Brazil’s Foreign Policy Under Bolsonaro: A Radical Departure from Tradition

by Abby Schnabel

A nation’s foreign policy reflects its values, priorities, and aspirations on the global stage. Brazil underwent a significant transformation in its foreign policy strategy under Jair Bolsonaro, the President from 2019 to 2022. Bolsonaro’s ascent to power marked a stark departure from Brazil’s long-standing diplomatic tradition, ushering in a shift from multilateralism to bilateralism founded on ideological alignments. Ultimately, these newfound stances led to a complete recalibration of global partnerships. Brazil’s historical role as a regional leader deteriorated as Bolsonaro’s administration undermined regional integration mechanisms and distanced itself from neighboring South American countries, hoping to achieve great power status. 

Historically, Brazil maintained a steady and predictable foreign policy strategy characterized by multilateral engagement, regional cooperation, and an assurance for development. This commitment is exemplified through welfare programs like Bolsa Família, a government initiative that provides financial assistance to low-income families. Brazil strategically employs its foreign policy to garner international support and resources for such social programs, facilitating the expansion of initiatives aimed at poverty alleviation and improving social welfare. This foreign policy has remained “largely unchanged since the 1970s,” according to Guilherme Casarões, a professor at the São Paulo School of Business Administration of the Getulio Vargas Foundation. Casarões says this approach helped Brazil carve a niche for itself as a leader in South American relations and climate change negotiations. However, Casarões emphasizes that these are “issues Bolsonaro rejected.” Instead, Bolsonaro’s presidency signaled a seismic shift in this established order, prompting a complete reevaluation of Brazil’s international priorities. Casarões highlighted that the key historical areas where Bolsano tried to change the direction of Brazil’s foreign policy were bilateral relations and regional integration mechanisms. 

A significant battleground of Bolsonaro’s foreign policy was his resistance to multilateral institutions like The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Vowing to distance Brazil from such frameworks, he rejected global platforms that address pressing issues like climate change and South American relations. Departing from the country’s traditional emphasis on multilateralism, Bolsonaro simultaneously sought to establish closer ties with nations that shared a conservative worldview. This approach was driven by a focus on personal relations and ideological commonalities, leading to partnerships with governments motivated by similarly right-leaning, religiously conservative, and anti-communist sentiments. A conscious effort to redefine Brazi’s bilateral partnerships was at the core of Bolsonaro’s foreign policy strategy, which dismantled Brazil’s regional and global influence in spaces it had traditionally led. With Bolsonaro’s favoring of ideological solidarity over historic partnerships, Brazil’s geopolitical landscape shifted, “eroding every single arena where Brazil used to have leadership,” stated Casarões. 

In the wake of Bolsonaro and in an era characterized by the global rise of far-right movements, Brazil’s foreign policy now faces the contemporary challenge of promoting cooperation against extremism. Bolsonaro’s presidency witnessed what Casarões called “the Americanization of Brazilian politics,” emphasizing a more conservative and polarized domestic environment, as highlighted by Bolsonaro’s supporters storming government buildings following his defeat in the presidential election. This only isolated the nation further from critical global challenges, resulting in a perception of Brazil as a “rogue actor” on the international stage, according to Casarões. Moving forward, Casarões sees foreign policy as a tool that “should be used to promote cooperation to combat the far right and extremism.”

Bolsonaro’s attempts to position Brazil as a dominant power through his foreign policy faced several challenges. Casarões highlights that while Brazil does possess soft power—the ability to influence global affairs through culture, values, and diplomacy—it lacks the comprehensive resources and capabilities typically associated with major global players, like a strong military. Bolsonaro’s quest for great power status clashed with the realities of Brazil’s economic and geopolitical constraints.

Today, post-Bolsonaro, Brazil’s foreign policy experts now face the challenge of navigating the delicate balance between the United States and China in the emerging bipolar world. This strategic “hedge” reflects Brazil’s attempts to extract benefits from both superpowers while minimizing potential risks, underscoring the complexity of Brazil’s positioning as it seeks to leverage partnerships for economic and political interests. These difficulties are only increasing exponentially, and Brazil’s position within the political and economic alliance BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) further complicates matters. 

Brazil’s foreign policy under Bolsonaro departed from its historical trajectory, pivoting towards ideological alignment, bilateralism, and resistance to multilateralism. While working to recover traditional partnerships and increase cooperation, it is evident that Bolsonaro’s alignment with conservative ideologies reshaped Brazil’s global position. As the world continues to evolve, Brazil’s foreign policy must balance its historical commitment to development and regional cooperation while adapting to a complex and rapidly changing global landscape.

Abby Schnabel is a junior in Jonathan Edwards. She can be contacted at