Brazilian Foreign Policy and the Global South

Hiroyuki Urabe


The term "Global South" has gained currency in recent years. That many emerging and developing countries do not support sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine has caused embarrassment and irritation from the West toward those countries dubbed the Global South. The Japanese government also employed the term "Global South" for the first time in its Diplomatic Bluebook 2023, stating, "… many of these countries share a commonality in that they take a middle ground between the Western countries and Russia by abstaining from voting on resolutions at the UN General Assembly or showing a reluctance to impose sanctions against Russia. These countries have voiced doubts that developed countries are enthusiastic about European agenda but do not pay enough attention to the challenges they face, or that the developed countries' responses are double standards in the application of universal values." (p. 3).

However, is it appropriate to lump together Global South countries? The UN General Assembly has so far put to voting six resolutions related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Brazil voted in favor of four of them, clearly distinguishing itself from the other BRICS countries that supported none of them. It should be noted that Brazil has consistently refused to join the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and that while it is the only founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in the Americas, it has not yet joined the One Belt One Road initiative, unlike many Latin American countries.

We need a better understanding of the characteristics of the Global South countries. This article is intended to discuss Brazil's foreign policy as a major power in the Global South and as the next G20 president.

1. Development of the Relations between Countries in the Americas and Brazil's Role

Latin America, where Brazil is located, has been repeatedly subjected to overt political and military interference by the United States since the 19th century. There is an underlying complexity in Latin America's sentiment toward the United States. For some time in the early 1990s, Latin American countries and the United States forged a strong cooperative relationship toward a common goal―something rarely seen in history. The background was the disruption in the 1980s of the regional states' protectionist development policies that entailed government intervention in the economy, leaving large amounts of foreign debt and plunging the entire region into an unprecedented economic crisis known as the "lost decade." The United States, which considered the end of the Cold War as a victory for the market economy, called on Latin American countries for neoliberal reforms, in exchange for a debt relief package, and proposed the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Due to the absence of other options, the region's countries followed Washington's prescription. At the First Summit of the Americas held in Miami in 1994, the leaders of 34 countries in the Americas, except Cuba, declared democracy, neoliberalism, and regional integration to be their common goals.

However, this inter-American cooperation did not last long. Latin American countries gradually became wary of the US-led FTAA as they restored macroeconomic stability and sought more proactive action, resisting the application of strict environmental and labor standards demanded by the United States. Brazil played a central role in this move. In 2000, the Cardoso administration held the first-ever South American Summit, bringing together the leaders of all 12 countries on the continent to promote South American integration ahead of schedule and to strengthen their bargaining power with the United States.

On the other hand, civil society in Latin America was growing discontent with the failure to benefit from economic growth and to improve income inequality; there was a growing opposition to neoliberalism. With the support of the middle and lower classes, leftist governments that advocated restoring the role of the state and income redistribution were established one after another in Venezuela (1999), Brazil (2003), Argentina (2003), Uruguay (2005), and Bolivia (2006). As a result, the FTAA initiative was left stranded at the 2005 Fourth Summit of the Americas (Mar del Plata, Argentina) due to opposition from the countries with leftist governments.

US foreign and security policy influenced this trend in no small measure. When a coup attempt against the Chavez administration in Venezuela occurred in 2002, the United States, viewed as an embodiment of democracy, was quick to recognize the short-lived "new administration" hastily created by the insurrectionary forces. The incident, together with the US military intervention in Iraq in 2003, awakened memories across the region of repeated US political and military interference in Latin American affairs.

Afterward, Latin American countries established a series of new regional mechanisms to build a framework for regional cooperation exempt from US influence. First, 12 Latin American countries set up the Community of South American Nations in 2005 based on the above South American Summit; in May 2008, it was institutionalized into the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The first Latin American and Caribbean Summit held in December of the same year brought together the representatives of 33 countries south of Mexico while excluding the United States and Canada. This framework evolved into the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in January 2013. The formation of these communities was led by Brazilian President Lula (term of office: 2003-11. Again president since January 2023 after a 12-year interval.) and his successor President Rousseff (2011-16), who had served as, among other key positions, cabinet secretary in the Lula administration.

2. Brazil's Foreign Policy toward Emerging Countries: IBSA and BRICS

In parallel with promoting intra-regional cooperation, President Lula also focused on building relations with emerging countries outside Latin America. The first such initiative was the establishment of the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Dialogue Forum, agreed upon at a foreign ministerial meeting held at Brazil's initiative in June 2003. The founding declaration (the "Brasilia Declaration"1) describes the forum as "a pioneer meeting of the three countries with vibrant democracies" spanning the three continents of Asia, South America, and Africa. The three countries, which emphasize their being democratic, shared the common position that the international community should be democratic, as expressed in the "New Delhi Agenda for Cooperation and Plan of Action"2 adopted at the second IBSA Foreign Ministers' Meeting in March 2004: "The Ministers expressed the view that the UN Security Council… is not representative of present-day realities. They highlighted the need for reform which would impart greater balance and representativeness to the Council and reflect contemporary reality…"

Along with the IBSA, Brazil positioned the BRICS (BRICs) as a cardinal pillar of its foreign policy toward emerging economies. The BRICs mechanism started in May 2008 when the first foreign ministers' meeting of the four founding countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) took place in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Although China's presence is now notable in the BRICS, it was Russia that paved the way for its creation. Its beginning can be traced back to September 2006, about a year and a half before the foreign ministers' meeting, when Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov met with his Brazilian counterpart Amorim in New York on the occasion of the UN General Assembly, proposing the establishment of a dialogue framework among the four BRICs countries.3 The progress in their talks was probably credited to the fact that both foreign ministers had had dealings as diplomats stationed in New York for a time in the 1990s. There were differences of interest between the two countries regarding UN Security Council reform, while the RICs (Russia, India, and China) other than Brazil had held regular meetings of foreign ministers since September 2001 to discuss issues such as international terrorism and the Afghan war. Russia's proposal to create a new framework incorporating Brazil in addition to the other three countries was opportune for Brazil, which desired to participate in forming a new global order in an increasingly multipolar world.

Thus, in September 2009, one year and four months after the first BRICs foreign ministers' meeting, the first BRICs Summit took place in Yekaterinburg. At this juncture, the Lehman Shock occurred (September 2008), and the first G20 summit was held in response to the crisis (November 2008). The claims of emerging countries became impossible to ignore. The "Joint Statement"4 issued after the BRICs Summit was symbolic in the sense that it called for the G20 to play a central role in addressing the financial crisis and to reform the international financial system to reflect changes in the global economy. With the accession of South Africa at the third summit in Sanya, China, in April 2011, the founding BRICs group was transformed into a five-member bloc renamed BRICS. Since then, the BRICS Summit has been held annually without interruption, every time attended by all the leaders, even during the COVID-19 pandemic when the meeting was held online.

The sixth BRICS Summit in July 2014 in Fortaleza, Brazil, constituted a significant milestone in the continuation of the BRICS bloc. First, the concept of establishing a BRICS development bank, which had been discussed until then, was finalized; its details, such as the name of the bank―New Development Bank (NDB)―, the size of authorized capital ($10 billion contribution by each member country), the location of the headquarters (Shanghai), and the first president (India), were formally decided at this meeting. The NDB opened in 20155—a significant step in the process of institutionalizing the BRICS.6

Second, for Russia, the BRICS mechanism became a crucial device for preserving its position in the international community. Russia was subjected to harsh international criticism for its invasion of Crimea in March of 2014 and was excluded from the G8. In the run-up to the Summit, the United States mounted pressure on the hosting country Brazil not to invite Russia―Brazil refused. Brazil has been extremely cautious about using diplomatic pressure to exclude or denounce certain countries, as seen from its opposition to economic sanctions against Cuba and the suspension of its membership in the Organization of American States (OAS), or from its recent abstention from a UN General Assembly resolution to suspend Russia's membership on the Human Rights Council due to its invasion of Ukraine.

3. China and Latin America

The leftist governments born in succession in Latin America were to remain in power for more than a decade until the mid-2010s, thanks ultimately to China's engagement. Trade between China and Latin America and the Caribbean was only $12 billion in 2000. It expanded at an accelerated pace, increasing 22-fold to $275 billion in 2013.7 China's importance as a trading partner increased. In the case of Brazil, for instance, exports to China accounted for only 0.7% of its total exports in 1991 and 2.0% in 2000 but by 2010 increased to 15.2%, surpassing those to the United States (9.6%). Brazilian exports to China surged to 18.6% by 2015, then 26.8% by 2018.8 China's robust demand for food, fertilizer, minerals, and energy due to its economic growth brought about resource price hikes. Since Latin American countries had a comparative advantage in these goods, their leftist government gained immense export revenues that funded their redistribution policies.

China's foreign policy toward Latin America also became more strategic.9 In 2008, when the first BRICs foreign ministers' meeting took place, the Hu Jintao administration first released a comprehensive foreign policy document titled "China's Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean (中国対拉丁美洲和加勒比政策文件)," which set forth the goal of aiming for prosperity in a peaceful manner through building a win-win relationship between China and Latin America. The Xi Jinping administration proposed that a summit meeting between China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) be held in conjunction with the 2014 BRICS Summit in Fortaleza (see above), an important milestone for the BRICS, aiming to launch the China-CELAC Forum. The following January 2015, the first China-CELAC Forum was held in Beijing, where China announced that it would, over a decade until 2025, make a $250 billion investment in Latin America and increase the two-way trade value to $500 billion. Furthermore, in November 2016, China released a revised version of its "China's Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean," which stated that, in "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," "China's relations with Latin America and the Caribbean have entered a new stage of comprehensive cooperation," and that the two sides would forge "a community of shared future." At the First Belt and Road High-Level International Cooperation Forum in Beijing in May 2017, China called for Latin America's participation in the One Belt One Road initiative, describing it as a "natural extension" of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

In the mid-2010s, when its relationship with China was at an apex, Latin America was approaching a turning point. Due to the decline in resource prices—for example, crude oil price fell from $120 per barrel in 2012 to $40 per barrel in 2016—coupled with public criticism of corruption, leftist governments in Latin America lost voters' support and handed over power to rightists or, in some countries like Venezuela, turned authoritarian, repressing opposition parties. In Brazil, President Rousseff was accused of falsifying government accounts and was removed from office through an impeachment trial in August 2016; followed by a somewhat centrist administration under President Temer, the rightist Bolsonaro administration was formed in January 2019. With the retreat of leftists, the momentum for regional cooperation rapidly waned, and the right-wing government countries left UNASUR to launch the Forum for South American Progress (PROSUR) in March 2019. However, most of the right-wing administrations chosen by the process of elimination did not last long, and PROSUR soon vanished. Interestingly, CELAC, launched by Latin American countries aiming at their autonomy, has survived, not as actively though, relying on relations with China―the second and third China-CELAC forums took place in 2018 and 2009 under China's leadership. Latin America is currently a motley of different governments, leftist and rightist; especially since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, each country is busy with its internal affairs.

4. Brazilian Diplomacy to be Tested

The Bolsonaro administration (2019-22) was a rare administration that adopted an isolationist foreign policy, departing widely from the country's traditional multidirectional one. Whether or not referring to Bolsonaro as Brazil's Trump is appropriate, his behavior was unbridled, stating during the presidential election campaign that "China is buying Brazil, instead of buying from Brazil." He even insinuated the country's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. After taking the presidential office, Bolsonaro continued to emphasize the interests of large-scale agricultural enterprises, which constitute his political support base; he was at odds with EU countries that criticized the destruction of Amazonian forests. He suspended participation in UNASUR and CELAC. However, he has softened his stance regarding relations with China and climate change since he took office. Bolsonaro was favorable to the BRICS since he realized that none of the BRICS members blamed him for deforestation, which had been the object of severe criticism both at home and abroad, the failure to combat COVID-19―Brazil registered the world's second-highest number of infections after the United States―, and his racist comments about minorities.10

The 2022 Brazilian presidential election was a head-to-head race between Bolsonaro and Lula, and the latter returned to the presidency with the narrowest margin of victory in Brazilian history. He took office in January 2023. President Lula, who repeats on many occasions that "Brazil is back," returned his country to CELAC by attending the community's summit meeting in Argentina (January 2023) and demonstrated his commitment to rebuilding UNASUR by holding a South American Summit in his country (May 2023). He is also proactive in diplomacy toward emerging and developing countries outside the region. However, there is a wide disagreement between supporters and opponents within the administration of the One Belt One Road initiative, in which many Latin American countries have already participated. While President Lula and the people near him look forward to participation,11 there is a keen sense of caution among those in Itamaraty (a colloquial reference to the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs), which wielded a strong influence on the formulation and decision of foreign policy.12 There are pragmatic calculations from Itamaraty as to whether Brazil's participation in the One Belt One Road initiative would truly promote the country's economic interest. Brazil can accomplish resource development and infrastructure investment without support from China.

The Ukraine question will be a major test for President Lula in his quest for prestige among the emerging powers. Brazil will not align itself with the other BRICS nations in voting at the UN General Assembly, nor will it align itself with the West on economic sanctions against Russia or arms sales to Ukraine. This diplomatic stance, which does not make unnecessary consideration for either camp, has been consistent since the era of the Bolsonaro administration. On February 15, 2022, just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Bolsonaro made an official visit to Russia as planned, dismissing opposition from the United States and other countries. Yet, Brazil voted in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution criticizing Russia following the Russian aggression. Brazil's stance of neutrality sometimes appeared equivocal; in March 2022, President Bolsonaro stated that he would not take sides. However, in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2022, he called for an "immediate ceasefire" in Ukraine.

President Lula is attempting to play a pivotal role in bringing about a ceasefire in Ukraine. His caliber and the odds of success are, frankly speaking, unknown, but his political stance is energetic. President Lula dispatched his right-hand advisor, Amorim, who had served as foreign minister during his first administration and is now his diplomatic advisor, to Moscow and Kyiv to present peace proposals to Presidents Putin and Zelensky in March and May 2023, respectively. Before this, on February 10, 2023, during his visit to the United States, President Lula presented to President Biden the idea of creating a "peace club" to mediate ceasefire negotiations, and on February 24, 2023, the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he made public this initiative. In a joint statement with President Biden, President Lula expressly criticized Russia, saying that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a grave violation of international law. In April 2023, President Lula, impatient for a ceasefire deal, went so far as to say that both sides were responsible for the war; he was harshly criticized by President Zelensky. On the occasion of the G7 Summit held in Hiroshima in May 2023, President Lula had not been informed of President Zelensky's visit to Japan until he decided on his participation in the summit. Incidentally, the Lula-Zelensky meeting, which did not take place in Hiroshima, was held for more than an hour in New York on the occasion of the UN General Assembly in September 2023.


Brazil adamantly opposes any change in the status quo by force or any exertion of political pressure backed by military force―whether it be done by the United States, Russia, or NATO. This may be accounted for by the historical experience of Latin America, which was repeatedly subjected to the hegemonic power of the United States. In the past, Latin America underwent several civil wars and violent social conflicts; in this sense, it has been anything but a peaceful continent. Nonetheless, it has not experienced any intra-regional military conflict since the Chaco War (Paraguay-Bolivia War, 1932-35) in the first half of the 20th century. Opinions may differ in thinking about whether such "peace" should be considered an asset to be proud of or a result of insensitivity to the harsh realities of territorial disputes. But the question seems to have much to do with Brazil's diplomatic stance.

Brazil firmly resists the monopoly of power by the Western developed countries to shape the global order. But it simultaneously emphasizes building pragmatic and interdependent relationships with those countries, never aiming to form "opposing forces." This stance differs from China, which seeks to become the apex of the socialist pole in the international community through the "One Belt One Road" initiative, or from India, which hosted the Voice of the Global South Summit in January 2023, excluding G20 member states. Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina did not participate in the Summit. Brazil's efforts to build a "world of equals" rather than a "divided world" are commendable but are somewhat idealistic. President Lula's "peace club" initiative to broker a ceasefire in Ukraine is no more than an idealistic scheme at this point. In 2024, Brazil will take over the G20 presidency. We should look forward to Brazil's leadership in the G20, but many difficult questions are awaiting it.

(Professor, Dokkyo University)

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