The most important US election in Brazil's history

The most important US election in Brazil's history
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When Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was elected in 2018, he made clear his top priority in foreign affairs was to develop a closer relationship with the United States. Indeed, Bolsonaro’s first official trip as president in 2019 was not to Argentina, as had been customary, but to the United States. When Bolsonaro, an outspoken Trump admirer who does not speak English, met the U.S. president in New York at the 2019 UN General Assembly in September, he let slip an “I love you.” Trump shot back with a “nice to see you again.” By the time Bolsonaro landed in Florida last March, he beat the record for most trips to the United States by a Brazilian president in the first year and a half after taking office. Recently, Bolsonaro has publicly declared that he would like to see Trump reelected and be at this inauguration.

U.S. elections usually are not a big deal from the perspective of Brazilian politics. Brazilian presidents have worked with both Democratic and Republican presidents and, while they may have had their own personal preferences, that has not precluded the development of an overall good — yet often distant — relationship. In this sense, the Bolsonaro administration approach is unique as he has sought not so much to build a relationship with the United States, but with Trump. His decision to prioritize the relationship has less to do with potential material gains than with putative ideological affinities.

The limits of this strategy soon became clear after the Democrats regained the majority in the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms and the Committee on Foreign Affairs voiced their “strong objections” to any rapprochement with Brazil.       

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The Bolsonaro-Trump “bromance” has indeed brought some tangible results, like a recent limited deal on trade facilitation (which was already being discussed before Bolsonaro took office), the granting of Brazil as a “Major non-NATO ally,” support for Brazilian accession in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a technology safeguards agreement, and the creation of a number of bilateral coordination forums. While none of these initiatives will radically change US-Brazil relations in the long term, they do indeed represent a stronger bilateral agenda.

Yet it remains to be determined which side will benefit more from these agreements. The technical safeguards agreement, for example, was basically signed to allow commercial U.S. space launches from Brazil. The designation of Brazil as a major non-NATO ally may increase U.S. arms sales to the Brazilian armed forces. The largely symbolic statement of support for Brazil’s accession to the OECD was made only after Brazil agreed to give up the very concrete benefits of having a “developing country” status at the World Trade Organization (WTO). In the era of America-First diplomacy, it is not surprising that the United States will not make unilateral concessions just for the sake of showing some good will. In exchange for Brazil’s declaration of love, the Trump administration is responding with a “nice to see you again.”

The importance of this year’s U.S. presidential election for Brazil, however, lies not within the realm of bilateral relations but on domestic politics. Bolsonaro came to power without a clearly articulated ideology beyond that of rejecting the current order. He and his supporters like to call his vaguely defined ideas — a mix of nationalism, neoliberalism, and populism — as “conservatism,” but “trumpism” would perhaps be a better definition. In domestic politics, it means relying on social media to pick fights with adversaries, particularly the mainstream media, while advancing a socially conservative and fiscally irresponsible agenda. In foreign policy, it means alienating traditional allies, such as Argentina, France, and Germany and berating its most important trade partner, China. It’s worth mentioning that Bolsonaro intended to appoint his own son, perhaps a bigger Trump fan than Bolsonaro himself, as Brazil’s ambassador to the United States, in spite of Eduardo Bolsonaro’s lack of credentials for the job. As the main evidence of his experience in the United States he liked to mention a short gig working at Popeyes in Maine during a student exchange program. The idea of Eduardo Bolsonaro occupying one of Brazil’s most important ambassadorial posts was ridiculed as the Senate made it clear he would not be confirmed, and his dad eventually gave up on the idea. 

It is the fact that Trump is sitting in the Oval Office that emboldens the Bolsonaros to pursue a foreign policy that consists basically of quarreling with Brazil's traditional allies, save the United States. Likewise, the Trump presidency helps to create the ideological environment that encourages and shapes Bolsonaro’s actions in domestic politics. This means the 2020 U.S. election is the most important in Brazil’s history.

A Trump defeat would be bad news for the Brazilian president for further reasons. Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race On The Money: Democrats get to the hard part Health Care — GOP attorneys general warn of legal battle over Biden's vaccine mandate MORE and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisStefanik in ad says Democrats want 'permanent election insurrection' Live coverage: California voters to decide Newsom's fate Florida woman faces five years in prison for threatening to kill Harris MORE are the first presidential ticket in history to publicly criticize a Brazilian president by name. Biden, who visited Brazil as vice-president, has mentioned Bolsonaro and Brazil unfavorably several times since the primaries. Most recently, in the first presidential debate, Biden threatened to pressure Brazil over protecting the Amazon rainforest, which led Bolsonaro to an English and Portuguese rant on Twitter labelling Biden’s remarks as a “disastrous and unnecessary declaration.” Later on, Biden’s Latin America adviser Juan Gonzalez went even further, saying that “Anybody, in Brazil or elsewhere, who thinks they can advance an ambitious relationship with the United States while ignoring important issues like climate change, democracy, and human rights clearly hasn’t been listening to Joe Biden on the campaign trail.” A few days after she was picked as Joe Biden’s running mate in August, Kamala Harris tweeted images of fires in the Amazon forest saying that “Brazil's President Bolsonaro must answer for this devastation.” These public condemnations of a sitting Brazilian president by a U.S. presidential ticket — coupled with the anti-Bolsonaro mood of Democrats in Congress — are unprecedented.

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The Bolsonaro administration’s strategy of seeking an alliance with Trump and antagonizing Democrats in Congress is a risky gambit.

A Biden triumph would not only leave Bolsonaro without his U.S. role model but also with a clearly unreceptive White House that would force a reorientation in Brazil’s foreign policy toward less ideology and more pragmatism. Bridges with Democrats would have to be rebuilt. There are already signs of more pragmatism in Bolsonaro’s domestic policy when, for example, he nominated a new moderate judge to the Supreme Court to curry favor with Congress, even under protest from his supporters. A Biden victory would surely also force a more moderate turn for Bolsonaro’s foreign policy as well. In a Biden presidency, Bolsonaro may very well be all out of “I love yous.” A lukewarm “nice to see you” will do just fine.

Carlos Gustavo Poggio Teixeira is an expert on U.S. Politics and a professor at FAAP in Brazil. He received a Ph.D. in International Studies from Old Dominion University in Virginia as a Fulbright Scholar. He is the author of “Brazil, the United States, and the South American Subsystem: Regional Politics and the Absent Empire,” chosen by Foreign Affairs Magazine as one of the best International Relations books of 2012.