Brazexit: Bolsonaro’s nationalism and the denial of Brazilian international autonomy

Brazilian foreign policy is one of the best examples of the difficulties in using Brazilian nationalism to effectively shape public policy.

Brazexit: Bolsonaro’s nationalism and the denial of Brazilian international autonomy
Bolsonaro’s new emphasis on Brazilian nationalism, on the other hand, has proved difficult to translate into national policies. (Reuters photo)

By Gustavo Rojas and Lucas Arce

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro was elected under the slogan “Brazil above everything, God above everyone.” Based on Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign and base of voters, political analysts supposed that the new Brazilian government would enact policies inspired by a modern reinterpretation of the 1970s Brazilian dictatorship’s nationalism as well as evangelical religious views predominant in a good portion of his supporters. Since Bolsonaro took power, only the second part of this hypothesis has been validated: evangelical views and values are starting to shape the political debate and – more worryingly – being considered in the conception of public policies of this government. Bolsonaro’s new emphasis on Brazilian nationalism, on the other hand, has proved difficult to translate into national policies.

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Brazilian foreign policy is one of the best examples of the difficulties in using Brazilian nationalism to effectively shape public policy. The first nine months of the new Brazilian government do not display a foreign policy-oriented by a ‘Brazil First’ strategy. Rather, Bolsonaro’s foreign policy is characterized by its lack of clear course, its unprecedented adherence to American interests – that do not necessarily advance Brazilian ones – and its improvisation. So far, the foreign policy strategy led by the Foreign ministry aims to align Brazil with the United States’ foreign policy and mirrors discursively Trump’s new pugnacious attitude towards globalization. This strategy clashes directly with the liberal project advocated by the economic team of Bolsonaro’s government, which pursues a Brazilian economy fully integrated into the global markets. This new foreign policy has been most notably depicted at the regional level, especially regarding Brazilian positions on the Venezuelan crisis and Brazilian-Argentine relations.

Brazil’s new position on the Venezuelan regime, advocating for intervention in that country aligns Brazil with the United States’ position and leaves BRICS’ more neutral position behind. Brazil’s interventionist position has led to the fragmentation of the Lima Group, and the abandonment of the more institutionalized and inclusive UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) in favor of PROSUR (Forum for the Progress of South America), a new regional organization marked by its blurred objectives and temporary ideological alignment. Furthermore, last month Brazil pushed for the activation of the TIAR (Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance) against Venezuela in the Organization of American States. TIAR is an agreement for reciprocal military assistance that can be enacted when one American signatory suffers military aggression from another country. This controversial measure could lead to military intervention in Venezuela, a result that can potentially destabilize the whole region. Brazilian support of this measure raises questions about Bolsonaro’s handling of this delicate regional security issue that could gain unimagined dimensions if there were a war in a neighboring country.

The volatility of Bolsonaro’s foreign policy approach is clearly observed in his management of Brazilian relations with Argentina. Since the 1980s, Brazil’s foreign policy on Argentina consisted of pursuing an increasingly close relationship. Brazilian-Argentine ties have been key to the stabilization of democratic regimes in both countries, the pacification of the southern cone, and the establishment of South America’s most important economic bloc, Mercosur. Rather than relying on a well-established policy of the Brazilian state, Bolsonaro kept this long-term position over Argentina because of an ideological affinity with the current Argentine president, the liberal Mauricio Macri. Now that Macri’s chances of being re-elected this year appear slim, Bolsonaro has threatened to break this successful policy instead of figuring how to coordinate with an Argentine president with a different ideology. For example, in an unprecedented case of Brazilian intervention in the internal affairs of its main neighbor, President Bolsonaro and his foreign affairs minister have publicly declared that Argentina will enter into chaos if Macri is not reelected. Furthermore, Bolsonaro has declared that Brazil will consider leaving Mercosur if the Peronist party’s candidate Alberto Fernández, currently leading in the polls, wins the Argentine elections. Breaking political ties with the next Argentine administration might be a major obstacle for the implementation of the recently signed free trade agreement between Mercosur and the European Union, as well as a great setback in the regional trust-building process.

Environmental issues have also been affected by Bolsonaro’s dysfunctional foreign policy. While declaring that he is acting in the national interest, he has taken steps that may harm Brazil’s long-term interests. First, Bolsonaro’s administration has disregarded Brazil’s commitments in the Paris Agreement, which might affect the implementation of the EU-Mercosur agreement, affecting the interests of other Mercosur countries. Moreover, Bolsonaro rejected improperly a US$ 20 million aid package offered by the G-7 to fight the Amazon rainforest fires, considering the gesture a potential intervention from foreign powers.

With this erratic foreign policy in the making, Brazil assumed the BRICS presidency in 2019, establishing cooperation in science and technology as the central theme of the year. Paradoxically, Bolsonaro’s administration has damaged Brazil’s public system of higher education, science, and technology through huge budget cuts and unjustified institutional reorganizations. After these actions, the reconstruction of the system will take years if not decades. In this context, the planned appointment of a Brazilian president for the BRICS Bank this year can be seen as an opportunity to secure resources for this Brazilian system at a time of severe financial restrictions.


Despite this erratic foreign policy, Bolsonaro’s economic team’s ambitions to diversify Brazil’s economic relations creates a context in which Brazil-India economic relations can flourish. The Brazilian government is currently considering a potential visa exemption for Indian citizens entering into Brazil. If approved, the policy could increase the flows of business and people between Brazil and India. According to the India-Brazil Chamber of Commerce, Indian investments in Brazil totaled approximately US$ 15 billion over the past five years, an amount just below Chinese and US investments. Also, Trump’s decision to resume negotiations of limited trade deals with India and Japan may lead Bolsonaro to mimic Trump again, by resuming talks for the extension of the trade preferences between Mercosur and India.

However, arranging a better trade deal for both Indian and Brazilian governments may prove a herculean task. It will be difficult to close the chasm between the conflicting objectives of Brazil’s new ‘anti-diplomacy’ and India’s ambitions of international autonomy and global projection. In this era of nationalisms, nuances can be perceived as great differences.

(The authors are researchers at the Center of Analysis and Dissemination of the Paraguayan Economy – CADEP. Views expressed are personal.)

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