The Worst Diplomat in the World

Jair Bolsonaro’s chief foreign policy architect is combining rabid nationalist rhetoric with submissiveness to the United States.

February 26, 2019

Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo speaks at a joint press availability with US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, in Brasilia, Brazil, January 2, 2019. (US Department of State / Flickr)

Brazil’s new proto-fascist president has struggled to control the narrative during his first month in office. Jair Bolsonaro has issued several controversial decisions only to retreat shortly thereafter; his vice president has publicly contradicted him on several occasions; and he badly botched his first international appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The latter was particularly humiliating for a country like Brazil that craves international recognition.

By all accounts, Davos’s rarefied crowd of plutocrats and philanthropists were unimpressed by Bolsonaro’s shockingly brief and stilted remarks. Heather Long, a Washington Post correspondent at Davos, called Bolsonaro’s performance a “big fail,” noting that “he had the entire world watching and his best line was to tell people to come vacation in Brazil.” Another journalist shared the reaction of a friend present for Bolsonaro’s speech: “Never experienced anything like that with a President here.… Really bizarre.” Investors eager to capitalize on Brazil’s new business climate had hoped for a firm commitment to reforming the country’s pension system, among other regressive measures, but were left wanting by the president’s amateurish presentation. Bolsonaro, instead of attempting to fix the damage, took to Twitter to celebrate news of the openly gay leftist congressman Jean Wyllys fleeing the country in fear of his life.

While Bolsonaro stumbled abroad, political scandal mounted at home. Reports of suspicious financial transactions involving the president’s wife and an aide to one of his sons, a recently elected senator, had been lingering in national headlines since before Bolsonaro’s inauguration. Then, as Bolsonaro schmoozed with prominent businessmen and politicians in Switzerland, one of Brazil’s main newspapers linked his son Flávio to members of a Rio de Janeiro death squad known as the Office of Crime. The same militia was allegedly involved in the assassination of Marielle Franco, a leftist Afro-Brazilian city councilwoman murdered in March 2018.

Despite the increasing media focus on these scandals, the Bolsonaro clan’s broader political project remains unscathed. Their intensely reactionary agenda is defined by a domestic component that has been amply covered and a foreign policy component that has generally received less attention.

The domestic component is undoubtedly the most menacing aspect of Bolsonaro’s presidency. The foreign policy, however, is worth exploring for what it reveals about the role Brazil is establishing for itself at a moment when radical right-wing forces have amassed more real power around the world than at any time in several decades. This is of particular importance considering Brazil’s leadership role in Latin America and everything that is at stake as the Pink Tide era comes to an end. Brazil’s new foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, is the key player in this particular drama.

Eleventh-Hour Crusade

Since taking office, Araújo has foregone any pretense of conciliation with Bolsonaro’s international critics. He’s instead eagerly translating the president’s reactionary views into a churlish and imprudent foreign policy. Already he has shifted Brazil’s international relationships in ways that have raised red flags among key trading partners and erstwhile allies—with the notable exception of the United States, which sees Bolsonaro as a natural partner. Araújo seeks to satisfy the reactionary fervor that has seized the Brazilian body politic by asserting a new vision for Brazil on the world stage. In doing so, he is crippling the country’s global standing in the name of a radical domestic project epitomized, but not fully expressed, by Bolsonaro’s shallow bellicosity.

As Rosana Pinheiro-Machado and Lucia Mury Scalco have noted in Jacobin, Bolsonaro “employs hatred as a political mobilizer and even incites violence directly against his political competitors.” Araújo, who fancies himself a deep thinker, is up to something different. In his mind, Bolsonaro’s presidency is an eleventh-hour crusade to shore up the besieged edifice of Western civilization.

He has not been shy about articulating the stakes as he sees them. In a revealing Bloomberg op-ed published shortly after taking office, Araújo excoriated twentieth-century Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein for drafting an “avant-la-lettre postmodern deconstruction of the human subject” that established “the philosophical roots of our current globalist totalitarian ideology.” Understanding Araújo’s intellectual idiosyncrasies is key to understanding the crude zealotry and intellectual depravity of Bolsonaro’s Brazil.

Imperialist Prerogatives

Araújo’s evolving foreign policy is a wholesale rejection of the approach implemented by the Workers’ Party (PT) governments in power from 2003 to 2016. Beginning under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–2010), Brazil took on a proactive role in global affairs, breaking from the stark neoliberalism of the previous decade when the government sold off valuable state assets and embraced austerity in exchange for a $41.5 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund.

Lula’s government was particularly active in Latin America. In 2005, Brazil blocked the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a long-running US project to link North and South America and the Caribbean (except Cuba) into a commercial arrangement like NAFTA. Progressive forces in Latin America resisted what they recognized as a neoliberal imposition from the United States.

The Lula government, with a key ally in Argentina under Néstor Kirchner, had enough political capital to sink the agreement. Instead of accepting a Washington-designed free trade framework, Lula opted for regional integration. He worked to strengthen MERCOSUR, a South American trade bloc that timorous Brazilian policymakers had paid little attention to since its creation in 1991.

While the PT in power unequivocally supported other Pink Tide progressive governments—Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, among others—it devoted so much attention to Latin America that some of Brazil’s neighbors came to complain of an overbearing, quasi-imperialistic streak. “It’s obvious that Brazil just wants our resources,” said Marco Herminio Fabricano, a member of Bolivia’s Mojeño indigenous group, in 2011. “[President] Evo [Morales] feels like he can betray us to his Brazilian allies.”

In addition to such objections, PT governments faced escalating criticism for their failure to contemplate a horizon beyond a purely extractivist development model, a tendency that became even more acute under Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff (2011–2016). Then, in 2016, the PT’s long-running attempts to mitigate class conflict by co-opting prominent members of the industrial and financial elite collapsed entirely.

Under the PT, Brazil also deepened its commercial, cultural, and political ties with Africa. As Benjamin Fogel observed, “By the end of Lula’s second term Brazil had 37 diplomatic missions in Africa, the most after the United States, France, Russia and China, while Brazil’s African trade rose from $4 Billion to $24 Billion,.” Brazil’s prominent global role as part of the BRICS geopolitical bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa) brought international recognition. So did it earn a degree of reticence from the United States’ conservative establishment.

In 2012, Dov Zakheim, writing for Henry Kissinger’s National Interest, worried that not enough was being made of “Brazil’s inheritance of the Portuguese Empire’s mantle in Africa, facilitated by its own increasing economic clout.” Zakheim, who worked in the Department of Defense under presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, saw “no indication that the sense of empire, and of the entitlement that accompanies it, is waning in [Brazil].”

Since the Cold War, the US foreign policy establishment has always distrusted independent South-South diplomacy, particularly when it was the official policy of a nation as large and economically important as Brazil. Indeed, alarmist assessments of Brazil’s leadership in global affairs were evident both in the Republican administration of George W. Bush and the Democratic administration of Barack Obama, revealing a continuity of American imperial prerogatives underneath otherwise shifting official discourses.

While Bush chafed at Brazil’s independence in Latin America, Obama bristled at Brazil’s engagement in the Middle East, which former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said could “help in the promotion of peace and stability.” Whatever its faults and achievements, the PT’s foreign policy was undoubtedly assertive, a quality that, through the responses it provoked, exposed the insecurities of twenty-first-century US imperialism.

Hail-Mary Pass

After the parliamentary coup that put Rousseff’s double-crossing vice president, Michel Temer, in charge, Brazil took a giant step back on the global stage. This was in service of a purportedly more realistic foreign policy. “Pragmatic solidarity towards countries of the global South will continue to be an important strategy of Brazilian foreign policy,” Foreign Minister José Serra declared in May 2016, referring to an approach to other countries that dispensed with broader political projects—for instance, that the BRICS might serve as a long-term counterbalance to global US hegemony—in favor of more narrow interpretations of the national interest. “This is the right South-South strategy and not the one that was practiced for publicity purposes with low economic benefits and high diplomatic investments,” Serra argued.

In August 2016, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Serra in Rio de Janeiro and expressed his excitement at the changing of the political guard produced by the parliamentary coup: “I think it’s just an honest statement to say that over the course of the last few years, the political discussions here in Brazil had not allowed the full blossoming, if you will, of the potential of this relationship.” Temer’s willingness to embrace a diminished role for Brazil unsurprisingly suited the United States. Indeed, Temer’s foreign policy, emphasizing immediate material interests over supposed ideological commitments, foreshadowed Araújo’s supposedly “nonideological” stance on global affairs.

Unlike his predecessors, Donald Trump is unlikely to face a Brazilian government that challenges his policy preferences. Bolsonaro has signaled no effort to revive the independent streak that characterized Brazil’s foreign policy under the PT and Araújo has hailed Trump as “Western Civilization’s Hail Mary pass.” During the presidential campaign, Araújo ingratiated himself to the United States by proposing an alliance between the world’s three largest Christian countries—Brazil, the United States, and Russia—to counter what he called “the globalist axis” made up of China, Europe, and the US left.

Other symbolically important gestures include Brazil’s withdrawal from the UN Compact on Migration; equivocation over whether it will abandon the Paris climate accord; its stated intention to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, irking important trading partners in the Arab world; and its participation in the aggressive international campaign to isolate and ultimately remove Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. Brazil’s new willingness to cede its hemispheric leadership is linked to a desire to defer to a Trump-led United States.

But beyond these considerations, Araújo’s personal ideological proclivities are conspicuously bizarre. He is a fitting face for the epidemic of weaponized falsehoods—for instance, that the PT wanted to foist graphic sexual education upon young schoolchildren or that the Left would ban red meat and heterosexual relations—that has overwhelmed Brazilian politics, disseminated through unregulated channels like WhatsApp and Facebook. Troublingly, Araújo’s asinine ideological bent seems to be what landed him the job. The wingnut, in short, has been elevated precisely for being a wingnut.

“Nothing Short of a Miracle”

At fifty-one, Araújo is exceptionally young by Brazilian standards for the post of foreign minister. Although he has been a diplomat for almost thirty years, holding some important positions over the course of his career, he has never been an ambassador. The rank and file of Itamaraty, as the foreign ministry is known, was reportedly not happy that such a junior figure was given the top job.

Araújo may lack the traditional credentials for the role he now occupies. But he is an avid disciple of Olavo de Carvalho, the pseudo-intellectual guru of Brazil’s far right who has trafficked for decades in the conspiracies that helped fuel Bolsonaro’s rise. In Brazil’s current political climate, that connection goes a long way. Indeed, in his first official speech, Araújo gushed that, “after President Jair Bolsonaro, [Carvalho] is perhaps the man most responsible for the immense transformation that Brazil is experiencing.”

Carvalho readily agrees with accounts of his own importance: “This has never happened in the history of the world—a writer who had this kind of influence on the people,” he told Brian Winter, the editor of America’s Quarterly. “It could only happen in Brazil.” Carvalho hand-picked Araújo to be Bolsonaro’s foreign minister (he also had a hand in approving or vetoing names for other appointments in Bolsonaro’s government). Improbably, through its engagement with the Brazilian government, the world must now contend with the fantastical ideas of a hermit who lives not in Brazil, where his kingmaker role might be more closely scrutinized, but in rural Virginia.

Carvalho has expounded on so many disparate topics that it is hard to come up with a unifying theory of his worldview. But two interrelated Carvalho tropes in particular have become commonplace on the Brazilian right in recent years: (1) an unreasonably elastic definition of communism combined with an insistence on that ideology’s continued relevance as sociopolitical menace; (2) a simmering panic over “cultural Marxism,” a hazy conspiracy theory positing that insidious leftist puppetmasters exert near total control over almost every aspect of thought in modern society.

It’s not entirely clear exactly why Carvalho’s ideas have become so prevalent, but there are a few elements to consider. The first and arguably most decisive factor is the gradual right-wing radicalization that took place over the course of the PT’s thirteen years in power. After Lula’s party won four presidential elections in a row, millions of Brazilians came to openly distrust democratic processes, whether because they thought the elections were being rigged or that populist demagogues had effectively purchased the loyalty of dim-witted voters through government handouts.

As social psychologist Sander van der Linden has noted, “a number of studies have shown that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with feelings of powerlessness, uncertainty and a general lack of agency and control.” Such feelings were certainly experienced by sizeable numbers of anti-PT voters and conservative elites since at least 2010. Indeed, by the start of Rousseff’s second term, this crowd lost whatever qualms it once had about openly contesting the results of free and fair elections.

An explosion in internet access is another factor explaining the proliferation of Carvalho’s conspiracy theories. Carvalho is an avid YouTuber, posting frequent diatribes on the platform that sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has called “one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century.” Finally, increasing rates of higher education under PT governments may also have produced a larger audience for pseudo-intellectual historical and sociological arguments. There is much more to be said on how Carvalho has attained the reach that he has, but his influence is now a reality that progressives in Brazil must confront head-on.

The argument that progressive forces exert decisive influence over everyday norms and customs has thrived despite, or perhaps because of, the actual retreat of the Left since at least the end of the Cold War. While the PT transparently moved to the center to secure a historic win in 2002, its inveterate foes claimed it had simply devised more effective camouflage for its subversive agenda. More recently, the notion that Marxists have stealthily won the culture war has become a unifying article of faith for right-wing movements around the globe.

But Carvalho is no mere imitator. He has been railing against the supposedly imminent threat of communism in Latin America for decades. According to Carvalho, the most insidious manifestation of this secret offensive is the Foro de São Paulo, a conference of left-wing political parties from more than twenty Latin American and Caribbean countries established in 1990. Steve Bannon, who has become close with the Bolsonaro clan, has also railed openly against cultural Marxism, calling for a transnational union of white Christian identitarian movements.

A recent summit between Bannon and Carvalho represented a meeting of two distinct yet kindred strains of hysterical reaction. Interestingly, Bannon treated Carvalho as the elder statesman in that encounter, suggesting that Carvalho’s paranoid theorizations are having an organic impact on global politics. As currently invoked by archconservatives, cultural Marxism is a reconstitution of the existential threat that fascism has always needed in order to flourish. On account of his prolific writings and YouTube presence, Carvalho should figure prominently in any future analysis of the present conjuncture.

Araújo channeled Carvalho’s prolific writing and YouTube videos in a personal blog he maintained before becoming foreign minister. In it, Araujo referred to globalism as a product of cultural Marxism (a connection with clear antisemitic overtones). For the foreign minister, Carvalho stands out as “perhaps the first person in the world to see globalism as the result of economic globalization, to understand its horrific purposes, and to start thinking about how to topple it. For many years he was also the only person in Brazil to use the word ‘communism’ to describe the PT’s strategy and everything that was going on in the country, at a time when everyone thought communism was just a sort of collectivism that had died with the Soviet Union, blind to its survival in many other guises in the culture and in ‘global issues.'”

Araújo also explicitly links Carvalho and Bolsonaro, proclaiming in a piece for the conservative New Criterion that: 

"thanks to the internet boom, and especially the social media revolution, [Carvalho’s] ideas suddenly started to percolate through the whole country, reaching thousands of people who had been fed only the official mantras. These ideas broke all dams and converged with the courageous stance of the only truly nationalist Brazilian politician of the last hundred years, Jair Bolsonaro, giving him a totally unprecedented level of grassroots support."

This was the impetus Brazil needed to refashion itself into a “conservative, anti-globalist, nationalist country.”

He also noted the importance of anti-corruption investigations like Operation Car Wash, whose public face, Judge Sergio Moro, was named Bolsonaro’s minister of justice after presiding over an intensely political trial that led to the arrest of former president Lula. “The investigation into the PT corruption scheme—perhaps the largest criminal enterprise ever—evolved and started to throw light on the depths of PT’s attempt to destroy the country and seize absolute power,” Araújo asserted, recounting what has become conservative voters’ standard line for why they are motivated by more than just hostility to the PT.

For Araújo, the increasing circulation of Carvalho’s musings produced something like national liberation: “we lived for too long thwarted by left-wing globalist discourse. Now we can live in a world where criminals can be arrested, where people of all social strata can have the opportunities they deserve, and where we can be proud of our symbols and practice our faith. The psycho-political control system is finished, and this is nothing short of a miracle.”

What Araújo hails as foresight in Carvalho’s oeuvre is, in fact, elementary conspiracy mongering. In a style that the foreign minister clearly imitates, Carvalho invokes so many esoteric, obscure references that his arguments can be hard to follow. This, of course, is almost certainly the point: by appearing to draw easily from a deep well of knowledge, Carvalho imbues a patina of sophistication to what is essentially reactionary boilerplate.

To identify the PT in power as a communist enterprise, for example, is to assert that words have no meaning. The 2018 presidential campaign was infested with this kind of ideological nihilism, with a preponderant swath of anti-PT voters unable or unwilling to defend Bolsonaro on the merits of his inhuman proposals but eager to attack Fernando Haddad, the PT’s nominee, on absurd charges. Such is the context in which Brazilian foreign policy is now being devised.

“I Know Who I Am”

The irony in all of this is striking: the Brazilian right long accused the Workers’ Party of politicizing the federal bureaucracy and conducting foreign affairs along sharply ideological lines. Now, however, Araújo is turning Brazil away from virtually every major industrialized nation except for the United States, claiming for himself the mantle of reasoned and dispassionate policymaking despite the existential stakes he has invoked in his pronouncements.

In the name of a murky anti-globalism, the seething foreign minister who wants to be seen as a steady hand has drawn criticism both from neoliberals at the Economist and liberals at the New York Times. International investors who see Brazil primarily as an expansive market and a producer of raw materials are hoping against hope that Finance Minister Paulo Guedes, a dutiful neoliberal economist trained at the University of Chicago, can implement business-friendly reforms despite the authoritarian bloodlust of Bolsonaro and the civilizational crusade envisioned by Araújo.

By playing up a reactionary global role for Brazil, Araújo is making a transparent bid to score political points at home as unabashed conservatism roars back into the Brazilian mainstream. The stakes are high as “the fight for or against global order has become a fight for control of the global order,” as Quinn Slobodian put it recently. The transnational reactionary wave to which Araújo has committed Brazil may well have already crested. Meanwhile, he has not demonstrated the chops to bring Brazil back from the fringe should the winds of international diplomacy start to shift.

What will he do, for example, if Trump does not win reelection in 2020? The relationships Brazil doubles down on today could easily make the country a pariah tomorrow. Furthermore, Araújo may see a shared civilizational struggle that puts Brazil on the side of the United States, but American presidents have never treated Latin America’s largest nation as an equal partner. Trump cares especially little for Latin America. Notwithstanding Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s enthusiasm for the Bolsonaro administration, Araújo is deluding himself if he thinks the United States will set aside a history of imperialism for the sake of waging war on progressive values.

Araújo has used his office to loudly proclaim a new international role for Brazil (and himself). “We’ve become diplomats who only do things that are important to other diplomats,” he argued in his first official speech. “This must stop. Let’s stop looking in the mirror and look out the window. Or better yet, let’s go out to the real Brazil. Let us not be afraid of the Brazilian people. We are part of the Brazilian people.”

Araújo’s pledge to shake up Brazil’s official culture is not inherently objectionable—Itamaraty is as elitist as any other institution in a society as unequal as Brazil. But by appealing to a self-evident “common sense,” Araújo is promising to align Brazilian foreign policy with the reactionary premises of both the president and Olavo de Carvalho.

To that end, Araújo’s inaugural speech offered a distillation of his emotional foreign policy vision: “Those who say that there are no men and women are the same ones who say that countries have no right to protect their borders, the same who claim that a human fetus is a heap of disposable cells, the same who say that mankind is a disease that must disappear to save the planet.”

He continued with perhaps the most succinct articulation yet of the reactionary wave sweeping the globe: “as a teenager, I heard a lot of people saying, ‘The world is marching inexorably toward socialism.’ But it did not. It did not march because someone went and stopped it. Today we hear that the march of globalism is irreversible. But it is not irreversible. We will fight to turn back globalism and push it back to its starting point.”

Brazilians have long debated the proper balance between nationalist self-assertion on the world stage and acquiescence with the dictates of foreign powers. The dictatorship that governed the country from 1964 to 1985, for example, deferred entirely to Washington in its early years, with Brazil’s ambassador to the US proclaiming that “what’s good for the United States is good for Brazil.” As the regime wore on, more forcefully nationalistic sectors of the armed forces prevailed and sought to make the country live up to its potential as a hemispheric power in its own right. So far, Araújo combines the headstrong talk of the latter current with the submissive essence of the former.

It is possible that in the chaos likely to define Bolsonaro’s presidency, Araújo may crash and burn. His smoldering self-importance speaks to Bolsonaro’s aim of drastically altering Brazil’s foreign policy orientation—indeed, both men draw from a deep well of egotism in their belief that tough, assertive men can easily resolve intractable problems. But it is hard to imagine Araújo ever garnering political support independently from his president or his venerated intellectual guru. A potentially fatal blow for Araújo, then, will be if Carvalho or his ideas are effectively discredited in the next few years.

The military could also imperil Araújo’s job. Already, disagreements with the armed forces threaten to curtail his influence. There’s no doubt that in a direct confrontation between Araújo, the culture warrior who’s cast himself in a civilizational struggle, and the cold-blooded pragmatists in the military, Bolsonaro would side with the latter. After all, military men now occupy an unprecedented number of high-ranking positions in the current government. Still, Araújo’s crudely conspiratorial foreign policy vision has already become an integral part of Brazil’s international and domestic image under Bolsonaro. This is exactly the face the current government seems intent on putting forward.

In his inaugural speech as foreign minister, Araújo recounted a lesson he learned from Don Quixote by way of Olavo de Carvalho. At one point in Cervantes’s classic, the title character finds himself lying by the roadside somewhere in La Mancha, delirious and defeated. In this sad state, Quixote mistakes a peasant ambling by for the Marquis of Mantua. The exasperated peasant replies that he is no aristocrat, that he is Quixote’s neighbor and has known him for years. The peasant then reminds the man on the ground that he is not Don Quixote as he claims but Alonso Quixano. Don Quixote stops, thinks, and replies: “I know who I am.”

For Araújo, the moral of the story is clear: “Some will say that Brazil is not all that President Bolsonaro believes it is, and that I believe it is, they will say that Brazil cannot influence the fate of the world, defend the highest values ​​of humanity, that we should just export goods and attract investment, because after all we are a good country, quiet and peaceful, but powerless. They will say that Brazil is just Alonso Quixano. But Brazil will respond: I know who I am.” Whether Araújo knows how the tale of Don Quixote ends is an open question.

This piece was co-published with Jacobin.

Andre Pagliarini is a visiting assistant professor of modern Latin American history at Brown University. He is currently preparing a book manuscript on twentieth-century Brazilian nationalism.

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