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NEW YORK — The leaders of the Western Hemisphere’s two biggest democracies kicked off a day of speeches at the U.N. General Assembly. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva returned to the dais for the first time since 2009, when the popular leftist had last been in power. On Tuesday, Lula heralded his nation’s return to the world stage after four years of unpredictable, disruptive nationalism under the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, whose appearances at the United Nations were a source of embarrassment for many of his compatriots back home.
“Brazil is re-encountering itself, the region, the world and multilateralism,” Lula said, while inveighing upon the scourges of economic inequality and climate change. “As I never tire of saying, Brazil is back. Our country is back to give our due contribution to face the world’s primary challenges.”
That’s not unfamiliar rhetoric to President Biden, who made a similar pitch at the United Nations almost a year after his electoral triumph over far-right President Donald Trump. The processes of inauguration for both leaders were marred by anti-democratic insurrections. Biden immediately followed Lula in the speaking order Tuesday and put out a message that was, among other things, an unmistakable repudiation of Trump’s motte-and-bailey “America First” agenda.
“The United States seeks a more secure, more prosperous, more equitable world for all people because we know our future is bound to yours,” Biden said. “And no nation can meet the challenges of today alone.”
Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 19, President Biden said the U.S. and its allies will ‘continue to stand’ with Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)
But there were clear differences between them, as well: Lula railed against the United States’ decades-long blockade of Cuba, where he visited immediately before journeying to New York. He also decried how an age of great power competition seems to have only exacerbated social and economic inequalities in the world and set out his stall once more as the inveterate champion of the “Global South,” especially in the face of the ever-present climate crisis.
“It knocks on our door, destroys our homes, our cities, our countries, kills, and imposes suffering and losses on our brothers,” Lula said. “It is the vulnerable populations in the Global South who are most affected by the loss and damage caused by climate change.”
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Biden, too, spoke of common challenges like that of a warming planet, but spent a significant chunk of his speech decrying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and called on the international community to stand up in Kyiv’s defense. “If we allow Ukraine to be carved up, is the independence of any nation secure? I’d respectfully suggest the answer is no,” Biden said. “We must stand up to this naked aggression today and deter other would-be aggressors tomorrow.”
That’s a world away from Lula, who once told reporters that the U.S. involvement in the war was stoking the conflict further and has urged the warring parties to engage in talks. “We do not underestimate the difficulties of achieving peace, but no solution will be lasting if it is not based on dialogue,” Lula said on Tuesday.
Brazil has ruled out offering military support to Ukraine, but it has condemned Russia’s invasion. “Armed conflicts are an offense to human rationality,” Lula said at the General Assembly. “We know the horrors and suffering produced by all wars. Promoting a culture of peace is a duty for all of us.”
To some Western interlocutors, such rhetoric is fanciful. They see no eence of Russian interest in building that “culture of peace,” and, as Biden did on Tuesday, single out the Kremlin as solely responsible for the carnage and destruction unleashed in Ukraine. While framing their arguments around the need for peace, it’s clear that Lula and some of his closest allies see the situation in a different light.
“This is not only a war of Russia against Ukraine, or between Russia and Ukraine,” Celso Amorim, Lula’s chief foreign policy adviser, told me, “but it also reflects a broader conflict between Russia and the West.” Amorim warned against NATO powers seeking the “objective” of a Russian “defeat,” pointing to the harsh conditions imposed on Germany after World War I and the national resentment that would later spur the rise of Nazism.
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Whatever the merits of that particular historical analogy (and it has its critics), Amorim stressed the importance of being able to talk to all sides in a world shaped by multiple major powers. “We would like to have a ‘multipolar’ world, but also, as far as possible, a benign multipolar world in which there is competition, but not necessarily confrontation,” Amorim said. In that context, he added, “we consider ourselves very good friends of the United States,” but “we don’t need to agree on everything.”
On Wednesday, Biden and Lula are expected to jointly highlight a point of ideological convergence: The rights of workers. The Brazilian leader is a former laborer and vocal ally of his nation’s trade union movement. Three of Brazil’s most important union leaders joined Lula’s delegation in New York and attended a meeting alongside the president with representatives from the United Auto Workers union, thousands of whose American workers are currently on strike against the United States’ big three carmakers. On Wednesday, “solidarity actions” targeting factories or dealerships affiliated with these companies are planned.
The joint Biden-Lula initiative around labor may turn out to be rather vague, a convening of a focus group committed to thinking what the future of the working class may look like in an age of automation, digitalization and increasing precarity. But at a time of increasing radicalization on the right — and after the turbulent experience, especially in Brazil, of a president ideologically bent on smashing organized labor — its proponents see a vital shared interest.
“Both countries have suffered from the extreme right in recent years,” Sérgio Nobre, head of one of Brazil’s largest trade confederations and a key Lula ally, told me while in New York. Attempts to weaken collective bargaining in the service of major companies and oligarchic interests, he added, “are not just attacks on unions, but on democracy itself.”