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Brazil's Foreign

Minister Wants to
Save the West
From
Postmodernism
The Curious Case of Ernesto Araujo
By Nick Burns

In November 2018, Jair Bolsonaro, then Brazil’s


president-elect, made an explosive announcement: he
would be appointing Ernesto Araujo to the position of
foreign minister. This would have been a controversial
appointment under any circumstances: Araujo, 51, had
for most of his career been an undistinguished career
diplomat within Brazil’s foreign service, the Itamaraty,
and he had only recently achieved ambassadorial status,
a middling rank in the corps. His colleagues described
him as competent and bookish, but he was the most
junior candidate for the top job in a country with an
especially hierarchical diplomatic corps.
These were not normal circumstances. After spending
years in Washington diligently promoting the policies of
successive presidents from Brazil’s left-leaning Workers’
Party, in 2017 Araujo had shocked his colleagues by
publishing a deeply conservative essay titled “Trump
and the West” for the Itamaraty’s official journal. In the
essay, Araujo denounced the United Nations and other
so-called globalist forces for attempting to supplant true
nationalism, which in his view arises from “gods and
ancestors” rather than appeals to chimerical “values.”
The West, Araujo wrote, was united neither by alliances
nor by commitments such as human rights; it was a
“community of nations” bound by “the scars of the past,”
from the Greeks’ victory over the Persians at Salamis to
the Allied landing at Omaha Beach.
Araujo did not stop there. Citing reactionary
intellectuals, including Oswald Spengler and Julius
Evola, he claimed that the “whole liberal and
revolutionary tradition” since the Enlightenment had
been based on a “rejection of the past”—a “rejection of
heroes, rejection of religious worship, and rejection of
the family”—culminating in the contemporary
“postmodern man, who has no soul.” These
philosophical errors, Araujo argued, had led to a
crippling lack of self-confidence on the part of Western
civilization. The West was now unwilling to defend itself
against the internal threat of “postmodern ‘liberal’
ideology” and the external threat of rival civilizations in
Asia and the Muslim world. Yet U.S. President Donald
Trump, by promoting a nationalism based on the “bonds
of culture, faith, and tradition,” had rejected this
fatalism. Trump, in Araujo’s grandiose turn of phrase,
was “Western civilization’s Hail Mary pass,” and it was
vital for Brazil to align with him. Trump, in Araujo’s
grandiose turn of phrase, was “Western
civilization’s Hail Mary pass.”
Araujo’s sophisticated, far-right rhetoric marks him as
perhaps the most intellectual in Bolsonaro’s camp. His
thinking hints at both the theoretical undercurrents
propelling Bolsonaro’s movement and at Araujo’s own
possible actions as foreign minister—from closing the
book on Brazil’s close involvement in the UN to seeking
an unprecedented alignment with the United States and
Israel. Araujo is all the more a man to watch for his
demonstrated desire to become an intellectual voice for
right-wing nationalism. Now he has a bully pulpit, and
he will be attempting to use it.

AN INTELLECTUAL AMONG THE POPULISTS


For his cabinet, Bolsonaro has chosen a mix of highly
competent administrators and ideological figures whose
convictions seem to have been more qualifying than
their skills. Sergio Moro, the justice minister, is an
example of the former: he earned a sterling reputation
as the judge leading Operation Car Wash, the
investigation into political corruption that brought down
former President Dilma Rousseff. Araujo, however,
belongs to the latter category. His relative youth and
junior status in the Itamaraty suggest that absent his
reputation as a far-right thinker he would not have been
picked for the job.
Araujo’s nomination owes something to the influence of
another figure currently reshaping Brazilian
conservatism: the right-wing intellectual Olavo de
Carvalho. Long viewed as marginal in Brazil, Carvalho,
who lives in the United States, has in recent years risen
to prominence through his YouTube videos, in which he
praises Bolsonaro and condemns the mainstream
Brazilian right’s obsession with laissez-faire economics.
These videos gained Carvalho a wide following on social
media in the run-up to the 2018 election, and his
popularity secured him a spot on Bolsonaro’s transition
team. When “Trump and the West” came to his
attention, Carvalho posted the article on social media
and passed Araujo’s name to the incoming
administration. In the meantime, Araujo continued to
publish articles fulminating against “cultural Marxism”
and political correctness on his personal blog.
In his blog posts, Araujo aligned himself with pro-
Trump sections of the American right. He has praised
the conservative website American Greatness,
approvingly citing an article by an anonymous Brazilian
author who criticized negative English-language
reporting on Bolsonaro and defended the then
candidate’s focus on public security. After being named
foreign minister, Araujo wrote an essay for the New
Criterion, whose editor, Roger Kimball, is a prominent
Trump supporter. In that essay, Araujo defended the
resurgence of Christianity as a force in Brazilian politics,
arguing that public faith was the key force behind
Brazil’s “political and spiritual rebirth”—his term for
both the corruption investigations and Bolsonaro’s
election. And on January 7, he published a bizarre op-
ed in Bloomberg, in which he attacked the work of the
twentieth-century Austrian philosopher Ludwig
Wittgenstein, whose “deconstruction of the human
subject,” he claimed, lay at the root of “our current
globalist totalitarian ideology.” Araujo argued that the
postmodern denial of independent thought and human
agency—the notion that our ideas are mere social
constructs, according to his version of Wittgenstein—
had made Brazil passive on the world stage.
In his inaugural speech as foreign minister, delivered on
January 2, Araujo unveiled a plan to reorient Brazil’s
foreign policy and reform the ranks of the Itamaraty.
The assembled diplomats had probably never heard
anything like it. Araujo heaped praise on countries he
wanted to see Brazil emulate: Trump’s United States,
Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, Matteo Salvini’s Italy, and
Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Condemning Brazil’s global
role in past decades as little more than that of a craven
servant of globalism, Araujo declared that from now on,
Brazilians ought to read “less Foreign Affairs and more
Clarice Lispector,” referring to one of Brazil’s most
famous writers. Although Lispector was a Jewish
immigrant who criticized Brazil’s right-wing military
dictatorship, Araujo was suggesting that Brazilians
would be better served by paying attention to their
national heroes rather than foreign policy experts. He
opined on social issues, denouncing abortion, then
scolded the foreign ministry for its arrogance, declaring
that it had become estranged from the nation whose
interests it was supposed to represent: “The Itamaraty
cannot think it is better than Brazil.”
MARIANA BAZO / REUTERS
Araujo at a meeting of the Lima Group in Lima, Peru,
January 2019.

MINISTERIAL PROSPECTS
For Bolsonaro, Araujo’s virtue is that he appears to be a
true believer in the new president’s project of allying
Brazil with the Trump administration. Araujo’s
convictions are both more sophisticated and more
extreme than Bolsonaro’s own: the president seems
more ideologically flexible than his foreign minister, and
needs to maintain the loyalty of the military figures in
his cabinet, who are skeptical about aligning too
strongly with the United States.
Araujo’s ideological commitments, however, make him
unlikely to back down when faced with resistance from
the generals or from Itamaraty’s bureaucracy. And such
resistance is likely: Araujo’s January 2 speech will have
alienated many in the foreign ministry, which leans left,
prides itself on a strong commitment to multilateralism
and human rights, and distrusts the United States. In
Brazil, moreover, the foreign minister is normally drawn
from the ministry’s top ranks. Bolsonaro’s team may
have simply chosen Araujo because they were glad to
find an Itamaraty bureaucrat whose views at least partly
aligned with their own.
Without clout in the foreign service, Araujo will need
Bolsonaro’s support in order to enact his agenda. Much
will depend on his ability to establish a personal rapport
with Bolsonaro and his sons, who seem set on playing a
conspicuous role in foreign policy. Bolsonaro’s son
Eduardo, a Brazilian congressman, traveled to
Washington in December, where he met with
Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio as well
as Donald Trump, Jr. Araujo will also need to court
Filipe Martins, 30, an academic and special assistant to
Bolsonaro who secured Araujo his post and who has
recently been named as the liaison between the
president and the foreign ministry. A disciple of
Carvalho with an active social media presence, Martins
espouses a more tongue-in-cheek version of Araujo’s
nationalism. In October, for instance, he posted
an image of himself wearing a “Deus Vult” t-shirt. Deus
vult is Latin for “God wills it”—literally a reference to the
Crusades, it became a popular right-wing meme during
the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Martins has also
cultivated ties with the American right, meeting with
former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon in
November.
An early test for Araujo came at a January 4 meeting of
the Lima Group—eleven Latin American countries plus
Canada—who are opposed to the increasingly autocratic
rule of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. Araujo
arrived at the meeting determined to obtain a robust
consensus for sanctions or other concrete penalties
against Maduro, but a joint statement criticizing
Maduro and expressing support for Venezuela’s
powerless legislature was all that he could secure.
Worse, Mexico, now ruled by the left-leaning President
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, refused to sign.
Araujo has set himself apart among Bolsonaro’s allies
with his comprehensive, learned, and extreme view of
world history and his sense of Brazil’s place within it. It
remains to be seen whether he will make his mark as a
renegade statesman who profoundly alters the trajectory
of Brazilian foreign policy or whether his ideas will be a
footnote to the more pragmatic attitudes of the rest of
Bolsonaro’s team. A fan of American football, Araujo
makes frequent references to Hail Mary passes in his
writing. If he truly wishes to transform Brazil’s place in
the world, he may soon be in need of one.