Jair Bolsonaro faces the biggest foreign policy challenge during his nearly 30-month tenure. The Climate Summit, which will bring together 40 world leaders under the auspices of new US President Joe Biden, will be a fire test of the Brazilian government’s ability to make international commitments and demonstrate confidence and long-term planning .
The Biden administration has treated climate change as a top priority. There is nothing stronger in American rhetoric than defining a theme as a matter of national security. Since the presidential campaign, the Democrat has shown that, in this area, he sees Brazilian environmental policy as a real threat to the well-being of its citizens.
From now on, Bolsonaro will no longer be able to blink. His government has spent two years playing foreign policy, inventing ghostly concepts and disseminating conspiracy theories on social media, notably to escape responsibility for the devastation of the Amazon. But at the adult table, shared by Xi Jinping, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, the Brazilian president – who has already harassed them – will be forced to keep his bravado and negotiate.
Cleaning up Brazil’s poor international image will be difficult, but not impossible. We have an interesting precedent which, interestingly, happened under the only living president Bolsonaro seems to respect: Fernando Collor de Mello. When the new president took office in March 1990, he faced two challenges. Hyperinflation, whose miracle solution – the confiscation of savings – has turned against traumatic generations of Brazilians and the restoration of the country’s credibility. In this regard, Collor’s performance was surprisingly positive, but it required a lot of creativity on his part.
At the end of the “lost decade”, just as the first post-dictatorship elections took place, Brazil was on the verge of being seen as an international pariah. We were seen as economic offenders, thanks to the default of external debt and nearly a decade of market reserve in IT.
To make matters worse, we have been accused of humanitarian vandals, with a government often accused of turning a blind eye to violations of indigenous peoples’ rights and violence against environmentalists.
The activism of Chief Raoni and the tragic murder of Chico Mendes have become symbols of the resistance of a country adrift. Everywhere in the West, voices like that of the young democratic senator Al Gore and of the French socialist president François Mitterrand have evoked an alleged “right of interference”, a controversial concept of international law, to intervene in the Amazonian management on behalf of humanity. .
Collor understood from the campaign that he would only be able to carry out the relevant reforms if he had international goodwill. Supported by the young and progressive Constitution of 1988 and despite the arrears of interests of the Armed Forces, he invested in the recovery of the image of the country with strong and symbolic gestures: he threw a shovel of lime (literal) on the well nuclear test during the dictatorship, the leader in the demarcation of indigenous lands, adhered to international human rights treaties and received as chairman, for the first time, the director of an international NGO, the World Wildlife Fund.
In a government without parties, Collor handed over the Environment portfolio to famous environmentalist José Lutzenberger. Bureaucrats, diplomats and politicians mobilized for the most ambitious environmental meeting in history, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio-92.
In the eyes of the international community, Brazil has left the condition of an outcast to assume a leading role in the brand new ecological agenda. In front of more than a hundred world leaders, Collor hosted the event that guided the entire environmental debate over the following decades, consolidating concepts such as sustainable development, the right to development and climate change.
Since then, other presidents have understood the importance of Brazilian leadership in the environmental agenda. Under Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Brazil took the lead in the Kyoto Protocol negotiations. Lula endorsed the successful action plan for the prevention and control of deforestation in the legal Amazon, responsible for the 83% reduction in deforestation in the region between 2004 and 2012, in addition to the national policy on the climate change. Similarly, despite controversies involving Belo Monte, environmental commitments were met during the Dilma government, which held Rio + 20 and ensured Brazil’s adherence to the Paris Agreement.
With variations in accent and style, the representatives of the New Republic made Brazil an environmental powerhouse. This has been, for three decades, one of the main assets of Brazil’s international reputation.
Biden’s climate summit will be an opportunity for Brazil to regain, at least in part, its burnt credibility. Bolsonaro’s biggest challenge is showing the world that he will embrace truly ambitious environmental goals, by listening to science and civil society, and not just his advisers on the predatory wing of the military and ruralists.
A dose of media creativity and political engagement from Collor won’t hurt you. This will only get better if the president has the grandeur to replace pyrotechnician Ricardo Salles with a notable minister. In these strange times, you just need to be someone who accepts the scientific consensus on the climate, appreciates standing trees and is unwilling to charge a ransom for them.