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Biden, don't let differences over Ukraine tank your relations with Lula

The bad blood between the US and Brazil actually goes way back, but upcoming meetings provide chances for new collaboration.

Analysis | Latin America

Next month, President Biden could hold two separate meetings with Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

These meetings, which reporting suggests could happen at both the UN General Assembly in New York and the G20 in India, represent an opportunity to kickstart a lackluster U.S.-Brazil relationship. Past tensions between the U.S. and Brazil, exemplified by the fallout from the 2010 Tehran Declaration, serve as a cautionary tale to the Biden administration to not let a difference in perspective on Ukraine cloud other areas of potential collaboration. 

Disagreements over the war in Ukraine have put the U.S.-Brazil relationship in hot water in recent months. On the campaign trail, Lula  suggested, with some controversy, that Ukraine and Russia are equally responsible for the conflict. Once in office, Lula’s visit to the White House in February was short and understated; Biden initially only offered $50 million to the Amazon Fund, a figure so low it was omitted from the official joint statement.

Additionally, Lula’s proposal to create a peace club of nonaligned countries appears to have been a nonstarter in Washington. In a particularly heated back and forth, Lula said the U.S. should stop “encouraging” the war and start talking about peace. U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby responded by accusing Lula of “parroting Russian and Chinese propaganda.” 

Most observers agree that Ukraine has become something of a flashpoint for U.S.-Brazil relations and soured expectations of a more expansive reset in the wake of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s 2022 electoral defeat. 

Despite this international criticism, Lula has continued to speak about the need for a negotiated peace settlement in Ukraine. Just last week, the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said this week’s BRICS summit should be used to debate the war in Ukraine. Lula sees a universalist foreign policy as crucial to becoming a major global player in an increasingly multipolar world, which involves taking on global issues of international security like Ukraine that have historically been left to the great powers. 

In other words, Biden isn’t going to change Lula’s mind on Ukraine, and Lula doesn’t seem likely to give up on what has become one of his signature foreign policies. As a result, the two presidents shouldn’t allow disagreements over Ukraine to spill over into other areas of cooperation.

The fallout between the U.S. and Brazil over the 2010 Tehran Declaration, an event both Lula and Biden will remember well, can serve as a cautionary tale.

In 2010, Lula and his advisers sought a fuel-swap agreement between Turkey and Iran intended to facilitate Iran’s nuclear cooperation. Initially, then-President Barack Obama pledged that the United States would “support and facilitate action on a proposal that would supply Iran with nuclear fuel using Iran's enriched uranium.” Only when that proposal was successful did the United States — and its European allies — change course. Just a month later, the United Nations Security Council imposed a series of harsh sanctions on Iran.

From this, Brazilian diplomats concluded that the U.S. did not think Brazil would succeed and even sought to privately press against the behind-the-scenes negotiations. Then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Celso Amorim summarized Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's attitude in his memoir as, “I have not read (the Declaration). But I don’t like it.” 

When the U.S. dismissed the Tehran Declaration in 2010, it led to what Federal University of São Paulo professor Cristina Pecequilo has labeled the “low point of Lula’s foreign policy” for complicating the U.S.-Brazil relationship. According to Pecequilo, this was part of Obama’s “changing US policy from accommodation to containment of emerging nations.” Brazil, in response, distanced itself further from the United States. The new “reset” of bilateral relations didn’t come until 2014 when then Vice President Joe Biden visited Brazil during the World Cup. 

These events should offer a warning to Biden. Oliver Stunekel, an associate professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, writes that “[j]ust as Brazil’s ambitious Iran initiative failed because it lacked Western buy-in — and ultimately complicated Brasília’s ties to Washington — Lula’s desire to negotiate a peace deal in Ukraine could have the same fate.” 

Rather than disengage with Brazil over Lula’s comments on Ukraine, Biden should look to areas of more natural potential collaboration such as energy, deforestation,  jobs creation, and trade. The two presidents recently shared a 30-minute phone call that suggested some positive signs of doing just that, even discussing a joint initiative focused on improving labor conditions. A congressional delegation of progressives also spent several days in Brazil last week, meeting with key Lula advisers and carving out another blueprint for constructive engagement between the two countries based on shared domestic priorities.

Even if Ukraine is a flashpoint for the current relationship, that doesn’t mean Biden should ignore other thorny questions of international security with Lula. But doing so requires recognition that any U.S.-led proposal will inevitably look different from a joint initiative or Brazil-led proposal. At the G7 in Japan, Lula expressed interest in working to resolve other conflicts outside of Europe.

“Israelis and Palestinians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Kosovars and Serbs need peace,” Lula exclaimed. “Yemenis, Syrians, Libyans and Sudanese all deserve to live in peace. These conflicts should receive the same degree of international mobilization.” If Lula takes on these issues, Biden should work with him on areas of mutual interest rather than view it as a challenge to U.S. hegemony. 

Another potential area of collaboration could be in Latin America. Relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have shown some signs of thawing, but the U.S. still refuses to formally recognize Nicolás Maduro as the president. The Biden administration has also restored some engagement with Cuba, yet Cuba remains on the State Department’s state sponsors of terrorism list. These complicated realities make Brazil a valuable potential partner for possible backchannel talks or track II diplomatic efforts, given Brazil’s positive relations with the two countries.

Brazil has occupied this role before, attempting to mediate the Cuban Missile Crisis and broker U.S.-Cuban reconciliation during the 1960s. As Obama once acknowledged, according to Amorim, “we need friends who can talk to countries that refuse to talk to us.” 

One of the lessons of the Tehran Declaration should be that the U.S. needs to sometimes accept taking on a smaller role when it serves its interests. Brazil brings many strengths as an outsider  and a diplomatic heavyweight, but also simply by not being the U.S. As Camila Feix Vidal, professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, points out: “Brazil is respected internationally…Countries don't have a negative history with Brazil so it can be easier for Brazil to arbitrate, unlike the United States.”

For instance, Brazil’s success as an advocate against nuclear weapons is taken more seriously given that it renounced interest in nuclear weapons in the 1990s. By contrast, the U.S. today has well over 5,000. 

Nearly a decade and a half on from the Tehran Declaration, the United States is operating in a more multipolar world. That may require more compromise, especially with emerging powers such as Brazil as they gain more leverage. Even if the two countries are at an impasse on Ukraine for the time being, the U.S. should heed the lessons of 2010 and consider the benefits of pursuing a more constructive partnership with Brazil. 

Photo: White House
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