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Three Horizons of Brazil–Russia Relations

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Authors: Fernando César Costa Xavier and Alexander Korolkov*

Almost a month has passed since the inauguration of the new President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro. He and his team are not new to Brazil’s national politics; during their careers, they have made quite a few statements about the country’s place in the world and their vision of the development of Brazil’s relations with its key partners. Still, very few political observers (and maybe even members of the new cabinet) understand what Brazil’s foreign policy will be over the next four years. Thus far, we can gauge from the President’s campaign promises that Brazilian diplomacy needs to transform radically and move from broad participation in international organizations and initiatives to “anti-globalism” and bilateral talks in international trade.

The person charged with implementing this project, which has the supported of President Bolsonaro’s voters, is the career diplomat Ernesto Araújo, who was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs not so much for his institutional experience as for the “correctness” of his ideas. Under his leadership, the new diplomacy should be based on an ideology composed of religious (Judeo-Christian) ultra-conservatism, programmatic anti-socialism, and vain nationalism. The implementation of this project should result in improving relations with the United States, Israel and those European countries that are led by right-wing conservatives.

Diplomacy on the Edge

As the new ruling elite in Brazil moves from words to deeds, concerns seem to have arisen that the new foreign political doctrine may cause the country economic and political damage. As a result, a group of the new President’s supporters led by Vice President General Hamilton Mourão (ret.) have been attempting throughout January to mitigate a series of foreign political messages that emerged during the presidential campaign.

At the very least, such actions result in an inevitable conceptual conflict between Mourão and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ernesto Araújo. Attempts to side-line the latter and remove him from the decision-making process are already obvious, so much so that the Vice President has met with ambassadors of several countries, including China (whose influence in Brazil was proclaimed to be almost the chief threat to national sovereignty during Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign), without the Minister of Foreign Affairs being present. This is at the very least unusual and goes against established practice. However, Mourão’s actions have not gone unnoticed. The Brazilian media has started to call Araújo’s growing isolation a “cordon sanitaire.”

The USSR Standing between Brazil and Russia

Given the budding internal confrontation, it is extremely hard to predict the course that Brazil–Russia relations will take. Unlike China, Russia was not criticized directly by the new President, but this might be due to the fact that Russia was not mentioned at all during Bolsonaro’s campaign. We can only guess as to his attitude towards the country.

As an ardent anti-communist, Bolsonaro is certain to view Russia at least with some suspicion because of its Soviet past. Russia probably does not quite realize it, but the USSR still remains an important fact in bilateral relations. Even though 2019 will mark 28 years since the collapse of the USSR, Brazil’s right-wing politicians and a significant chunk of the population still view President Vladimir Putin as a Soviet apparatchik who never cut his functional ties to the KGB. The fact that the KGB has itself been defunct for over a quarter of a century does not matter at all, since its successor has not yet gained comparable publicity (which is probably for the better) and the KGB continues to be a grim symbol of all things Soviet.

Although influential Brazilian analysts, such as the economist Mailson da Nobrega, insist that “true socialism” died in 1991 and that Bolsonaro’s crusade is pointless, for many Brazilians, the spectre of communism still lives in the Kremlin.

The support that Russia is extending to Nicolás Maduro’s seriously battered government helps feed this phantasmagoria. In an interview with Brazilian TV several weeks ago, Bolsonaro expressed concern about Russia’s military manoeuvres in Venezuela and, in this connection, even announced he could consider having a U.S. military base in Brazil.

This is the unstable background against which relations between Brazil and Russia are developing. Naturally, at this stage there is no initial data that would allow us to make accurate forecasts for the development of Russia–Brazil relations, but at least three major movement vectors from this bifurcation point can be seen, each of which may noticeably oscillate when confronted with an unpredictable reality. Let us call them horizons: their outlines are already visible, but it is not yet clear what lies beyond.

The First Horizon: Is a “Holy Alliance” Possible in the 21st Century?

Part of Brazil’s new ruling elite considers Putin’s Russia as a state that is closer to religious conservatism (linked with the Orthodox clergy) than to left-wing liberalism that ideologically stems from the “Red May,” i.e. the events of May of 1968. This group is headed by Chancellor Araújo. Back in 2018, before assuming the ministerial office, he proposed a “Christian pact” with the United States and Russia. He thought that such an alliance would challenge the “globalist axis” created by China, Europe and the American left. This statement was part of a single ideological package that also included criticism of Brazil’s participation in multilateral international forums and the announcement of the country’s withdrawal from the UN Global Compact for Migration.

It is quite possible that this impression of moral and political alignment which, according to the Chancellor, could happen between Brazil and Russia (Bolsonaro and Putin) was bolstered by the courtesy of the Russian side in congratulating Bolsonaro on his election victory. Bolsonaro replied to the congratulations from @KremlinRussia_E on Twitter, writing “Thank you, President Putin!” in his personal account on October 29, 2018. In addition to the tweet, the Russian President also sent a congratulatory telegram.

Although Putin probably views the mercurial Bolsonaro with a certain caution, he extended a hand again in a letter sent in late December 2018 emphasizing the possibility of a strategic partnership between Brazil and Russia. A few days later, Speaker of the State Duma of the Russian Federation Vyacheslav Volodin and his deputy Olga Yepifanova represented Russia at the President’s inauguration. The Russian delegation also met with the incumbent President of the Chamber of Deputies of Brazil Rodrigo Maia, who plans to be re-elected to the office with the support of Bolsonaro and his party (the Social Liberal Party).

If top level contacts do make it possible to overcome ideological fears and improve mutual understanding, Araújo is likely to pay much attention to an alliance with Russia, including possibly in the BRICS format. Brazilian diplomacy may need Russia as a counterbalance to China’s influence in the bloc. For Brazil’s right-wing politicians, China remains a source of a far greater number of phobias than Moscow. Despite opening its economy in recent decades, formally, China remains a communist country and is the greatest epitome of the “Red Scare” for Brazil’s anti-communists. In a highly controversial article written when he was only a nominee for the office of the Chancellor, Araújo claimed that “Maoist China had to be opposed.”

The Second Horizon: Realpolitik Brazilian Style

If Araújo is side-lined and the Realpolitik promoted by Vice-President Hamilton Mourão moves to the foreground, then, as surprising as it is, roads leading to Moscow still remain, although they might not be quite as straight.

In a recent interview, Mourão said he did not understand the point of an accelerated rapprochement between Brazil and Israel. It directly contradicted the idea of opening Brazil’s embassy in Jerusalem, which Bolsonaro proposed in support of a similar move by Trump. In the same interview, he quite unexpected asked, “Are we ready to pay any price to be fans of the Americans?”

Could Russia consider such statements as an invitation to engage in a dialogue? We believe it could.

Such a dialogue could take place at the upcoming 11th BRICS Summit, which will be held in Brazil in 2019. Mourão, who is fluent in English, could be a useful interlocutor for the bloc partners. He pays less attention to “anti-communism” and, unlike Araújo, does not think that the issues of global warming and sustainable development that had been discussed at the 10th BRICS summit are “hijacked by left-wing ideology.” Russia should use this chance to build bridges.

The Third Horizon: Getting Personal

If we forget about all groups and consider the personal impressions that the two countries’ leaders can produce on each other, then Brazil–Russia relations still have a future.

Like Chancellor Araújo, Bolsonaro is an avowed admirer of President Trump. Trump has an equivocal, yet generally positive attitude towards Putin. Behind his criticism of Russia’s policies and politics and the reserved attitude towards Russia that stems from domestic political factors, one can periodically glean Trump’s respect for Putin and even a desire to emulate his style.

This is probably very similar to what Brazil’s new president feels about the Russian leader. There is no doubt that Bolsonaro at the very least respects Putin, and probably, deep down, admires him. The similarities in their political styles appear to overcome their differences. Their supporters value their images of patriot warriors that bravely and ruthlessly fight against “enemies of the nation.”

Brazilian fans who attended the World Cup in Russia were amazed by the number of souvenirs bearing Putin’s image. These images are almost universally aggressive, associated with a demonstration of brute force (take the famous image of Putin riding a bear, for instance). It is possible that this practice was partially borrowed for Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign, at least in the images that are spread on social networks and forming a similar cult around the new president. The two leaders are becoming increasingly similar in terms of being viewed as “saints” and “the chosen ones” by their supporters.

Bolsonaro’s personal contacts with Putin and President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping will certainly give him a more realistic feel for geopolitics. Maybe then he will evaluate the possibilities afforded by bilateral and multilateral talks and the global community will eventually come to understand that the ideological structures erected around him are nothing but a “Potyomkin village,” or smoke and mirrors.

*Alexander Korolkov, PhD in History, Expert on Latin America expert, RIAC expert

First published in our partner RIAC

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Addressing the infodemic should be the key priority of a Biden administration

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The 2020 election underlined the growing tribalism in the United States with many seeing it as a referendum on the soul, identity, and future of the United States.

One reason for the growing divisions is that Americans increasingly self-segregate, living in communities that reinforce their political, social, religious, and philosophical views facilitating the growth of visceral political anger. Consequently, everything is political and personal and compromises virtually impossible. 

The election and the result highlighted that millions of Americans, despite plenty of factual evidence to the contrary, hold views not based on empirical evidence. Millions believe the 2020 election was neither free nor fair and that Democrats support globalist cabalschild-trafficking, paedophilia rings.  

The tribalism is most visible in the way many Americans respond to the Covid-19 pandemic with 76% of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents asserting the US had done a good job dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, even though the virus continues to run rampant across the country. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary around 29% believe Covid-19 is an intentional bioweapon, others believe Bill Gates had planned the pandemic or that 5G technology is responsible for the outbreak. 

Without tackling the infodemic, a Biden administration would struggle because proponents of disinformation (the intentional spreading of untruths) and adherent of misinformation (belief in untruth) have increasingly moved from the fringe to the centre. 

A study from the Cornell Alliance for Science identified President Trump has the world’s biggest disseminator of COVID-19 misinformation. It is therefore unsurprising that so many Americans question not only the root of the pandemic but how to combat it. Consequently, many doubts any information that does not come from Donald Trump, especially as many of his supporters look at life in a binary way, of either full support or full resistance.   

Soon after being declared winner, Joe Biden announced the establishment of a COVID-19 advisory board composed of public health experts, whose role would be to aid in coordinating the response to the pandemic. However, relying on science is problematic as the hyper-politicisation has meant many Americans mistrust scientific findings, holding it to be equally biased.

Beyond a highly partisan Congress, which is likely to stall many of Biden’s policies, the administration would need to grapple with President Trump’s judicial legacy. President Trump not only appointed three Supreme Court justices thus altering the political leaning of the court, but he reversed the trend of promoting diversity. For example, in 1977, the judiciary was predominantly white and male, but successive presidents worked hard to bring forth minorities onto the bench to reflect the nature of American society. President Trump’s nominees could end up slowing down or torpedoing an ambitious, reformist agenda. Challenging the legitimacy of the courts would only add to the growing division, especially as studies indicate that over 60 percent of Americans have faith in the judicial branch.

Joe Biden is uniquely suited to address many of these challenges. Firstly, his age may be an advantage; he has lived through many changes, and he can rely on those experiences as he reaches out to people. He has blue-collar roots, and the fact that he attended a non-Ivy League university would appeal to many Americans suspicious of the elites. His religious commitment gives him a unique ability to speak to many of President Trump’s religious supporters; he just needs to find the tone.

Biden’s principal task should be to use to White House pulpit to speak with people, connect with them, and persuade them to abandon their hyper-partisanship. He should reject President Trump’s usage of executive orders, regulatory discretion particularly when things will get tough, such as Senate refusing to confirm his nominees. As an experienced bridge-builder, he must spend more time speaking with people, bringing them to the Oval Office to persuade them to support empirically-test policies. Reminding opponents, he secured the support of over 80 million Americans. 

The Biden administration will also face many demands from Progressive claiming they worked very hard to get Biden elected. They will argue, with merit, that having a moderate agenda, one designed to win over moderate Republicans and Independents is a betrayal. However, Biden emphasises his goal is to heal America, to bring an element of stability. To pacify the Progressive, he must emphasise he is overseeing a transitional administration, designed to restore civility and unity and lay the foundation for Kamla Harris.  

Reversing the infodemic would take time as it calls for healing divisions and encouraging many Americans to abandon many strongly held ideas, which requires empathy. Joe Biden has the skills to do bring about positive change, and for the sake of many Americans and the world, we must hope that he succeeds.

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Fakhrizadeh’s Assassination Could Endangers Biden’s Diplomacy

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Image source: Wikipedia

The international political situation heats up, especially in the Middle East, after the killing of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Apart from Mohsen, several other Iranian nuclear scientists have also been killed in the past decade.

Mohsen was attacked in eastern Tehran on Friday (27/11). He was ambushed by an armed group and the target of a Nissan car explosion before a gun battle broke out. He was rushed to the hospital, but his life could not be helped.

Iranian political and military officials have blamed Israel and US as the masterminds behind Mohsen’s assassination and attack. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for retaliation for Mohsen’s death. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also said he would retaliate and appoint Israel as the mastermind behind the attack.

Iran and Hezbollah are currently said to be targeting Israelis and Jews around the world. Places owned by Israel and Jews will be the main targets of their retaliation for Mohsen’s death. Israel is also raising its guard. The Israeli government is reportedly on standby and is tightening the security of its embassies around the world. Jewish communities around the world are also asked to be on high alert. The Israeli military has also increased its vigilance along the country’s borders.

What is interesting is that the US secretly deployed the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier to the Arabian Gulf region last Wednesday. Although US Navy Fifth Fleet Spokesperson, Rebecca Rebarich, denied the movement of the fleet was unrelated to Mohsen’s assassination, the international public interpreted the aircraft carrier in order to anticipate the escalation of threats that might arise after the murder case.

There is not much information about Mohsen. Mohsen is the head of the research and innovation organization at the Iranian Ministry of Defense. He’s the main figure behind Iran’s secret nuclear development.

In April 2018, PM Netanyahu mentioned Mohsen’s name when uncovering a nuclear file which he said had been smuggled by Israeli agents from Iran. He named Mohsen as the head of a secret nuclear project called the Amad Project.

In its 2011 report, the UN nuclear weapons watchdog also identified Mohsen as the mastermind behind Iran’s nuclear technology. He was considered to have the ability to do so and at that time it was suspected that he still had an important role in these activities.

Mohsen’s assassination is certain to provoke a new confrontation between Iran and its enemies, including the United States and Israel, in the final weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Mohsen’s assassination is considered as the culmination of the US and Israel’s strategic plan to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, various parties consider Mohsen’s killing to be the culmination of Israel’s long-term plan.

Mohsen has long been the target of several Israeli prime ministers as well as several directors of the Mossad spy agency. This murder was also predicted to aim at uprooting Iran as a country of nuclear knowledge.

However, some international observers have speculated that the main purpose of the assassination was actually to obstruct the US administration in the era of President-elect Joe Biden who will dialogue to find a diplomatic solution to end the conflict with Iran.

What’s more, President Biden has expressed his intention to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, which has been largely devastated since President Donald Trump left the deal in 2018.

Statement from Amos Yadlin, former head of Israel’s military intelligence and head of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Amos said whoever makes the decision to assassinate Mohsen should know that there are still 55 days left in which the White House has someone who sees the Iranian threat as they do. In fact, Amos says Biden is a different story. Amos’ statement certainly points to President Trump who is still in power in the White House.

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Biden’s victory: An Opportunity for Transatlantic Reconciliation after Trump and Brexit?

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Joe Biden’s victory Last November came at a critical point during the Brexit negotiations between The European Union and the United Kingdom. There has been a lot of speculation as to whether a change in the American presidency will substantially affect the talks between Europe and Britain. Realistically speaking, the effect the Democrats’ victory in the US will have, at least on Brexit talks before the end of this year, will be minimal.

On a positive note, now that Donald Trump has been defeated, this leaves very little room for the UK to use the threat of a quicker and better deal with the US to try to subdue the EU and make them accept a more pro British agenda. The UK has no longer the US is an alternative to fall back onto if no deal is the result of the negotiations by December 31st.

Since the 2016 British referendum, the decision to leave the EU was enthusiastically greeted by Donald Trump. In very simplistic terms, Trump saw The British “Yes” vote as an act that vaguely resembled his campaign slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again.” The long standing, more loyal foreign policy ally of the US in Europe, was slowly showing signs to move away from the multilateralism Donald Trump greatly despised.

Ever since the outcome of the Brexit referendum became official, Donald Trump voiced his strong support for the UK to pursue a hard Brexit, and even enticed the British government with the prospect of a robust trade deal between the US and the UK, to convince the UK to drop out of the EU without a deal. In reality, none of those big American promises ever materialised. From 2016 to 2020, Donald Trump did absolutely nothing to support the UK. Biden’s victory last November, makes any past promises made by Trump impossible to fulfil.

Biden will, in principle, follow a diametrically opposed foreign policy to Trump’s. He sees the EU, and not the UK, ask the key actor that will help him advance American interests in the European continent. While there have been mutual expressions of willingness to strengthen the relationship between the Americans and the British, Joe Biden has always been skeptical of Brexit, and has made it clear from the start that one of his priorities in foreign policy will be to rebuild the relationship with the EU rather than pursuing a trade deal with the UK.

Ideally, should the UK try to have some sort of leverage to negotiate with the incoming American administration, they need to aim to strike a workable deal between with the EU before the end of this year. That, however, seems unlikely to happen. From an American perspective, it is highly probable that the Biden’s administration will not prioritise any UK-US trade deal in the foreseeable future. There is a strong possibility that Joe Biden will focus on domestic and close neighbours (Canada and Mexico) Issues during his first year in the presidency.

While this is understandable, considering the legacy of the Trump, Biden also has to be careful enough to avoid the temptation to play hardball with the UK because of Brexit. If he does, this could prove to be a fatal mistake with long lasting consequences, specially in a moment when the West is struggling with its own internal weaknesses and the rise of external threats to its unity.

One aspect that both Europe and the US have to acknowledge is that the importance of the UK goes beyond striking a trade deal with the EU. Looking at the rise of more geographically widespread authoritarian and antidemocratic pressures from central, Eastern Europe, China and Russia, the UK is still plays an important role on the continent’s security. Talks on further cooperation on how the EU and the UK will cooperate on foreign and security policy once the transition period ends on 31st of December 2020 have not yet been held. The UK, unfortunately, is likely to remain a crucial partner on such topics especially due to its role as a prominent and active member of NATO, and therefore, talks on this issues should not be left unaddressed.

The UK is aware of its importance militarily, and this explains the £24.1 billion investment announced by the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, this year. This is the largest investment since the end of the Cold War and it aims to modernise the armed forces, as well as to expand the Royal Navy to turn it into the largest fleet in Europe.

This move will enhance the UK’s status as Europe’s leading military power. The UK has also been among the first respondents to recent security crisis in Ukraine and Belarus. Not engaging with the UK altogether in security and foreign policy issues may prove to be detrimental in the long run for the security in the EU, especially considering the rising tensions and instability in the Ring of Fire, from Belarus to Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Nagorno-Karabakh.

The EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) allow for intergovernmental cooperation, this means that  states can pursue their own policies and coordinate them only when they align with the EU’s. The CSDP also allows EU member states to intervene when NATO as an alliance chooses not to. To date, there are 17 of such interventions, in all of these, the UK has been the biggest contributor.

Security is an area of opportunity for Europe and the US, Biden could potentially push for the Europeans to grant the UK an observer role in the Political and Security Committee, or the Foreign Policy Council to advance a common security and foreign policy for the region that wouldn’t only benefit Europe, but also the US interests in the wider European area.

Recently, the UK has been an advocate of what is called a “Global Britain” that echoes the times of the great British Empire’s prominence as a global player. How this will be achieved is still unclear. This grand strategy may fare impossible under current economic and political conditions in the UK and in the world, as well as with the uncertainty surrounding the future relationship of the UK with its neighbours after Brexit.

Anything can happen, the UK could pursue a close, special relationship with Europe where cooperation is prioritised, or there could be a more profound break between the two, where the UK sets its own agenda against the EU’s. For decades, the terms Europe and the EU have been used interchangeably. Now that one of the major European players is out of the organisation, both sides have not yet worked out how the future relationship will be. If it continues to be antagonistic this could send the whole continent into a spiral of chaos, reduced capabilities an increased volatility.

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