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Brazilian Discourses on the “New Cold War” between the US and China

Gustavo de L. T. Oliveira

On Christmas Eve 2018, the recently appointed and soon-to-be Minister of Foreign Affairs of Brazil, Ernesto Araújo, declared on his blog: “Something is happening in Brazil, placing us in the vanguard of a world process.” The event unfolding was the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil, and this global process to which Bolsonaro’ election contributed is  the resurgence of fascism, which Araújo characterized as the rediscovery of nationalism and the emancipation of “God himself.” Araújo’s appointment was unusual, given that he was a relatively obscure career diplomat, and he had not been nominated for this position by anyone in the Brazilian political establishment or diplomatic corps. Instead, Araújo was favored by Olavo de Carvalho, an influential astrologer and neofascist ideologue who prominently supported Bolsonaro’s candidacy, and who was impressed by an essay that Araújo had written the previous year celebrating Donald Trump’s Western chauvinism and calling for Brazil to join that “pan-nationalist” movement (Araújo 2017). According to Araújo’s view, “the West” here does not refer simply to the liberal-democratic and capitalist geopolitical bloc that struggled against Soviet and Chinese communism during the twentieth-century Cold War, but rather to a much deeper cultural and spiritual entity that reaches back to ancient Greece and Christianity, and finds its best expressions in Nazi ideologues like Heidegger and, above all, the foreign policy of Donald Trump (ibid.). In this perspective, the “real enemy” is not a state like Russia or China, therefore, but a spiritual force of “nihilism” and “post-modernism”, driven by a “globalist cultural Marxism” (ibid.). Nonetheless, when Araújo started his blog during the 2018 election in Brazil to promote himself (rather unprofessionally, one should add) as a spokesperson for the Western chauvinist foreign policy that Bolsonaro was parroting from Trump, the contours of a discourse about a “New Cold War” between “the West” (led by Trump) and China became increasingly evident. I contend the purpose of this discourse was and remains primarily to slander the Workers’ Party that ruled Brazil from 2003 to 2015 and the rest of Brazilian and internationalist Left in general, through a sloppy rendition of Cold War fear-mongering that stokes neofascist nationalism.1

This is best exemplified in a burst of blogposts written the week prior to the first round of the 2018 elections, where Araújo describes the Workers’ Party presidential candidate (Fernando Haddad) and ex-president (Lula da Silva) as “poles” in a transmission line, alongside Nicolás Maduro and Hugo Chavez from Venezuela, and the Argentinian philosopher Ernesto Laclau, leading ultimately to “Maoism”, which is the “pole of Hell.” With power lines standing in for the older domino theory, even the watered-down social democratic policies of the contemporary Workers’ Party of Brazil are being described literally as the Marxist conduits from “Maoism” to “Hell.” And if there was any doubt that Araújo’s mention of Maoism wasn’t merely historical or theoretical, in another blogpost from two days earlier he made it explicit that “what is at stake” for “humanity” is “the struggle for the economic and political sovereignty of the countries, against the domination of production chains and the monopoly over the circulation of information by a nihilist transnational elite, against a globalized Maoist-capitalist economy centered upon China.” How to make sense of the paradoxical role of “capitalist Maoism”, one might ask? In another blog post that same week, Araújo narrated the history of the Left from Robespierre to the Workers Party in Brazil as a sweeping march of “globalist terror”, suggesting the “Maoist regime” in China created “a system of domination that remains until today, disguised as pragmatism and economic opening up.” In this perspective, “the Left is, fundamentally, a program of social and mental domination and control of the human species”, and thus the neofascist candidacy of Bolsonaro that Araújo was promoting could be cast as necessary for saving not only the Brazilian nation, but even humanity itself in this new spiritual Cold War. 

Lest we dismiss all of this as mere electoral campaign bluster, it is worth noting that Araújo did not quit blogging after Bolsonaro’s election and his own appointment as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Albeit in fewer entries, Araújo doubled down on blogging as an outlet for statements too contentious for the proper institutional channels afforded him as Brazil’s chief diplomat. The most viewed entry – entitled “The communavirus has arrived”, posted on April 21, 2020 – announced  that “the coronavirus makes us wake up again to the communist nightmare”, and mangled an argument by Slavoj Žižek to claim that the current pandemic had become a “pretext” (alongside “climatism or climate alarmism, gender ideology, politically correct dogmatism, immigrationism, racialism or reorganization of society according the principle of race, anti-nationalism, and scientism”) to advance the project of “globalism [as] the new path of communism.” While avoiding the more crude and simplistic assertion that China unleashed COVID-19 upon the world for its own geopolitical advancement (a discourse that nevertheless circulates widely in Brazilian social media among neofascists and their credulous followers), Araújo leveraged the Sinophobia that swelled with the pandemic to reinforce his vision of the New Cold War.

This deep dive into Araújo’s blog is not intended to overstate its importance in the formation of Brazilian public and political discourses. Far more prominent has been Bolsonaro himself, who constantly and consistently criticized China on the campaign trail and continues to do so now in office, while simultaneously bashing his rivals in the Workers’ Party who oversaw the deepening of economic and political ties between Brazil and China in previous decades, when China surpassed the US as Brazil’s number-one commercial partner while also becoming a major investor in the Brazilian economy. “China is not buying from Brazil”, Bolsonaro once stated, “but buying up Brazil [itself]”.2 And whether through Bolsonaro’s fiery populist rhetoric or the pseudo-intellectual blogging of Araújo and their guru Olavo de Carvalho, these neofascist ideologues have been as much producers as a product of the anti-leftist sentiment that has been ingrained in the Brazilian military, middle class, and elites since the twentieth-century Cold War – when Brazil was ruled by a brutal military dictatorship, imposed with the full backing of the US government against the fear of communism taking root in South America. That fear of communism went from a simmer during the re-democratization and neoliberal reforms of the 1990s into a fervent boil after a decade of Workers’ Party rule, even though the Workers’ Party had long abandoned any form of socialist political economy to embrace a feeble form of neo-Keynesianism at home and multilateralism abroad. Hence Araújo’s need to caricature this enemy’s ideology as “cultural” Marxism, which is somehow coterminous with “nihilism” and “post-modernism,” determined to impose homosexuality, atheism, and other forms of immorality through the media and public education system upon an otherwise virtuous Western nation. By the same token, connecting the shards of social democracy and the scraps of identity politics in Brazil to “a globalized Maoist-capitalist economy centered upon China” becomes a central pillar of the sophistry that casts conservative moralism as sword and shield for a world-historical struggle over the existence of “the West” and even “humanity” itself.

This absurdist fever dream may have become widespread in Brazilian public and political debates, but it is not uncontested. Brazilian scholars of international relations are split on whether the concept of a “New Cold War” is even suitable for the present, and if so in what sense. Those who adopt the framework of a “New Cold War” (including in the Brazilian military) tend to emphasize the continuity of military tensions that pins the US and its allies primarily against Russia, emphasizing proxy wars in Syria and the Ukraine, and the role of Russian military advisors (and, secondarily, Chinese development bank loans) in propping up Maduro’s regime in Venezuela as its primary expression in Latin America (e.g. Teixeira Júnior 2020). Meanwhile, those who see China instead as the primary antagonist against the US emphasize the differences between today and the conflict against the Soviet Union of last century, since the US and China are deeply intertwined economically and there is no longer any ideological opposition between “capitalism and socialism” in their global relations. Today’s “hegemonic competition” is not an ideological struggle, and military build-ups and proxy wars are no longer the primary mechanism of Cold War confrontation;  rather, today, the confrontation is over economic and technological competition in capitalist globalization (Schutte 2019; Violante et al. 2020). 

The discourse of neofascists like Bolsonaro and Araújo is most directly confronted in Brazilian public and political debate in terms of  US-China hegemonic competition. For example, when they brought the Brazilian government into the US-led “Clean Network” initiative that opposes the incorporation of Chinese technology (especially 5G infrastructure and other information and communication technology) due to the fear of “espionage” by China, their concerns can be easily exposed as ideological hypocrisy. After all, while there is scant evidence that Chinese technology is a Trojan horse for Beijing’s geopolitical interference in Brazil or the rest of Latin America, there is an extremely long catalogue of US espionage and political interference in Brazil, including the Obama-era National Security Administration hacking of the networks of Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras and tapping communications of then-president Dilma Roussef herself. What emerges from this critique of Bolsonaro and Araújo’s discourse is primarily a neoliberal pragmatism that calls for the abandonment of Cold War rhetoric (both old and new) so that Brazil can embrace economic gains from international trade with China, and absorb much-needed capital for infrastructure construction and technological modernization (Schutte 2019; Violante et al. 2020).

The actions of Brazil’s vice-president, General Hamilton Mourão, the Minister of Agriculture, and other high-level bureaucrats who oppose Bolsonaro’s and Araújo’s anti-China rhetoric to maintain and even expand economic ties with Chinese companies is exemplary of this pragmatism. Those who argue for closer ties with China are fully supported by neoliberal intellectuals and most segments of the Brazilian capitalist class, especially in agribusiness and mineral extraction, who recognize China as their largest market and as an important source of capital for investment. They condemn the New Cold War rhetoric, while celebrating windfall profits for Brazilian soybean exports to China that result from the US-China trade war. How is the Brazilian Left handling this difficult situation? How should it handle this situation?

Most on the Brazilian Left seem content if they can contribute to a return to the previous decade’s dispute between the neoliberalism of the Brazilian elite and neo-Keynesianism of the Workers’ Party, denying there is any New Cold War. They also long for the multilateralism of the BRICS as a way to improve Brazil’s standing in capitalist globalization without challenging its fundamentals. But the Brazilian Left is currently defeated and in disarray. Thus, Brazilian leftists who oppose anti-Chinese racism and the subjection of Brazilian foreign policy to the ideological winds of Trumpian neofascism find themselves playing the role of mere sidekicks in efforts that ultimately serve as a defense of a neoliberal world order and of the transnational elites who benefit most from it. For example, their efforts protect soybean exports by Brazilian agribusinesses to China, while excluding peasants further from the land; they promote Chinese investments to construct more hydroelectric dams, while drowning indigenous territories and scarifying whole ecosystems. Meanwhile, the banner of “national development” falls ever more into the grip of the neofascists.

A smaller faction of Brazilian leftists goes further and embraces the discourse of a New Cold War only to side with China, as if the capitalist restoration there could in fact represent not only the “advancement of the forces of production” but also the necessary steps in the “construction of socialism” (as Deng Xiaoping proclaimed). Prioritizing anti-imperialist rhetoric over class struggle, these neo-Stalinists3 claim that China – with its increasingly powerful state-owned companies and assertive foreign policy – is the only force that can challenge the capitalist imperialism spearheaded by the US; they advocate that Brazil should follow China’s suit. This neo-Stalinist faction comprises an important contingent of the international movement best represented by Vijay Prashad and the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research. Yet they not only serve as apologists for state capitalism and sub-imperialism (Bond 2020), but also fail to provide any vision for a post-capitalist future or effective strategy to combat the neofascism that we currently face all around the world. After all, how can the growing inequality and base consumerism that plagues Chinese society represent success for socialism, while the spokesperson for China’s own Ministry of Foreign Affairs returns Trump’s and Araújo’s fever dreams in kind with mirrored conspiracy theories about how the novel coronavirus was a biological weapon the US released in China during a covert military operation (a speculation echoed by neo-Stalinists in Brazil)?

The task at hand is to reformulate public and political debates around class struggle, rather than geopolitical competition or cultural contestation. The challenge for the Brazilian Left is the same for socialists in China and the United States – how to regain the initiative from the neofascists in the struggle against neoliberal elites. The New Cold War, much like the previous one, is not a battle that leftists can win by accommodating capitalist elites for national development or red-washing state capitalism. It requires a critical approach that subjects geopolitics to class struggle, and not the other way around.

 

References

Araújo, Ernesto. (2017) “Trump e o Ocidence” (Trump and the West). Cadernos de Política Exterior 6(2): 323–358.

Bond, Patrick. (2020) “Subimperial BRICS enter the Bolsonaro-Putin-Modi-Xi-Ramaphosa Era.” In BRICS and the New American Imperialism, Vishwas Satgar (ed.), Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Schutte, Giorgio. (2019) “A busca da hegemonia americana 3.0 e a ascensão chinesa: Entre a transnacionalização do capital e a volta do conflito interestatal” (The search for American Hegemony 3.0 and the rise of China: Between the transnationalization of capital and the return of interstate conflict). Mundo e Desenvolvimento1(2): 10–35.

Teixeira Júnior, Augusto. (2020) “O que a América Latina tem a ver com a Nova Guerra Fria? Reflexões sobre a crise da Venezuela” (What does Latin America have to do with the New Cold War? Reflections on the Venezuela crisis). Análise Estratégica 17(3): 23–33.

Violante, Alexandre, Etiene Marroni, and André Maia. (2020) “Reflexões sobre guerra hegemônica na atualidade: Chine e Estados Unidos da América” (Reflection hegemonic war in the present: China and the United States of America). Geosul 35(77): 531–552.

Gustavo de L. T. Oliveira is assistant professor of global and international studies at the University of California, Irvine. His main research focuses on Chinese investments in Brazilian agribusiness and infrastructure, global agro-industrial restructuring, and critical geopolitics.

  1. Neofascists are not necessarily organized in openly fascist political parties and/or militias, but are characterized by populist authoritarianism, nationalism, xenophobia, and opposition to liberal democracy and socialism.
  2. For more on Bolsonaro’s anti-China rhetoric, see Gustavo Oliveira, “China needs a new strategy to deal with Brazil’s new right-wing president”, South China Morning Post, Jan. 13, 2019. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2181854/china-needs-new-strategy-deal-brazils-new-right-wing-president
  3. Neo-Stalinists are self-identified socialists who overlook or attempt to justify colonialism, class exploitation and oppression in nominally socialist regimes due to their opposition to US/Western imperialism.