President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (L) and Ambassador Tom Shannon in 2010. (AP)

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (L) and Ambassador Tom Shannon in 2010. (AP)

LatAm in Focus: Amb. Thomas Shannon on How Lula's Win Resets Brazil's Foreign Policy

By Luisa Leme

The career diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Brazil explains what the ex-president’s comeback means for Latin America, the U.S., China, and the world.

"Brazil's role in the world is important. Its geographic address is South America. Its existential address is global."

Latin America in Focus Podcast

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This podcast was produced by executive producer Luisa Leme.

The music in this episode is "Tarde de Chuva" by Paulo Moura, performed by Cliff Korman Ensemble for Americas Society. Learn more at: 

Transcript of the Interview

Luisa Leme: Ambassador Thomas Shannon. Thank you so much for being on Latin America in Focus with us today. It's an honor to have you. 

Ambassador Thomas Shannon: No, thank you very much. It's a real pleasure. 

Leme: Ambassador, let's jump right into it. When Lula was president the first time, we saw Brazil taking a kind of leading diplomatic role in Latin America. How would you compare that period of Brazil's foreign policy potential with Lula coming in now? What does Lula's win mean for Latin American relations? 

Shannon: Great question. But let me start with a short comment on what it means for Brazil because at the end of the day, the important thing about elections is that people get to express their point of view. Obviously the Brazilian people have chosen a new president, but what's important here is that Brazilian democracy functioned, that the institutions showed not just their rootedness, but their resilience, and that at the end of the day, even President Jair Bolsonaro has acknowledged that he lost this election.  

And this is a powerful moment for Brazilian democracy. And it's a powerful moment in the hemisphere, and I think globally because it shows that democracy works and that you can do peaceful transfers of power. This is important. It's also important for the United States as we face something similar. But broadly speaking about what it means for Latin American diplomacy and Brazil's role in the world—the world is very different than during the period of time that President Lula was in office.  

But that said, I think what Lula's victory means is that Brazil is returning to a global role that it had begun to assume for itself during the presidency of President Lula, in which it emerged not only as a large economy, but as a country dedicated to peaceful resolution of disputes, dedicated to multilateral organizations, and looking for ways to advanced Brazil's interests within the structures that Brazil had played a role in building in the aftermath of World War II. And so in this sense, Brazil's presence is going to strengthen the multilateral structures of our hemisphere, the intra-American system, but it will also strengthen the UN structures, and I think it will be a positive and important influence in trying to resolve some of the larger transnational global issues that we face, including climate change. 

Leme: I have heard some news that Lula's first international trip should be for COP27, which is going to happen in Egypt.  

What about, let's say, bilateral relations? What does Lula's victory mean for Latin America's ties with the United States? 

Shannon: The Biden administration has just held the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, which is the first time an American president has participated in the summit in eight years. And that was important. President Trump never participated in the summit. And this is important because it means United States is back in the summit process, and it's engaging broadly in the hemisphere. And this was the first time that many of the newly elected leaders of the hemisphere had an opportunity to gather and meet. So this is a new bunch of leadership, an important group of leaders, and we're going to have to use what was begun in Los Angeles and expand that outward.  

And because of President Lula's prestige, but also because of the recognition that he is an elder statesman now, if you want us to call him that, someone who is recognized not only as a politician of great quality, but as someone with a lot of regional and global experience, much more than any of the newly elected leaders in the hemisphere. And so I think he's going to bring that wisdom to bear in the hemisphere and beyond. 

Leme: For many, as you were saying, Lula is seen as an icon among world leaders. I remember Obama calling him “the man,” and we have leaders from all over the globe congratulating him. And even leaders of multilateral organizations or organizations like PAHO, for example, congratulating him on Twitter.  

The world is in the middle of being in a divisive time, between the Ukraine conflict and economic worries. What do you see as opportunities or hurdles for leadership in this global context? 

Shannon: As the world addresses the consequences of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, some of them are very evident, especially in regards to food security and energy security, and looking for ways to ensure that as we and others try to find a solution to Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine, and look for a way to negotiate a peace, that we can ensure that people aren't starving because of this war.  

Brazil and the United States are the two largest food producers in the world, and the two largest food exporters in the world. And my own view is that there's a lot more we can and should be doing together to address problems of food security. I also think that there's more we can be doing both bilaterally, but also in our hemisphere, to ensure that the Americas are playing an important role in addressing problems of energy security. Russia supplies up to one third of the world's oil, and that's significant.  

As we look for ways to ensure that that energy and food don't drive inflation, I think Brazil and the United States can play a very important role. 

Leme: President Biden and Lula already spoke on the phone after his victory, and Biden acted very fast, congratulating Lula amid fears of further attacks against democratic institutions in a country that saw those happening during election season.  

What would be the more immediate points of cooperation between Brazil and the United States? You mentioned energy, you mentioned food security, but do we have low-hanging fruits that we should be watching for? 

Shannon: First of all, the relationship is complex and well-developed. It's something that has been built over decades, if not centuries, in terms of investment, in terms of trade, in terms of cooperation. And, of course, we are going to have to wait until the first of January for the newly elected president to be sworn in. I'm sure that both sides are going to be hard at work trying to identify a bilateral agenda that reflects the challenges that we face in the 21st century.  

And for me, that means bringing Brazil into global supply chains. It means looking to Brazil as a trusted partner that can play a role in nearshoring, aspects of global supply chains, especially in the pharmaceutical industry, in the medical device industry, and other industries that are now in China and elsewhere. I think Brazil would be a very interesting place for much of this investment in industrial production.  

As I mentioned earlier, food security and energy security are going to be very important, as will the larger multilateral task of fighting climate change, fighting deforestation, and promoting biodiversity. But I also think that we're in a fractious, difficult period, and we need to show clearly that in the Americas, we can continue to promote peace. We can continue to address the problems—the really significant issues of economic and social development—through democracy and constitutional order, and that we can show that democracy is not a status quo political system, that it has the capability of promoting profound social change and address poverty inequality and social exclusion.  

The two largest democracies of our hemisphere, Brazil and the United States, are uniquely positioned to work together to show that democracy can deliver the goods, especially in a world of rising authoritarian powers. 

Leme: Both of these presidents might face a little bit of difficulty with their Congresses. We have midterms coming up, but in Brazil's election, the Congress that will take over next year is a much more conservative Congress than what we have now, which might prove a little bit difficult for Lula. Do you see this as a problem, Ambassador Shannon? 

Shannon: Hopefully, very little, but obviously in the United States, depending on the outcome of the midterm elections, President Biden might find himself constrained legislatively, but he still has considerable power as the executive in terms of foreign policy. He's in a position to show very clearly that the U.S. relationship with Brazil is a strategic relationship and that it functions independent of whether the Republicans or the Democrats are in power.  

The advantage that President Lula will have is that he does not face a Congress of only two parties. In other words, Brazil is polarized. And partisanship is real, but it's also spread across more than 20 political parties. And no Brazilian president has ever had a single-party majority. They have always had to build alliances and coalitions, which requires negotiation. And so, as Brazil moves forward, it tends to move forward based on consensus, and that makes its decision stronger. 

Leme: We've been talking a lot about Washington, but what about Beijing? How do you see Brazil's relationship with China evolving under Lula, and what does that mean for the region? 

Shannon: China's an important partner for Brazil, obviously. It's its leading commercial partner, at least in terms of total trade numbers. If you take a closer look at the trade numbers, you'll notice that the United States is far ahead of China in terms of value-added trade, what I would call 21st century trade. The Chinese buy a lot of agricultural products, a lot of minerals and a lot of energy, but it's the United States that engages with Brazil to build and purchase aircraft, medical devices, and other products that require value added in the considerable amount of technology and innovation. And also the United States, by far, has the largest amount of historic foreign direct investment. So we're well-positioned to compete with China.  

But I don't think Brazil wants to be caught in a world in which choices have to be made between the United States and China. They want to be able to balance the relationships and they won't be alone in that regard. There will be many, many other countries in the world who will feel similarly. And it's my hope that those countries, Brazil among them, will speak clearly both to the United States and to China about the importance of ensuring that trade and investment can remain open and that countries can continue to have trading and investment relationships independent of the political disputes of the moment. 

"I don't think Brazil wants to be caught in a world in which choices have to be made between the United States and China."

Leme: Do you think that Brazil could be an example for how other countries in Latin America with those, let's say, less experienced leaders could act? 

Shannon: It's a very good question. My own belief is that the Chinese have been very successful in entering Latin America by entering through a variety of countries and entering through markets and establishing themselves in markets, building long-term relationships with producers of the agricultural mineral and energy products they're interested in. And then using that to capture support in their relationships with governments. And in the process of doing that, they've largely divided Latin America. There has not been a single Latin American or South American response to China.  

But I think there should be. I think that Latin American countries, especially those that are producing similar goods and services for the Chinese, should be talking to each other about what they expect from China, especially in regards to corruption, in regards to respect for the environment, respect for local law. And then one area where people really need to pay very close attention to what China is doing is in the area of high technology, and especially digital infrastructure, because the Chinese have an approach to this, which is very mercantile, and it's all about building structures that benefit China, as opposed to structures that benefit a larger engagement with the world. In this regard, the United States is a leader on understanding the impact of technology on national security. In this regard, the United States and Brazil can have a very good conversation. 

Leme: You’ve been ambassador to Brazil. You entered the last year of Lula’s government. He left the government with very high approval ratings, and then you were there for 2013, when Dilma Rousseff faced a lot of discontent from the population and a lot of protests there. And you were acting U.S. Secretary of State for 12 days during the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations.  

Given that we could see a potentially acrimonious power handover coming up in Brazil, can you share some lessons learned from tough transitions and what it means for foreign policy under a new government? 

Shannon: What is little known is that when President Lula came to power for the first time, his then-chief of staff, José Dirceu, asked President Bush's chief of staff, Andy Card, if he could send a team to Washington to meet with members of the Bush White House to understand how the Bush White House functioned. And a small team came to Washington. At that point, Marcos Galvão was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Brazilian Embassy. Rubens Barbosa was the ambassador, and I was at the National Security Council at the White House, working for Condoleezza Rice, and Marcos Galvão and I oversaw a series of briefings at the White House that took place over an entire week from all aspects of White House operations, from transportation to security, to correspondence to speech writing, to scheduling the president, you name it. And it was a remarkable experience for all of us. And it built a degree of familiarity and confidence, which was very useful.  

U.S. Administrations and Brazilian administrations have worked together on how to make sure that the executive branches in each country function well. The question of transition is really interesting because the transition was a complicated one between the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. They became even more complicated during the transition between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. In this regard, it's important to have open communication, and it's important that there be contacts in the case of Brazil within the Palácio do Planalto who are overseeing how the rest of the ministries engage, especially as President-elect Lula begins to identify his ministers and who is going to be running the ministries of his government. But I'm sure that this would be an area in which we could share many interesting stories.  

Leme: We don't have a foreign affairs ministry choice yet. We see Celso Amorim by the side of Lula in every single press conference. He's been an advisor, but we don't have much about what is the future of Itamaraty after Lula takes over. If you could give Itamaraty and all the Brazilian ambassadors that are going through this transition, what would you say? 

Shannon: Well, first, Brazil is a great nation, and the Brazilian people are a great people, and Brazil's role in the world is important. Its geographic address is South America. Its existential address is global. And Itamaraty understands this. Itamaraty has lived this protecting Brazil's immediate interest in the region, but always projecting Brazil's interest broadly in the world.  

I would just remind my colleagues, as I reminded my colleagues at the Department of State, that in my case, we served the American people. And we did so through the Constitution. And that respecting the results of the people, but understanding at the end of the day that divided countries are weakened countries, and that therefore, it's incumbent upon the civil servants and the diplomats, the military officers who have made a career out of a commitment to serving their nation, that they continue to work hard to make government function well, even in a politically divided and polarized environment, and that they do so with a broad understanding of what national interests are so that they can make a clear case in this instance to the Brazilian people—that what they are doing doesn't favor a single party or a single individual but favors all Brazilians. 

Leme: Thank you so much, Ambassador Thomas Shannon. We really appreciate your time, and it's an honor to be interviewing you.