Protecting Multilateralism Against Anti-Globalists: The Case of Brazil

05 November 2020   ·   Oliver Stuenkel

Nationalist leaders like Brazil’s Bolsonaro who attack multilateralism for electoral gain at home still largely get away with it as they face little negative repercussions. Europe and Germany should make trade agreements and accession to the OECD conditional on more responsible and multilateral policies and target local elites with diplomatic pressure campaigns.

How should countries like Germany that intend to strengthen multilateralism deal with nationalist leaders who systematically attack the rules-based international order for political gain at home? Brazil is a remarkable case in point. After decades of being one of the world’s most ardent defenders of global governance, and one of Berlin’s key partners in international fora, the election of president Jair Bolsonaro has transformed Latin America’s largest country into a powerhouse of anti-globalism, stoking nationalist sentiment and systematically attacking organizations such as the United Nations for supposedly undermining national sovereignty. Updating ideas promoted by the far-right John Birch Society in the 1960s, it is now commonplace to hear the president’s supporters worry about the threats of ‘globalism’, ‘climatism’ and ‘communism’.  

More Than Words: Brazil’s Attacks Against Multilateral Institutions Have Real Consequences  

Yet, Brazil's anti-multilateral behavior has gone beyond rhetoric. Bolsonaro's Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo has not only been fiercely critical of the European Union; he has also prioritized ties to far-right governments in Poland and Hungary as well as Italy's far-right Lega Nord, and has supported President's Trump's active attacks on multilateralism. Araújo has also been extremely critical of the Paris Agreement and the Global Compact for Migration, which Brazil no longer supports. 

The negative impact on Germany has been significant. Since coming to power, the former army captain Bolsonaro has ridiculed Europe's growing concern about deforestation in the Amazon or brushed it off as disguised protectionism or neocolonialism. Even as it became increasingly clear that Brazil's negative image in Europe was endangering the ratification of the EU-Mercosur trade deal, which would be the biggest in the history of both blocs, Bolsonaro at no stage signaled a willingness to adopt a more moderate environmental policy, which would have helped those in Europe supportive of ratification.  

Brazil’s Anti-Multilateralism: Domestic Benefits, Few Immediate Economic Repercussions

Embracing an anti-globalist, anti-multilateralist rhetoric has proven electorally useful for Bolsonaro, and international criticism has helped him strengthen the narrative that the world is a dangerous place and that dark forces seek to destroy Brazil and take away the Amazon. That explains why Brazil's president has shown little interest in normalizing ties to Argentina, whose president Bolsonaro has attacked as a "leftist bandit." It is more useful to keep attacking the Argentinian president Fernández and say that socialism is destroying Argentina – a rhetoric that fires up his most radical supporters – than being on talking terms with him. A verbal confrontation via social media with France's President Macron last year was equally welcomed by Brazil's president.

Bolsonaro has been able to pursue an anti-multilateralist foreign policy and actively support President Trump's anti-globalist crusade – without losing much support from economic elites at home – because Brazil didn't have to pay a significant price for it. Brazil's stock market is booming. Few believe Bolsonaro's stance will have a relevant impact on Brazil's economy. Most in Brazil believe that whether the EU-Mercosur trade deal will be ratified or not will depend on other factors, such as protectionism in the EU.  

Equally problematic, populists around the world are unlikely to overlook the fact that Bolsonaro's strategy seems to be paying off: despite a catastrophic handling of the pandemic and more than 150,000 deaths, Brazil's president enjoys the highest approval ratings since coming to office. This sends a worrisome message to leaders around the world in search for an outside actor to blame for domestic ills and may inspire copycats interested in reaping the political benefits of multilateralism-bashing.  

The Sanctions-Dilemma: Depriving Anti-Multilateralism of Its Profits Without Promoting It  

From the Brazilian government’s point of view, attacking global governance is a risk-free affair: neither UN Secretary General Guterres nor the UNFCCC secretariat will criticize or punish Brazil directly. So how can the German government and others who are concerned about preserving and strengthening multilateralism deal with governments that are bent on undermining it for electoral gains at home?  

There is no easy way out: threats to refrain from the ratification of a trade deal and even the suspension of Amazon Fund-related payments have not led to a change in policy in Brasília. It is common to hear European diplomats express skepticism regarding tougher measures against Brazil. Why, the thinking goes, should Bolsonaro be isolated and pushed into the arms of China? After all, Europe's long-term strategic goals vis-à-vis Latin America's largest country remain while Bolsonaro's far-right populism and anti-multilateralism is likely to be temporary. In the same way, a tougher rhetoric only seems to benefit Bolsonaro. Such concerns are valid, particularly given the many common interests and similar challenges Latin America and Europe share in the context of growing tensions between the United States and China.  

Economic Consequences Must Hurt, Pressure Campaigns Must Target Local Elites 

The only way to avoid such a scenario is to change the basic calculus by nationalists like Bolsonaro that the domestic political gain of demonizing global governance is larger than the economic damage such a stance causes. While building alliances of countries willing to defend multilateralism is laudable, it is equally necessary to devise clearer strategies of how to respond to actors who are seeking to weaken a rules-based international system. Yet pressure can only work if it takes place in a coordinated fashion with specific goals in mind. Germany’s White Paper should include strategies of how to respond to countries like Brazil, which pose a significant threat to multilateralism.  

More specifically, the German government should seek to articulate a clear position of OECD member countries that Brazilian accession can only be possible if the country embraces a more cooperative stance vis-à-vis multilateralism. In the same way, the ratification of the EU-Mercosur trade agreement could be made conditional on a more responsible environmental policy and Brazil’s continued commitment to the Paris Agreement. 

There is a hopeful precedent: soon after the election, Bolsonaro's designated Minister of the Environment announced that Brazil would leave the Paris Agreement. As a consequence, EU Ambassadors in Brasília coordinated a joint pressure campaign which involved numerous one-on-one meetings with Brazilian Congressmen, Senators and business leaders (a key pillar of the Bolsonaro government), where the continent's top diplomats said the move could lead to consumer boycotts of Brazilian products in Europe. Days later, the president said Brazil would continue to be part of the agreement. Rather than publicly denouncing the president – a strategy that was sure to backfire – EU governments quietly organized pressure behind the scenes, not allowing Bolsonaro the chance to use the opportunity to mobilize his supporters.

In the same way, depending on the outcome of the US election, the German government should consider the opportunity to coordinate its strategy vis-à-vis irresponsible stakeholders in the multilateral realm with Washington, D.C. While Europe can offer the carrot of increased trade, the US government could, instead of publicly denouncing Brazil's environmental policies, engage in a dialogue on the subject of multilateralism with Brazil's armed forces, another key faction of the Bolsonaro government, which is keen to maintain the broad cooperation in the realm of defense. Anti-globalist leaders will only stop their systematic attacks on multilateralism when they start negatively affecting their key allies at home.

English Multilateralismus South America

Oliver Stuenkel

Oliver Stuenkel is a professor of international relations at the Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo.