America’s Power Competition Goes Awry in Lula’s Brazil

America’s Power Competition Goes Awry in Lula’s Brazil

When the dust settles, the consequences of Lula’s approach will serve neither American interests nor Brazil’s.


Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency proved to be an unmitigated disaster for Brazil. During his four-year term, Bolsonaro pushed competent ministers to resign, likely to shield family members from corruption investigations. He mismanaged the Covid-19 pandemic, replacing health ministers at an alarming pace, toyed with his authoritarian inclinations, and neglected Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, allowing it to burn. He fomented fake news of electoral fraud during the electoral campaign and, after losing to his opponent, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, he incited his supporters to storm Brazil’s presidential palace, Congress, and the Supreme Court in Brasilia. These seditious riots mirror the events that led to Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, solidifying Bolsonaro’s reputation as an even more idiosyncratic version of Trump, earning him the nickname “Tropical Trump.”

Brazil was in dire need of change, and Lula delivered that change when he was elected president in October 2022. Understandably, U.S. president Joe Biden embraced the newly elected Lula as Brazil’s anti-Trump, believing him to be a more reliable strategic partner. 


However, the question remains: is Lula truly a dependable ally? The two presidents may align on climate change; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and a commitment to nipping the forces of right-wing populism in the bud. But when it comes to the great power competition in the region, Lula is not a friend. He is the proverbial cure that kills the patient. 

Since taking office in January, Lula, who was president from 2003 to 2010 and spent time in jail on corruption charges before being released (but not acquitted) on a technicality, has articulated a foreign policy that corresponds with the visions of China, Russia, and other authoritarians—a multipolar world aimed at challenging American dominance. Rather than confront Washington’s adversaries, which do not uphold environmental standards or champion the rights of marginalized communities, Lula appears inclined to align with them. While a democrat at home, on the world stage, there is no tyrant he will not call his friend.

The discrepancy between Biden’s friendliness and Lula’s commitment to policies antithetical to U.S. interests emerged as early as the two leaders’ first meeting in Washington this past February, barely weeks after Lula was sworn in. 

In their joint statement, Biden and Lula “underscored that strengthening democracy, promoting respect for human rights, and addressing the climate crisis remains at the center of their common agenda.” They identified areas of mutual concern and promised cooperation that included “social inclusion and labor rights, gender equality, racial equity and justice, and the protection of the rights of LGBTQI+ persons,” fighting hate speech and disinformation, and empowering “marginalized racial, ethnic and indigenous communities.” 

However, Lula is at odds with Washington on China. He views China as a check on American power. He believes that a multipolar world is a good thing. It’s not just about trade: it’s about eroding America’s leverage.

Shortly after meeting Biden, Lula traveled to China along with a large business delegation to deepen commercial ties with Beijing (during his Washington visit, no trade delegation accompanied him). The trip yielded multi-billion-dollar agreements in strategic areas, including cyber and semiconductor technology. Lula was explicit that it was his intention to expand Chinese investment in sensitive areas: during his visit to a Huawei factory, he described it as “a demonstration that we want to tell the world we don’t have prejudices in our relations with the Chinese.”

Blunting China’s aggressive purchase of agricultural commodities and across-the-board strategic investments in Brazil is not on his agenda. Opening up to China to balance American influence is.

While in Shanghai, Lula attended the swearing-in of his protege, Dilma Rousseff, as the president of the New Development Bank. One of the bank’s explicit objectives is to promote the de-dollarization of South-to-South trade, directly challenging U.S. dominance. Lula stated publicly, “I ask myself why all countries have to base their trade on the dollar.” 

Following his trip,  Lula endorsed trade denominated in the Chinese yuan between Brazil and China. Furthermore, he has thrown his political weight behind the establishment of a common Latin American currency and a currency for the BRICS nations, aiming to challenge the supremacy of the dollar in global trade. This move extends beyond expanding bilateral trade; as Lula stated, by strengthening Brazil’s partnership with China, he wants “to balance geopolitics,” i.e., weaken U.S. leadership, even if it means Brazil becomes more dependent on China.

China was not the only area of disagreement. In January 2023, in an unprecedented visit designed to boost Iran’s outreach to Latin America, Brazil was preparing to welcome Iranian warships. Under U.S. pressure, Lula’s government postponed the visit—but later allowed the ships to dock after his meeting with Biden. In his first stint as president, Lula attempted to involve himself in nuclear negotiations with Iran and aimed to broker a nuclear deal. However, his efforts did not yield any significant progress. Now that he is back in office, he is once again opening the door to Iran, this time through the BRICS framework. Iran, known for advocating a form of multilateralism that seeks to reduce America’s global influence, is already taking advantage of this opportunity.

On Russia too, Lula has made choices that have led to strained relations with the White House. Last March, he secretly dispatched his closest diplomatic advisor, Celso Amorim, to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin (but not to Kiyv), with the intention of positioning himself as a peace mediator between Russia and Ukraine. Such a move was far from being a credible step toward fair mediation. It took a deluge of criticism against Brazil’s one-sided approach for Lula to send Amorim to meet Ukraine’s President Volodymir Zelenskyy a month later—but not before Brazil welcomed Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, on a state visit that gave Russia a podium to spread the kind of disinformation Lula and Biden jointly agreed to fight at their February meeting.

Subsequent Brazilian stances on Russia and Ukraine have only solidified Lula’s pro-Russian posture. He urged Ukraine to give up Crimea for the sake of “world tranquility,” claimed there was no point in determining who was in the right, accused Washington of “incentivizing conflict” by supporting Kyiv, and blamed Russia and Ukraine equally for the war. His advisor, Amorim, added that Russia’s “legitimate” concerns should be considered so as to avoid Russia’s total defeat.

Lula’s flirting with Russia—which includes Brazil’s refusal to transfer German-made weapons to Ukraine and the rejection of sanctions against Moscow—is not his only challenge to Washington’s sponsored global order. 

Last week, Brazil hosted a summit of South American leaders, providing an opportunity for Lula to whitewash Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuelan regime. By then, Lula had already re-established diplomatic relations with Maduro and permitted Conviasa, the U.S.-sanctioned Venezuela airline, to restart direct flights between Brazil and Venezuela. During the summit, Lula warmly welcomed Maduro, pushed back against U.S. sanctions, downplayed criticism of Maduro’s dictatorship as a mere “narrative problem” that led to misrepresentation and misunderstanding of Venezuela, and supported Venezuela’s bid to join the BRICS. He further declined to put Maduro on the spot for large-scale human rights violations, corruption, and ecocide, despite strong pushback from Chile’s president, Gabriel Boric. and Uruguay’s president, Luis Lacalle Pou. But his broader point was clear: the West had no right to interfere in Venezuela’s internal affairs, a position that China, Russia, and Iran share. As a gloating Maduro told the press, unity among South American nations should be based “on a new multipolar world.” i.e., one where American influence is blunted in favor of other rising powers, whose authoritarian inclinations leave Lula unfazed.

The progressive agenda that Biden is prioritizing for Latin America is finding favor among the political allies of America’s strategic adversaries in the region. Rest assured, those in Latin America, like Lula, most inclined to embrace Biden’s priorities—noble as they may be—are also the least likely to act as a bulwark against Chinese, Iranian, and Russian penetration. In fact, as Lula’s case shows, they will welcome it. To keep the Biden White House on side, all they need to do is go along with its green transition and its diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda. 

In the meantime, China will continue to invest in agricultural commodities, mining concessions, public surveillance equipment contracts, equipment supplies to local police forces, and infrastructure projects, gaining heightened influence all along. Russia will keep backing authoritarian regimes in the region and benefiting from their nostalgia for a socialist counterweight to the gringos. And other authoritarian states, like Iran, will piggyback on this sentiment, while America is occupied elsewhere with its humanitarian and ecological agendas.

When the dust settles, the consequences of Lula’s approach will serve neither American interests nor Brazil’s. It will be China, and Russia, hardly the defenders of minorities and the patrons of the environment, who reap the benefits of America’s power eclipse.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan research foundation based in Washington DC. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi.