President Bolsonaro and First Lady Michelle with Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo and his wife

The foreign policy of president Jair Bolsonaro will be the result of conflicts between three groups within the government: the populists that call themselves “anti-globalists;” the military officers at the top of the administration; and the economic technocrats in the Ministries of Agriculture and of the Economy. There are several points of disagreement between them: how to deal with China and the Arab countries, Brazil’s role in Latin America, and the country’s participation in multilateral agreements on the environment and migration.

The Anti-Globalists

The anti-globalists orbit around Minister of Foreign Affairs Ernesto Araújo, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro—one of the president’s sons—and Filipe Martins, an advisor for foreign affairs of President Bolsonaro and of his Social Liberal Party.

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Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo

They reject the consensus of the cosmopolitan elites about liberal values and instead they present a populist cocktail of nationalism, religion, and unilateralism along the lines of the agenda promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump and his former advisor Steve Bannon, or similar movements on the European extreme right. This group also defends close relations with the U.S. and Israel, as well as recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. They want Brazil out of the Paris Climate Change Accord and the Global Pact on Migration.

These positions are ruptures with the basic pillars of Brazilian diplomacy in the 30 years since the return of democracy and would jeopardize many alliances and coalitions that Brazilian diplomacy carefully built along the years. The anti-globalists are mainly young and somewhat of outsiders—Mr. Araújo, for example, was until a few months ago a middle-ranked diplomat, who was never the head of a foreign mission or held high office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Mr. Araújo is facing unprecedented rejection from his colleagues, who already published an anonymous manifesto against him and gave him the nickname “Beato Salu,” after a crazy religious fanatic in a popular soap opera of the 1980s.

The Armed Forces

Mr. Bolsonaro’s military advisors are important figures in the new administration. Generals, Admirals, and Air Force senior officers form more than one-third of the cabinet—a record for democratic times. They represent a conservative view of foreign policy, which usually supports the consensus of the last decades, but are more critical of rapprochement with left-wing regimes in Latin America, of international human rights NGOs, and they usually keep their guard up when it comes to China. Many of the Army generals, including Vice-President Hamilton Mourão and several ministers, served in UN peacekeeping missions in Haiti and Africa, and respect multilateral institutions, recognizing their importance to Brazil.

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General Augusto Heleno will have an influence in diplomacy 

Among the military officers, Gen. Mourão and retired General Augusto Heleno (the head of the intelligence office) are the men to watch regarding foreign policy. As vice-president, Gen. Mourão does not have a precise role in the government, and there are reports that Mr. Bolsonaro is not satisfied with his high media profile. Fluent in English and Spanish, with broad experience in international missions, he is establishing himself as an important partner of foreign diplomats and journalists.

Gen. Heleno is perhaps the most respected Army officer of his generation and heads the Cabinet of Institutional Security—the closest thing Brazil has to a National Security Advisor. He has the president’s ear, having been his teacher at the military academy.

In economic affairs, the current leadership of the Armed Forces is more open to free trade and globalization than in the times of the military regime. They usually defend the need for austerity measures, providing they do not affect their own financial privileges, such as the military’s very generous pension system. They will probably side with the technocrats in their reforms.

The economic technocrats

Last, but not least, there are the economic technocrats which rally around Paulo Guedes and his “Super-Ministry” of the Economy. With him are experts in several parts of the government, such as the Central Bank and Ministry of Agriculture. Their main interests in diplomacy are global economic affairs: trade negotiations and rules for foreign investment.

Paulo guedes

For Economy Minister Paulo Guedes, diplomacy means trade

Mr. Guedes is spearheading an ambitious reform of the Brazilian state with the goal of making the economy more open and less bureaucratic. That puts him in conflict with the anti-globalists, because their religious and nationalist views often create trouble with Brazil’s trade partners, such as China and the Arab League. Their rejection of the Paris Agreement was mentioned by the European Union as the pretext to stop the negotiation of a free trade pact with Mercosur.

These are not small disagreements. Brazil’s foreign trade is small (less than 25 percent of its GDP) but more global than most Brazilians usually think. For example, the main destinations of exports in 2018 were China (27.8 percent), Europe (20 percent), U.S. (12 percent), Argentina (6.2 percent) and the Middle East (4.1 percent).

The evangelical caucus is also going to be important in Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration. In economic affairs, they basically support Mr. Guedes’ agenda, although the religious values of the anti-globalists are important to them, especially concerning Jerusalem. However, Israel, which ranks so high in the anti-globalist agenda, is less than 0.5 percent and not even among Brazil’s top 30 trade partners.

In other words, foreign policy will be the object of a strong dispute among these several groups. The anti-globalists will get lots of headlines because of their controversial statements, but it is not clear that they are going to win many battles and set the tone for the administration.

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OpinionJan 04, 2019

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BY Mauricio Santoro

Santoro holds a Ph.D. in Political Science. He is currently Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of International Relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro