democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Western reaction to Lula’s speech on Ukraine shows the Global South’s power

The US has accused Brazil of siding with Russia, but Lula’s official neutrality has more to do with China

Manuella Libardi
20 April 2023, 9.00am
While in China, Lula argued that the Biden administration is 'encouraging war' by arming Ukraine

Ken Ishii/Getty Images

During his visit to China in mid-April, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva moved Brazil's pawn on the international chessboard. While continuing to promote an official position of neutrality on Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Brazilian president criticised the US’s role, arguing that the Biden administration is “encouraging war” by arming Ukraine.

Lula’s statements reverberated negatively across Ukraine and parts of the Global North, which interpreted them as a position in support of Russia. Just weeks earlier, Lula had already suggested that Ukraine cede Crimea to end the war.

“Ukraine appreciates the efforts of the Brazilian president to find a solution to stop Russian aggression,” declared Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko. “At the same time, we have to clearly note: Ukraine does not trade its territories.”

Lula's speech prompted an even stronger response from the US, where government figures claimed Lula is contradicting his supposed neutrality and is in opposition to Washington. They are not entirely wrong; Lula appears more interested in promoting Brazil as a key player in the reordering of global powers than in maintaining its relationship with its powerful northern neighbour.

The Brazilian president's positioning confirms the regional trend of a geopolitical shift away from US hegemony. This started with the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico in 2018, gained strength with the elections of Alberto Fernández in Argentina in 2019 and Gustavo Boric in Chile in 2021, and was consolidated by Lula’s rise to power in Brazil and Gustavo Petro’s in Colombia in 2022.

China also plays a vital role in this process. At the turn of the 21st century, the US turned its attention away from Latin America to focus on its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a move that contributed to the election of the so-called ‘pink tide’ of Latin American leaders, who questioned the region’s historic and complicated relationship with the US.

Washington’s declining influence in the region did not go unnoticed by China. Between 2000 and 2020, trade between China and Latin America increased 26-fold, from $12bn to $315bn. China's share of Brazilian exports also soared from under 2% to over 32%. In 2000, China was not even one of Brazil's top five trading partners; in 2022, it’s the biggest, importing twice as many Brazilian exports as the US, Brazil’s second-largest trading partner.

The US knows it must regain ground lost to China in its own ‘backyard’ and that Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, is important to doing so. This means Washington cannot be seen to be too critical of Brasilia.

Lula’s diplomatic aspirations

The ideological charge of Lula’s recent statements is complicated. The president could have refrained from taking a position on the war in Ukraine, but staying out of the most relevant geopolitical event of recent years is not in his interests for Brazil's diplomatic ambitions.

As the country’s leader between 2003 and 2010, Lula directed Brazil’s foreign policy towards fortifying global multipolarity through the BRICS grouping (made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and other alliances with countries from the Global South. Now, trying to return Brazil to the international stage after four years of Jair Bolsonaro's isolationist government, Lula proposes to work with other neutral Global South states, such as India and Indonesia, to serve as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia.

Lula’s choice of India and Indonesia is no accident, these are the most populous countries in the world other than China and the US. The president of Brazil – the sixth-most populous country – is sending a message that the representatives of millions upon millions of people have chosen not to take sides with Russia or Ukraine.

The war has been understood by the West as a straightforward conflict between the ‘good guys’ (ultimate defenders of democracy and human rights) versus the ‘bad guys’ (authoritarian tyrants). But much of the Global South – which survives the inequalities produced by past and present colonialism on a daily basis – is reluctant to embrace its Western executioners as the defenders of the just cause.

Ukraine, however, has embraced this rhetoric, with President Zelenskyi claiming in a February speech that Russia is a threat to the European “way of life”, which is based on “rules, values, equality and fairness”. Ukraine's position of appealing to the moral issue as a uniquely European attribute has been a mistake. Although the US and Western Europe maintain their hegemonic position on the global stage, the bloc has been losing ground since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

Brazil and the new global order

In Brazil, a highly polarised country, this position of neutrality on the war in Ukraine cuts across political ideologies. In fact, it seems to have been the only issue on which Bolsonaro and Lula agreed during the 2022 election campaign.

Despite his authoritarian tendencies, Bolsonaro had rejected relations with China in order to move closer to Donald Trump's United States. And as president at the time of the Russian invasion, he chose to not explicitly condemn Russia. Lula also failed to criticise Vladimir Putin, opting instead to use ambivalent language to criticise all wars and invasions.

Brazil is not a world power, but the countries of the Global South know that, collectively, they have power

Here again, we see Brazil's pragmatism on the issue. The country is a major agricultural exporter and depends on fertilisers from Russia for its agribusiness, which is a nationally important political player.

The power of Western powers is undeniable, but it is also undeniable that the world is increasingly moving towards multipolarity. Brazil is not a world power, but the countries of the Global South know that, collectively, they have power.

The various examples of alliances have illustrated the phenomenon, with both successes and failures. Most notable perhaps is the BRICS. The cooperation bloc is betting on resurgence and renewal, with Algeria, Argentina and Iran all seeking membership.

Ukraine seems, finally, to have taken notice. The country's foreign ministry has spoken out several times after Lula's comments in China; last week, ministry spokesman Nikolenko invited Lula to visit Ukraine to understand “the real causes and essence of Russian aggression and its consequences for world security”.

For many in the West, Brazilian diplomacy is “ambitious and naive” (as The Economist opined). Naive or not, the West is now paying attention – and seems concerned with the diplomatic aspirations of the populous Global South.

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