to Bolsonaro: they believe he can slow the destruction of the Amazon, the lungs of the world, which Bolsonaro wants to raze and convert to a giant soy farm and cattle ranch.
For most people outside Brazil, the future of the Amazon is the only issue that matters in this election.