Published November 28, 2022 by Mariana Negreiros Mariano, IIEL Program Associate and Jacob Shively, Associate Professor in the Department of Government at the University of West Florida.

In a remarkable turn, Brazil’s former two-term president, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva—known universally as Lula—won Brazil’s 2022 presidential election. Will he also return his prior ambitions to refashion Brazil as an internationalist rising power? The election itself was razor-thin, with the final votes for each candidate separated by less than two percentage points. Whereas Lula is a leftist who espoused relatively moderate policies in office, his opponent, Jair Bolsonaro, is a classic nationalist who expressly modeled much of his approach after former US president Donald Trump. (At one point, he even live-streamed himself taking notes on a Trump speech.) In Trump fashion, Bolsonaro approached foreign policy as a set of bilateral relationships in which perceived cultural threats and personal political affinities might carry nearly as much weight as trade concerns. On balance, though, Bolsonaro remained inward-focused and saw key players in, for example, the military as important for preserving domestic order. By contrast, Lula emphasized working with and through international institutions as well as building Brazil’s diplomatic and even military capabilities. 

Our research suggests that both presidents’ grand strategy visions were constrained by existing commitments and larger realities. Looking forward, these findings suggest that Lula may once again work to reorient Brazil away from Bolsonaro’s nationalism; however, Lula’s ambitions are likely to be moderated based on lessons learned in prior administrations and the national inertia that channels all grand strategy ambitions.

I. Background

Our study compared three cases of Brazilian foreign policy: two administrations under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-04 and 2007-08) and the Jair Messias Bolsonaro administration (2019-2022). We focused on each term’s first two years, when precedents are set and major changes more likely, and we applied an emerging analytical framework dubbed “grand strategy analysis” (GSA). This approach allows observers to evaluate governments’ foreign policies based upon the individuals making decisions, setting agendas, and promulgating rhetoric. This approach not only offers insight into the flow of Brazilian grand strategy but also offers a simple means to study grand strategies consistently across the global north and south. This framework is “agent-centered,” meaning that grand strategy can be observed among individual decision makers and other leaders.[1] By treating grand strategy as an empirical phenomenon that we can observe as a pattern of thought as policy, we break that phenomenon into three dimensions that we could observe in any administration or time period. These dimensions are 

  • Scope, referring to the geographic parameters, adversaries, and allies where leaders’ rhetoric and policy overlap;
  • Substance, referring to the strategy’s ideological content, from domestic priorities to national interests to a theory of international politics; and
  • Assertiveness, referring to the level of military engagement and the degree to which leaders emphasize diplomacy versus coercion or aggression.

II. Lula Administrations: 2003-04 and 2007-08

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defied expectations. On the one hand, an established leftist, he sought to gain greater independence from Global North governments, foster Global South cooperation, and reorient global power structures. On the other hand, he also advocated increasing Mercosul’s influence, expanding trade with Europe and the United States, and a permanent seat for Brazil in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). His policy proposals were oriented around free-market growth for businesses and government programs for the poor. These included employment programs, tax reform, wider income distribution, and establishing a new relationship between government, workers, and entrepreneurs. [2] Lula also—flipping traditional priorities of his Workers party—adopted a neoliberal economic policy encouraging internationalization of Brazilian companies. [3]  To justify this left-right balance, he explained, “Brazil needs businessmen, and it will provide all the necessary incentives, but this will be the country of production and not speculation”. [4] Hal Brands characterized this approach as “soft balancing, coalition building, and seeking to position Brazil as the leader of a more united South America”. [5] Vigevani and Cepaluni simplify the approach as “autonomy through diversification”. [6]

Overcoming a corruption scandal and advertising his achievements, Lula started his second term with political capital, consistent political rhetoric, and a mature foreign policy approach. [7] Over the next two years, Lula’s strategic agenda largely carried forward from his prior administration: hunger and poverty, Global South cooperation, multilateral trade negotiations, reform of the United Nations Security Council, and expanding Mercosul. [8] Lula continued pushing for a new world order with greater consideration for developing countries and less power concentrated in Washington, D.C. Rhetorically, Brazil defended regional democracy, integration, and development under its own leadership even as Argentina continued to resist singular Brazilian leadership. Lula also pushed greater military investment, such as greater protection for the “Blue Amazon,” Brazil’s ecologically rich coastal Exclusive Economic Zone. [9]

These ambitions soon reached limitations. In practical terms, Brazil could not sustain these commitments. Failures included a push for presidency of the International Labor Organization, the director general position of the WTO, and a proposal—resisted by Brazil’s South American neighbor—for a free trade agreement between the United States and Mercosul. [10] Despite growing trade relations, the Chinese never backed Brazil’s reform ambitions. Brazil represented and defended human rights, but associations with countries like Cuba and Iran weakened its public image. [11] In trade negotiations, Lula sought to combine other rising states in an “anti-hegemonic” position; however, China and India, in particular, held incompatible priorities on issues like agriculture protectionism and high subsidies. [12] Meanwhile, many Asian countries were enjoying massive economic benefits from commercial ties to the Global North. Lacking the military and economic resources of a great power, Lula and his team struggled to justify the strategic logic of aligning with weaker and poorer states. [13] Further, though Brazil qualifies as a regional leader along many dimensions, it lacks a foundational acceptance as a leader from other lead states like Argentina and Colombia and even risked accusations of “imperialist” behavior.

III. Bolsonaro Administration, 2019-2020

President Jair Messias Bolsonaro represents a stark break with Lula’s politics. Campaigning after two subsequent presidents, the Workers Party and Lula himself fell into corruptions scandals, Bolsonaro claimed an ambition to protect “traditional values,” and in office, he broke with Brazil’s existing foreign policy trends by seeking out new partnerships and new positions on international issues. Campaigning, he upended existing foreign policy positions. He declared that “China does not buy in Brazil. China is buying Brazil” and extended support for Taiwan. [14] He emphasized bilateral relations over multilateralism and also advocated leaving the Paris Agreement, UN Human Rights Council, and the UN Global Compact for Migration. Within Bolsonaro’s coalition, the military, economic liberals, and the “Olavistas” vied for power, but the latter group embodied the new president’s unique ideological influence. [15] Following polemicist Olavo de Carvalho, they held that Judeo-Christian civilization and, in turn, Western institutions like the UN and WTO are contaminated by “globalism” and “cultural Marxism,” a concept now pitched by Carvalho’s followers as a far-right conspiracy theory. Implicated movements include women’s and LGBTQ rights, gun control, abortion rights, secularism, and environmentalism. [16]

In practice, this approach flipped Lula’s priorities. South American leadership and the Global South lost their previous emphasis and gave way to greater prioritization on right-wing governments, such as Bolivia’s and Uruguay’s, over Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. [17] In his visit to the United States, Bolsonaro abandoned Brazil’s special treatment in WTO negotiations in exchange for President Trump’s support for Brazil to enter the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). [18] Other arrangements included trade deals, military purchases, and support for Iran that matched Trump’s strategic agenda but lacked clear Brazilian strategic logic. [19] Closer to home, the Amazon rainforest emerged as a global issue when France’s President Emmanuel Macron suggested giving it international status and, later, Germany and Norway withdrew environmental funds based on Brasilia’s relatively laissez faire response to massive wildfires. [20] Bolsonaro emphasized Brazilian sovereignty, accused Europeans of colonial thinking, and argued that the region was available for economic use. [21] Facing stagnant economic growth at home, during his 2019 visit to Beijing, Bolsonaro dropped much of his confrontational talk and signed several trade agreements. He also used talks between Mercosul and the European Union (EU) to push the former from a social to a commercial focus. In the UN Human Rights Council, Brazil’s delegation advocated traditional values and religious freedom over “human rights.” Still, Bolsonaro reaffirmed Brazil’s willingness to contribute to UN peacekeeping operations and praised economic openness, all framed within Brazil’s sovereign prerogatives. [22] 

IV. 2022 Brazilian Elections

The 2022 Brazilian vote revealed a divided Brazil, as Lula won the second round with 50.9% against Bolsonaro’s 49.1%. Still, with more than sixty million votes, Lula received the largest single vote tally in Brazilian history. In announcing his victory, Lula declared a version of US President’s Biden’s campaign catchphrase: “Brazil is back.” He has said that he will continue his previous foreign policy plan to make Brazil a protagonist in international politics, work on multilateral relations with developing and Global South states, especially Africa, and reinvigorate protection of the Amazon. In fact, Norway and Germany already announced the return of their Amazon contributions. Lula declared his intention to travel to South American countries, the US, the EU, and China before assuming the presidency again in 2023. He wishes to restore Brazil’s relationships on equal respect and aims to be part of a multilateral international organizations and work to end the war in Ukraine. Still, Lula raised concerns among Ukraine’s supporters in May when he insisted that Ukraine’s President Zelensky and even President Biden bore equal responsibility with Russian president Vladimir Putin for the war. Moving forward, Lula will face many challenges to accomplish his foreign policy strategy. Brazil, as before, does may lack necessary resources to sustain Lula’s ambitions. Besides international challenges, Lula will also face challenges with a divided Brazil. Half of the population is unhappy to see the presidency held by an ex-convict who was part of one of the country’s biggest corruption schemes that not only hurt the multinational petroleum company Petrobras but shook Brazil’s entire political establishment.

V. Findings and Conclusions

The GSA framework helps organize and evaluate these cases. In terms of scope, President Lula sought to expand Brazil’s geographic extent to a wider variety of countries and country types, from rich Europe to developing Africa. Regarding allies, he focused on South-South cooperation with special attention to Cuba, Bolivia, and Argentina as well as other middle-income states like China, India, and Russia. Still, despite Lula’s conciliatory, inclusive rhetoric, Brazil still found itself—especially during Lula’s second term—grappling with conflicts across its region. Bolsonaro, by contrast, shrank Brazil’s good neighbor approach and reoriented foreign policy around bilateral economic interests and right-wing governments. Drawing inspiration from Donald Trump’s style of nationalism, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and policies provoked adversarial responses from governments in Europe and elsewhere. Further, he considered anyone with “globalist” and “socialist” beliefs to be a Brazilian adversary.

Regarding substance, Lula’s terms remained remarkably consistent; however, their intensity differed. In 2003-2004, Lula concentrated on social causes and development, whereas in 2007-2008, the administration emphasized Brazilian power and interests. For instance, during both, Brazil sought a position in the UNSC. Lula sought multilateral relations with developing and Global South states, but his rhetoric and assertive diplomatic engagement also welcomed greater accord between the Global North and South. In his formulation, hunger and poverty were directly tied to Brazil’s and the world’s security. He pushed for South American leadership but key neighbors such as Argentina resisted. By contrast, Bolsonaro’s nationalist approach often reversed these sensibilities. In South America and beyond, he emphasized sovereignty and bilateral relations rather than leadership and multilateralism. He appealed to “traditional values” and conspiracy theories in order to place Brazil as an agent defending Western civilization. 

Despite these differences, both administrations displayed a low force level on assertiveness because neither perceived direct nor distant security threats; however, in his first term, Lula did take some initial, ultimately isolated efforts to expand Brazil’s military capability in order to improve the country’s case for a permanent UNSC seat. Rather, diplomacy and dialogue were Lula’s security strategy when, for instance, he insisted that the Palestine conflict could be resolved with serious engagement from both sides. Interestingly, despite his strong talk and military connections, Bolsonaro saw little need to build Brazilian military capabilities. Rather, his strategy for the military was inward-focused: he sought to build domestic political support with higher salaries and greater access to senior government offices.

We argue that Lula was an internationalist and Bolsonaro a nationalist, yet both were constrained by Brazil’s commitments and capabilities as they assumed office, and neither fundamentally reordered Brazil’s position in the world. Each president’s tone, ambition, and content dramatically diverged, but that alone proved insufficient to fundamentally change Brazilian grand strategy. Despite expectations among supporters and adversaries that he would prove a strictly ideological leftist, Lula fostered relatively moderate liberal—sometimes characterized as “neoliberal”—administrations. In foreign policy, Lula reached for economic and political approaches that included working with international organizations and private sector trade. By contrast, Bolsonaro’s grand strategy assumed state sovereignty and civilizational/cultural values should guide Brazil’s domestic and foreign priorities. Pragmatic but rarely focused on trade, Bolsonaro saw the “globalist” environment as a threat and pursued foreign affairs as an appendage of his domestic political fights. Lula brought and consistently applied a consistent strategic agenda that sometimes fell awkwardly between left and right and sometimes exceeded Brazil’s capabilities. By contrast, Bolsonaro’s approach limited Brazil’s ambitions. Ideologically, rather than cooperation and mutual benefit, it espoused defending Western Civilization as a set of cultural priorities and aligning with Trump’s United States. 

For Brazil, neither leader dramatically reworked the country’s global status. Perhaps if applied consistently over multiple administrations, one or both strategies might create the outcomes leaders hoped to achieve; yet, in practice, both Lula and Bolsonaro shifted Brazil’s grand strategy at its margins rather than its core. Brazil’s basic status among peers as well as its economic, political, and security interests remained relatively stable in a broader historical context. Now, we wait to see the next chapters in Brazilian history with Lula as president again. If the analysis above holds, we are likely to see Lula’s internationalism once again guide Brazil’s high-profile priorities, but in this new term, that ambition will be limited not just by the familiar constraints of national capabilities and international politics but also a tightly balanced domestic politics now transformed by Bolsonaro’s nationalism.


[1] Shively, Jacob. 2020. Make America First Again : Grand Strategy Analysis and the Trump Administration. Rapid Communications in Conflict and Security Series. Amherst, New York: Cambria Press.

[2]Horário Eleitoral: Presidente Brasil.” 2002.

[3] Vidigal, Carlos Eduardo. 2020. “Interview conducted by Mariana Negreiros Mariano.”

[4] Vidigal, Carlos Eduardo. 2020. “Interview conducted by Mariana Negreiros Mariano.”

[5]  Brands, Hal. 2011. “Evaluating Brazilian Grand Strategy under Lula.” Comparative Strategy 30 (1): 28–49.

[6] Vigevani, Tullo, and Gabriel Cepaluni. 2007. “A Política Externa de Lula Da Silva: A Estratégia Da Autonomia Pela Diversificação.” Contexto Internacional 29 (2): 273–335.

[7] Casarões, Guilherme. 2020. “Interview conducted by Mariana Negreiros Mariano.”

[8] Lídia Domingues Peixoto Prado. 2007. “A politica externa do primeiro governo Lula (2003-2006).” Mestre em Relações Internacionais, São Paulo, Brazil: Universidade Estadual de Campinas.

[9] Saraiva, Miriam Gomes. 2020a. “The Democratic Regime and the Changes in Brazilian Foreign Policy towards South America.” Brazilian Political Science Review 14 (3): e0001.

[10] Lídia Domingues Peixoto Prado. 2007. “A politica externa do primeiro governo Lula (2003-2006).” Mestre em Relações Internacionais, São Paulo, Brazil: Universidade Estadual de Campinas.

[11] Almeida, Paulo Roberto de. 2010. “Never before Seen in Brazil: Luis Inácio Lula Da Silva’s Grand Diplomacy.” Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional 53 (2): 160–77.

[12] Almeida, Paulo Roberto de. 2010. “Never before Seen in Brazil: Luis Inácio Lula Da Silva’s Grand Diplomacy.” Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional 53 (2): 160–77.

[13] Vidigal, Carlos Eduardo. 2020. “Interview conducted by Mariana Negreiros Mariano.”

[14] Casarões, Guilherme. 2020. “Interview conducted by Mariana Negreiros Mariano.”

[15] Lopes, Dawisson Belém. 2020. “De-Westernization, Democratization, Disconnection: The Emergence of Brazil’s Post-Diplomatic Foreign Policy.” Global Affairs 6 (2): 167–84.

[16] Saraiva, Miriam Gomes. 2020a. “The Democratic Regime and the Changes in Brazilian Foreign Policy towards South America.” Brazilian Political Science Review 14 (3): e0001.

[17] Carolina Furquim. 2019. “Política Externa Na América Latina e as Rupturas Com Velhos Modelos.” Latin American Business Stories.; Desideri, Leonardo. 2020. “O Que Bolsonaro Fez Na Política Externa Em 2019.” Gazeta Do Povo.; Nolte, Detlef, and Luis L. Schenoni. 2021. “To Lead or Not to Lead: Regional Powers and Regional Leadership.” International Politics, October.

[18] Casarões, Guilherme. 2020. “Interview conducted by Mariana Negreiros Mariano”; Reich, Simon. 2019. “Trade Outcomes from the Trump-Bolsonaro Meeting: More Than Meets the Eye?” Center for Strategic and International Studies.

[19] Desideri, Leonardo. 2020. “O Que Bolsonaro Fez Na Política Externa Em 2019.” Gazeta Do Povo.; Saraiva, Miriam Gomes. 2020a. “The Democratic Regime and the Changes in Brazilian Foreign Policy towards South America.” Brazilian Political Science Review 14 (3): e0001.

[20] Saraiva, Miriam Gomes, and Álvaro Vicente Costa Silva. 2019. “Ideologia e Pragmatismo Na Política Externa De Jair Bolsonaro.” Relações Internacionais 64: 117-137.

[21] “Speech by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro at the Opening of the 74th United Nations General Assembly – New York, September 24, 2019.” 2019. Ministério Das Relações Exteriores.; Saraiva, Miriam Gomes, and Álvaro Vicente Costa Silva. 2019. “Ideologia e Pragmatismo Na Política Externa De Jair Bolsonaro.” Relações Internacionais 64: 117-137.; “Brazilian President Speaks out against ‘Media Lies’ Surrounding Amazon Fires.” 2019. UN News.; Desideri, Leonardo. 2020. “O Que Bolsonaro Fez Na Política Externa Em 2019.” Gazeta Do Povo.

[22] “Na ONU, Presidente Jair Bolsonaro Apresenta ‘Um Novo Brasil.’” 2019. OUN News.