Brazil and the War in Ukraine: Between Apology and Utopia

Brazil and the War in Ukraine: Between Apology and Utopia

Brazil is back. After four years of retrenchment, the new Lula government seems ready to assume, once again, a key position in the international stage. This is a role that Lula knows how to play well. His previous government created the now defunct Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), meant as a counter-weight to a US-dominated OAS. By the time he left office, the region had even recognised the State of Palestine, a clear sign of how much he had successfully de-US-ified South America.

Now that he is back in government, Lula is at it again. He has reinstated Brazilian membership in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), sought to host the COP 30 in 2025, and, after years of worsening news about his predecessor’s lack of commitment to the Amazon (even leading Foreign Policy to pen an article entitled “who will invade Brazil to save the Amazon?”), he has revamped Brazil’s anti-deforestation policies.

Foreign policy is something that, at least as appearances seem to indicate, comes easy for Lula. Throughout his 8 years in office (2003-2010), he oversaw the country’s famous “take-off” and put Brazil in the diplomatic map. This presented quite a few challenges for a country that saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as a dangerous development that risked unwanted US interventionism in South America. Ever since the 1990s, Brazil’s foreign policy has been one of “non-alignment” vis-à-vis the West, developing a “flexible and ambiguous international posture, avoiding the ties of strategic alliances or excessive proximity to Washington, Beijing or any other pole of power”. It is also a foreign policy, like any other in Latin America, rooted in non-interventionism and a restrictive interpretation of jus ad bellum.

Brazil, therefore, had to come up with a way to accommodate this non-aligned non-interventionism with Lula’s increasing desire to play a relevant role in world affairs. The result was what Brazilian diplomatic circles call the policy of “non-indifference”. As Lula’s own Foreign Minister phrased it in a 2005 speech:

“Brazilian diplomacy is structured around the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. The Government of President Lula has associated to this basic principle an attitude that we describe as ‘non-indifference’. We have lent our active support and solidarity in crisis situations, whenever we are invited and we think we can play a positive role” (my translation).

Lula’s principle of non-indifference has guided Brazil’s foreign policy ever since. It allowed Brazil to set out a robust defence of non-intervention and the prohibition of the use of force, while at the same time take an active role in discussions of peace and security. Brazil’s concept of a “Responsibility while Protecting” – a direct challenge to R2P – or its leadership in peacekeeping efforts in Haiti are the most often-cited examples of “non-indifference” in practice.

And yet much has changed in the 20 years since Lula first came to office. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Brazil condemned the use of force without Security Council authorisation. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Brazil did the same. So, when Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, Brazil’s pre-Lula diplomacy tried the same reliable recipe: Non-aligned non-indifferent non-interventionism seen as strict neutrality and a call for peaceful solutions.

This worked well for Bolsonaro, who was more focused on internal than global affairs. But with Lula back in power, the West demanded a bigger commitment, including sending weapons to Ukraine. This has presented Brazil’s policy of non-aligned non-indifference with new challenges.

Lula has gone on record calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “a historic mistake” and his government recently voted in support of a UNGA resolution calling for a “lasting peace in Ukraine in line with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations”. Brazil’s contribution to the draft text, operative paragraph five, demands that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders”, calling for a cessation of hostilities.

At the same time, Lula has emphatically refused to send weapons in support of Ukraine’s war effort or join into Western sanctions against Russia. In fact, before assuming the Presidency, Lula severely criticised Western sanctions, calling it a blockade: “those who are dying are not those who are in war”, he said. In reality, the “blockade” was “not harming Russians or the US”, but all other countries, because of the rise in oil prices and the scarcity in fertilisers. The US and the EU are free to blockade Russian goods, he said, but “why must Bolivia suffer from this blockade?” (my translation).

Lula has a point. Peru, 12,000 kilometres away from Kyiv, is very close to a veritable hunger crisis, since lack of access to urea during a time of drought threatened a collapse of essential food stocks like rice, potato and corn. With prizes going up and supplies dwindling down, it is reasonable to speculate that the negative effects of the war in Ukraine were an important catalyst in the mass protests the Andean country experienced early in the year.

So far, Lula’s non-aligned non-indifference has taken the shape of a proposal for international mediation, led by a group of neutral countries that can bring Russia and Ukraine closer to peace. Russia’s response was emphatic: to negotiate, Kyiv must stop shelling Russian cities; i.e. Ukrainian territory, unlawfully annexed by the Kremlin – a blatant violation of the international rules that Lula is professing to defend. A few days later, Russia made it clear that, at least for the moment, it does not see a peaceful solution to the crisis.

Brazil has sought to water down this rebuke. In a press release, the Minister of Foreign Relations, Mauro Vieira, noted that Brazil “does not enter the ongoing debate with the intention of presenting a ready-made solution” but to “listen and to discuss with countries and blocks willing to explore the path of understanding”. And yet, the insistence on good faith solutions with a bad faith actor, especially in the face of brazen aggression, crimes against humanity and even potential genocide, is eroding the fundamental claim of Brazilian foreign policy that it is not indifferent to Ukraine’s suffering or Russia’s violations of international law. At some point, either Brazil engages Russia with more than mere utopian rhetoric or it accepts that, in the case of a close BRICS partner, it has chosen de facto apology.

This will not be an easy choice. Unlike any other Latin American state, Brazil is at the cusp of achieving so-called “great power” status in world affairs. Latin America’s long history of non-interference and anti-imperialism, of which Brazil is very much a part of, was born out of the realization of the region’s unequal standing in international relations. In a unipolar world, this meant a foreign policy focused on using international law to constrain hegemonic political power. The more Brazil transforms itself into a major player in a multipolar world, the more it wears down this bottom up strategy.

Brazilian scholar, Oliver Stuenkel, argues that this multipolar world is slowly transitioning into what he calls a “Post-Western World”. Post-Western, it should be noted, “not as the total subversion of the values, rules and norms commonly – if erroneously – associated exclusively with the West, but with a situation in which the structural axis, leadership – the defining component of these rules and norms – will no longer be centred solely on Western figures”. Thus, world politics, he argues, should be seen not as a corruption of the West’s rule-based liberal international order, but as an era where emerging powers “are quietly crafting the initial building blocks of what we may call a ‘parallel order’ that will initially complement, and later possibly challenge, today’s international institutions”, not because they have different ideas about how to address global problems or because they seek to change existing rules, but because they seek to “better project their power, just as Western actors have done before them”.

In other words, the Post-Western World is one that will likely keep the existing rules of the liberal world order, but the hierarchy of who gets to break them with impunity will be sifted. Thus, “while today it is the United States that can break the rules and go unpunished, this privilege will soon be China’s and possibly one day that of other emerging powers”.

When seen in this light, Brazil’s non-aligned, non-interfering non-indifference starts to look increasingly out of step with Lula’s international ambitions. If Russia’s invasion is a (perhaps still too premature) attempt to test the waters of a Post-Western World, then Brazil may eventually need to choose: will it deploy its stalwart defence of international rules the same way it deployed them against the unilateral hegemon, only this time trying to keep the BRICS honest as an emerging (Latin American) power still operating from the bottom up, or will it accept its role as part of this select group of nations trying to obtain exceptional status and offer empty rhetoric while letting Russia (and eventually the other BRICS) get away with violating international law? In essence, will it choose apology, utopia or something entirely in between?

For the time being, this is a problem for the (not so distant) future, but it is a problem nonetheless. In the coming months, Brazil is set to participate in both the BRICS Summit in South Africa and the G7 meeting in Japan. It will need to play a delicate and awkward balancing game in each – keeping the BRICS from being too pro-Russia and the G7 from being too anti-Russia. No other Latin American nation has ever been in such a crossroads before. It will be interesting, going forward, to see Brazil’s traditionally skilled and talented diplomacy tackling the challenges of the Post-Western World.    

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General, Latin & South America, Use of Force
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