Brazil’s Global Ambitions
Backgrounder

Brazil’s Global Ambitions

Brazil has long sought a greater role on the world stage, but political upheaval and other enduring challenges have complicated its efforts.
President Jair Bolsonaro attends Brazil’s National Flag Day celebration.
President Jair Bolsonaro attends Brazil’s National Flag Day celebration. Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
  • Brazil wields considerable economic and political influence as the largest and most populous country in Latin America.
  • An emerging global power, it is a staunch defender of multilateralism and maintains robust ties with China, the United States, and the European Union.
  • Under President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil has continued to struggle with environmental degradation, corruption, and violent crime, among other challenges.

Introduction

As Latin America’s largest and most influential country, Brazil has long played a leadership role in the region, throwing its economic and diplomatic might behind hemispheric integration efforts. It has also increasingly sought a bigger voice for developing countries on the world stage. In addition to its active membership in the United Nations and other major multilateral institutions, Brazil has worked closely with countries such as China, India, and Russia to develop alternative forums.

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However, a decade marked by economic upheaval and corruption scandals that implicated much of the political establishment has hindered its goals. President Jair Bolsonaro campaigned on a “Brazil above everything” slogan that he argued would help reclaim the country’s sovereignty, but critics say his approach has exacerbated domestic inequalities and led to growing international isolation.

Why does Brazil matter in world affairs?

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Brazil is the largest and most influential country in South America, accounting for about half of the continent’s population, landmass, and gross domestic product (GDP). It is the fifth-largest country in the world and the sixth most populous, with an estimated 214 million people. Brazil plays a major role in world trade: it is a leading producer of soybeans, beef, and iron ore.  Moreover, the two-thirds of the Amazon Rainforest that fall within its borders make it central to the global fight against climate change. After the United States, Brazil has the largest military force in the Western Hemisphere, though it has historically relied on soft-power strategies, including foreign aid, to exert its influence.

Brazil wields considerable political and economic clout beyond Latin America. China and the United States are its top two trading partners, and the country has forged closer political and military ties with Russia. It has also asserted itself in nuclear talks with Iran despite objections from the United States. Brazilian forces have at times led peacekeeping missions in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the country has hosted international sporting events, including the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

How have Brazil’s foreign policy ambitions evolved?

Brazil separated from Portugal in what was a relatively peaceful process in 1822, unlike many Latin American colonies that waged wars of independence. It maintained its monarchy until 1889. The foreign relations of its early years were largely preoccupied with regional upheaval, including war with neighbors Argentina and Paraguay. World War I marked the beginnings of Brazil’s role on the world stage, as it was the only Latin American country to participate and the largest South American delegation involved in the negotiations that created the League of Nations in 1920. Brazil’s military contributions to the Allied powers during World War II and its cooperation with the United States during the Cold War drew it closer to the West, even as it advocated for noninterventionism and neutral international institutions.

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This tension grew after Brazil’s republic gave way in 1964 to a repressive military dictatorship, which shared Washington’s fears about communist influence in the region. By 1979, an ailing economy drove the regime to begin a slow process of political liberalization that culminated in the transition to a civilian-led democracy in 1989. This political reform was accompanied by an opening of the heavily state-led economy. Between 1995 and 2010 under Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (commonly known as Lula), Brazil solidified its reputation as an emerging power with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. It was under Lula that Brazil “had this really ambitious idea that almost through sheer force of will, it would become a major power,” says Dartmouth College’s Andre Pagliarini.

Brazilian foreign policy emphasizes diplomacy and multilateral institutions. To date, Brazil has participated in fifty UN peacekeeping operations, and it has offered expertise, equipment, and scholarship opportunities to postconflict countries [PDF] including Angola, Mozambique, and Timor-Leste. It has pushed to increase the role of lower income countries, often referred to as the Global South, in global governance in other ways, too: it is in the Group of Twenty (G20), a grouping of the world’s largest economies, and it helped found the alternative economic bloc BRICS alongside Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Brazil is also regularly elected as a non-permanent member to the UN Security Council, and it has joined calls to expand permanent council membership to better represent today’s global distribution of power.

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What role does Brazil play in regional affairs?

Brazil has long pursued a leadership role, at times butting heads with the United States and navigating tensions with other regional powers. It has largely focused on furthering development and regional stability through economic integration and involvement in multilateral institutions. 

It is a founding member of and among the largest donors to the Organization of American States (OAS), the Western Hemisphere’s premier diplomatic forum. It is also the driving force behind the Mercosur trade bloc, in which it seeks to unite its economy with those of Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. With a combined GDP of roughly $2.2 trillion in 2021, the bloc is one of the world’s largest. Yet, Brasília previously led the opposition [PDF] to a failed U.S. proposal for a hemisphere-wide trade bloc, arguing that the United States’ heavily subsidized agriculture would give its exports an unfair advantage.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s stance toward the region’s authoritarian governments has tested its commitment to diplomacy. Under Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil sought closer trade and energy ties with the socialist government of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. But Bolsonaro has joined most of the region in refusing to recognize the legitimacy of Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, and tensions have escalated as the Brazil-Venezuela border has become a hotspot for crime and violence. 

Relations with Cuba have likewise worsened despite years of Brazilian efforts to expand oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and increase aid to the island. In 2019, Bolsonaro became the first Latin American leader in nearly three decades to vote against an annual UN resolution condemning the U.S.-led embargo on Cuba. The following year, Brazil withdrew from the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), citing the growing authoritarian influence of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

How has Bolsonaro governed Brazil?

Bolsonaro, a former army captain who spent twenty-seven years in Brazil’s Congress, won the 2018 presidential election riding a wave of antiestablishment fervor. Campaigning as a right-wing, socially conservative nationalist, he promised to tackle crime and corruption and right the economy in the face of a series of crises, including a presidential impeachment, a deep recession, a historic corruption scandal, and a sharp rise in violent crime. His controversial moves have included abolishing dozens of civil society groups, cutting funding for federal education, relaxing gun ownership laws, and attacking LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights.

In contrast to his predecessors, Bolsonaro has embraced anti-globalist rhetoric and has said that international norms and institutions threaten Brazil’s sovereignty. This has led him to distance Brazil from the United Nations; encourage development in the Amazon Rainforest; downplay the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic; and threaten to withdraw Brazil from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris Agreement on climate, though he hasn’t followed through. Furthermore, his administration’s moves to isolate former partners, such as Venezuela, have been paired with efforts to form closer ties with like-minded right-wing leaders such as former U.S. President Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

What are relations like with the United States?

The relationship dates to 1824, when the United States became the first country to recognize Brazil’s independence. In the twentieth century, Washington wielded a strong influence over Brazil’s development, including by backing the 1964 military coup and later supporting the country’s democratic transition and economic liberalization. Still, Brazil has at times acted as a countervailing force against U.S. interests. In addition to rejecting the U.S. hemispheric trade proposal, Brasília opposed the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and condemned the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. During the left-wing Lula and Rousseff administrations, Brazil’s pursuit of closer relationships with U.S. adversaries such as China, Cuba, and Iran also became a source of tension.

Bolsonaro’s 2018 election marked a sharp turn toward the right and the beginning of efforts to grow closer with Washington. Bilateral relations were particularly amicable under the Trump administration. In recognition of their partnership, Trump designated Brazil a major non–North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, granting it access to certain U.S. economic and security programs. In 2020, the two leaders signed a limited trade deal.

However, under President Joe Biden, Washington and Brasília have increasingly diverged on major issues, including climate action and Biden’s global effort to combat authoritarianism. Bolsonaro has even made unsubstantiated allegations that Biden committed fraud in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Still, there is potential to deepen the partnership on several fronts, says Brazil-based journalist Catherine Osborn, including the leaders’ pledge to prevent further deforestation of the Amazon.

What are Brazil’s other major bilateral ties?

China. Beijing elevated its relations with Brasília to a comprehensive strategic partnership—the highest classification that China awards its diplomatic partners—in 2012. China has since become Brazil’s top trading partner, primarily due to exports of soybeans and iron ore; in 2021, bilateral trade reached a record $135 billion. Though not a participant in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Brazil is one of the largest recipients of Chinese infrastructure funding in South America. Between 2007 and 2020, Brazil received more than $66 billion in Chinese investment. Brazil is also one of a dozen countries in Latin America that have granted Huawei, the controversial Chinese telecommunications giant, access to its 5G network. Bolsonaro campaigned on ending Brazil’s dependence on China, but the COVID-19 pandemic underscored its continued reliance, as Brazil almost exclusively used Chinese-made vaccines in the early months of global vaccination efforts.

European Union. The European Union (EU) is a major destination for Brazilian agricultural goods, especially soybeans, fruit, and coffee; Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain are the largest European importers. Since 1999, Mercosur has been negotiating a free trade agreement with the bloc, which, if accomplished, would be the EU’s largest trade deal. However, ratification efforts have stalled amid opposition from several EU members. They object to illegal logging in the Amazon, though Brazilian officials assert that these environmental concerns mask EU member states’ desires to protect their agricultural sectors from competition.

Russia. Brazil is Russia’s primary trade partner in Latin America. Over the past twenty-five years, Russian exports to Brazil have grown at an annual rate of 11 percent, reaching $2.2 billion in 2020. Russia has invested billions of dollars in Brazil’s oil and gas sector, infrastructure, and electronics industry, and the two countries collaborate in several multilateral forums, such as BRICS and the G20. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has complicated relations. Brazil has twice voted in support of UN resolutions condemning Russia’s violation of international law, though Bolsonaro has said Brazil will remain neutral in the conflict. At the same time, leading Brazilian lawmakers have criticized Western sanctions against Russia, which they say are contributing to global shortages. 

What is the state of Brazil’s economy?

With a GDP of $1.6 trillion in 2021, Brazil is the largest economy in Latin America and accounts for almost 30 percent of the region’s economic output. In 2016, it overtook Venezuela as the leading producer of crude oil in South America, and it is the world’s top exporter of beef and soybeans; other major exports include iron ore, sugar, and coffee. It is also a major manufacturer, though in recent decades its economy has shifted toward services.

Brazil is considered a mixed economy that has relatively high tariffs and several state-owned enterprises, most notably the oil and gas giant Petrobras. This is the legacy of import substitution industrialization, or ISI, an economic strategy adopted in the 1930s that used protectionist policies to increase domestic manufacturing. But in the wake of economic crises in the 1970s, policymakers introduced reforms to address growing debt and soaring inflation. These included the 1993 Real Plan [PDF], which established a new currency initially pegged to the U.S. dollar to tame inflation, as well as measures to open the economy to trade. Accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 further accelerated Brazil’s integration into the global trading system, though the country retains some aspects of trade protectionism through Mercosur’s common external tariff.

By the 2000s, Brazil had become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. However, falling commodity prices and the series of high-profile corruption scandals helped bring about Brazil’s worst-ever recession starting in 2014. And more recently with the economic disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the country continues to struggle with limited growth and double-digit inflation. Meanwhile, Brazil remains one of the world’s most unequal countries.

What other challenges does Brazil face?

With general elections set for October 2022, the next administration will be constrained by worsening domestic troubles. Bolsonaro’s primary opponent in the elections is former President Lula, who has promised new approaches to the country’s challenges. These include:

Corruption and political polarization. Brazil ranked 96 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2021. Bolsonaro campaigned on rooting out corruption in the wake of the scandals that led to the impeachment of Rousseff and imprisonment of Lula. In 2019, Bolsonaro signed an anti-crime bill that introduced harsher punishments for corruption, but critics say little progress has been made, and his own administration has been beset by corruption allegations. Election watchdogs worry that Bolsonaro, who has often alleged electoral fraud, will dispute the election results in October should he lose.

Climate and the environment. Deforestation of the Amazon, which hit a fifteen-year high in 2021, has sparked international concern. Many scientists criticize Bolsonaro’s environmental policies, which include opening up the rain forest to more commercial development. By contrast, Lula has proposed creating “green jobs” in the Amazon to replant trees, as well as reopening the Amazon Fund, through which countries previously paid Brazil to monitor and combat deforestation. Still, about 35 percent of energy consumed in Brazil comes from low-carbon sources such as hydroelectric, nuclear, and wind.

Crime and violence. At 22 murders per 100,000 people, Brazil has one of the highest homicide rates in South America; the country also suffers from high rates of robbery, kidnapping, and gender-based violence. Many experts attribute Brazil’s crime rate to wealth inequality, a lack of economic opportunity, and arms and drug trafficking. Bolsonaro has kept up the government’s long-standing “tough on crime” approach, which includes harsh drug laws and strict sentencing. 

COVID-19 policy. Brazil is still grappling with the effects of the pandemic, including economic contraction, increased poverty, and an education crisis that has primarily affected Black and Indigenous communities. More than 680,000 people in Brazil have died, one of the world’s highest per capita death tolls. Global health authorities have criticized the Bolsonaro administration, which downplayed the severity of the virus and opposed lockdown measures. Also, the government’s immunization campaign stumbled over concerns about the efficacy of China’s Sinovac vaccine. More recently, the government has prioritized U.S.-made vaccines. By late 2022, more than 80 percent of the population was fully vaccinated.

Recommended Resources

This Congressional Research Service report goes over the state of U.S.-Brazil relations [PDF].

For Foreign Affairs, Brian Winter of Americas Quarterly warns that Brazil could fall victim to Latin America’s “nostalgia trap” in the 2022 election.

In their book, Status and the Rise of Brazil: Global Ambitions, Humanitarian Engagement and International Challenges, Benjamin de Carvalho, Paulo Esteves, and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert explore how Brazil’s foreign relations have changed since the early 2000s.

Edson Fachin, a Brazilian supreme court justice, discusses challenges ahead of the country’s presidential election at this 2022 event at the Wilson Center. 

As part of Boston University’s Rising Powers Initiative, the Getulio Vargas Foundation’s Oliver Della Costa Stuenkel lays out how Brazil’s role could change in a post-Bolsonaro world [PDF].

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