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Lula’s Geostrategic Framing in War Times

24 Feb 2023
By Dr Flavia Bellieni Zimmermann
The President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Janja, with President of the United States Joseph Biden at the White House. Source: Palácio do Planalto from Brasilia, Brasil/

With 8 January capital riots still fresh in minds, it is imperative for Brazil’s democratic future that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from the Worker’s Party conducts a successful administration. After a hiatus of over a decade, Lula will face many challenges.

One of the themes of Lula’s presidential campaign was to eradicate poverty, even stating: “Once again, the most vulnerable will have barbeques and even rump steak.” To end poverty is key for the betterment of Brazilian society. Brazil tops the world ranks with one of the highest levels of social inequality, predominantly based on racial lines.

Internationally, the world has changed significantly since the late 2000s, with increasing global tensions, not least the Russia-Ukraine war. To take an “emerging new global order” perspective, multipolarity seems to be drifting into an increasing polarisation between democratic nations and autocratic regimes. On one side, the United States, NATO countries, and the European Union support Ukraine, and on the other are “non-aligned” countries reluctant to condemn Russian aggression.

Lula is one of the masterminds behind the creation of BRICS in the late 2000s, an economic cooperative bloc between “emerging economies” from the Global South, which include Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. This grouping was designed as a strategic counterpoint to the Global North’s “imperialist” and predatory economic practices. Lula’s commitment to a Global South response to the Washington Consensus has not withered.


Beyond doubt, Lula’s victory represents a significant boost in Brazil’s global soft power initiatives, with a visible improvement in policy portfolios such as environmental protection, human rights, the rights of minority groups and the protection of Brazil’s first peoples, and most importantly, a safeguarding of Brazil’s institutional framework and democratic institutions.

In the first few weeks of the new administration there were early reports of decreased deforestation in the Amazon. The Lula government also uncovered the ill treatment of Brazil’s indigenous tribe Yanomamis, which took place under the previous administration. There are staggering reports and images emerging showing how these communities were abandoned to their fate, lacking basic health facilities and resources and ultimately leading to high levels of malnutrition in Yanomamis children. Medical professionals and public health access was difficult due to illegal mining, whose participating corporations took over public infrastructure sites. On this basis, Lula’s minister for justice Flavio Dino opened an investigation against former president Jair Bolsonaro for alleged crimes against humanity. This could lead to Bolsonaro’s indictment via the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Brazil’s reputation before the international community is key to increasing the country’s political leverage so as to attract investments and develop new economic partnerships. Nonetheless, it is also key that Lula and Fernando Haddad, his finance minister, get it right. During Lula’s first and second terms in office in the 2000s, the global economy was expanding, and Brazil’s GDP was growing steady at four percent a year. Brazil’s “economic miracle” was one of the factors for Lula’s high levels of popularity. But, today, we live in a different world. Recently, Lula deemed Brazil’s Central Bank independence as “foolish,” and his “talks” of governmental intervention to lower interest rates has raised concerns in global financial markets. To consolidate economic success, Lula needs to recalibrate his social policies, such as the family stipend bolsa família, to meet the challenges of a much more complex world. He inherits greater social divides and a huge budgetary deficit from the pandemic. And as the Russia-Ukraine war illustrates, there are increasing global frictions, which might lead to a credit crunch. The Brazilian economy should brace itself for that.

BRICS and the post-Ukraine relations

Lula, an astute politician and team player, aims to bring the conflict in Ukraine to a multipolar global political agenda and facilitate a peaceful end to the conflict. In a Kafkian way, it seems, he believes Global South BRICS countries should be seen as international protagonists, even if at the cost of human rights protections in Ukraine. For his part, Bolsonaro had a “neutral” take on the war, while at the same time buying Russian fertilisers. He also believed in a “peaceful end” to the conflict. For Lula, however, a “neutral” posturing and a reluctance to condemn Russian aggression is related to an anti-Western and anti-US imperialist perspective. In Lula’s view, BRICS might pave the way to an alternative global order to that shaped and dominated by Western countries and the Washington Consensus. Although it may be seen as necessary for emerging economies to balance US regional imperialism and Western dominance, this approach is increasingly difficult in times of war.

Lula recently refused French president Immanuel Macron’s request of military support to Ukraine. He also snubbed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during his trip to South America. Scholz intended to discuss EU-Mercosur trade and galvanise support towards Ukraine. Lula declared in a meeting with Scholz that “If one doesn’t want to, two can’t fight,” implying that Ukraine and Russia hold equal responsibility for the conflict. Consequently, Brazil has refused to send tanks to Ukraine. Last week Brazil’s minister for foreign affairs, Mauro Vieira, declared that Brazil would not be sending ammunition to support Ukrainian troops.

President Joseph Biden and Lula are seen as the “protectors” of democracy in their respective countries. Both survived democratic rupture during the Capitol invasion in 2020 and, more recently, the Brazil capital riots on 8 January 2023. Both leaders’ views converge when dealing with the rule of law, the role of democracy, environmental protections, the protection of the Amazon and Brazil’s first peoples, as well as a broad human rights agenda when dealing with LGTIQ+ rights. Nonetheless, in Lula’s recent visit to Washington, the Ukraine War was top priority, causing discomfort to both sides. On the US side, Biden’s attempts to get Brazilian support in sending weaponry to Ukraine was frustrated. Lula’s ideological attachment to BRICS as a counter point to Western power was unwavering. Not only is Brazil supporting the Russian economy by buying Russian fertilisers, but it maintains a strong reluctance to condemning Russian posturing in the region. Lula has calcified his strategy towards Ukraine as “let’s get Ukraine and Russia to talk,” minimising Russian crimes against humanity.

Peace negotiations could lead to a positive outcome. However, Russian aggression towards Ukraine has been steadily escalating. Another mammoth in the room is that Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, if left unaccounted for, could lead to other regional conflicts, increasing for instance the likelihood of Chinese aggression against Taiwan. Russian crimes against humanity, violation of rules of engagement by targeting civilian sites, and the gang-rape of women and children are issues which cannot be overlooked by the international community.

Lula, an icon of democracy and the protection of human rights globally, needs to rebalance his geostrategic project for the Global South with Ukraine. If we aim to protect democracy, peace, and security, global leaders will need the courage to act consistently. In Brazil’s case, such principles must be upheld nationally, in Latin America, and globally, without cutting corners or appeasement.

Dr Flavia Bellieni Zimmermann is a Lecturer at the University of Western Australia, School of Social Sciences. She is a Brazilian political analyst and has written extensively in this field. Her research interests include Brazilian politics, society, and policy, Latin American politics, populism and nationalism, women in the global south, gender, and politics and religion.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.