So this was odd: The foreign minister for Brazil’s controversial new president, Jair Bolsonaro, just laid out his foreign policy vision to Americans in an op-ed that was largely a critique of … Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Ernesto Araújo’s piece, when it wasn’t a close reading of the early-20th-century Austro-English philosopher’s views on subjectivity, suggested that the Bolsonaro administration would transform Brazilian foreign policy primarily by “talking about freedom and democracy, and by taking those concepts seriously,” and by taking actions to “promote freedom of thought and freedom of expression around the world.” The op-ed was published via Bloomberg shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Araújo in Brasilia. Pompeo then told reporters that the two countries “have an opportunity to work alongside each other against authoritarian regimes,” singling out Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
Talk of freedom and democracy has always sounded odd from Trump administration officials, given the president’s fondness for authoritarian rulers. It may be even stranger from a Bolsonaro government official, not only because of the new president’s attacks on the media and minority groups, but also because of his praise for his own country’s authoritarian past. Bolsonaro has described the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s as a “very good” period that “stopped Brazil [from] falling under the sway of the Soviet Union.” He told supporters during his campaign, “We want a Brazil that is similar to the one we had 40, 50 years ago” and has praised one of the old regime’s main torture chiefs.
In previous writings on his blog, Araújo has stated that his goal is to “help Brazil and the world liberate themselves from globalist ideology.” This ideology, as he sees it, manifests itself in everything from feminism to gay rights and from vegetarianism to climate science, which he has denounced as a plot by “cultural Marxists” to weaken the West and help China. This is the supposedly Wittgensteinian “globalist totalitarian ideology” he vowed to take on in his Bloomberg essay. His targets are not only authoritarian leftist governments but also societies in the West “where thought is indirectly and insidiously controlled by the media and academia.”
Araújo is, unsurprisingly, a big fan of Trump. In a widely publicized article last year, which likely led Bolsonaro to promote him from a midlevel diplomat, he praised the U.S. president for, as Reuters summarized, “saving western Christian civilization from radical Islam and ‘globalist cultural Marxism’ by standing up for national identity, family values and the Christian faith.”
Likewise, Trump officials are probably big fans of Araújo and his boss. While Trump’s foreign policy is often thought of as amoral and purely transactional, it’s far more ideological when it comes to Latin America. Trump was fairly ambivalent about the region during his campaign—and even mildly supported Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba—but his administration has taken a hard line on Cuba and Venezuela and let ideologues like Sen. Marco Rubio take the lead on setting policy. (Trump’s main guidance to his national security council regarding Latin America was, reportedly, “make Rubio happy.”) The Trump administration has been mostly unengaged on Latin America, and his anti-immigrant rhetoric and threats to invade Venezuela have alienated regional governments even further. But in Bolsonaro and Araújo, the administration and congressional cold warriors will have enthusiastic allies in an ideological struggle against the region’s leftist governments.
The Trump administration has, at times, been willing to employ the language of democracy promotion elsewhere, as well. Pompeo, for instance, has justified U.S. sanctions against Iran in the name of freeing Iranians from the “hard grip of repression.”
Araújo cheers on Trump loyalists’ attacks on “globalism” as a Cold War–like struggle necessitating sacrifice and compromise—including, at times, partnering with very undemocratic but pro-American governments. (I say Trump loyalists because it’s unclear how much the president himself actually cares about any of this stuff.)
While you won’t hear a Trump administration official refer to “avant-la-lettre postmodern deconstruction of the human subject,” Araújo’s rhetoric could provide an ideological framework for a U.S. foreign policy vision that otherwise seems purely transactional.