Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been in power for less than nine months, but he’s already had diplomatic spats with France, Germany, China, Norway, Arab nations, Venezuela, Cuba and Argentina.
Now the pugnacious leader is set to go onto the world’s biggest diplomatic stage and buck growing calls for a tougher crackdown on deforestation in the Amazon region that he considers an economic resource for his nation.
“We have to talk about patriotism, sovereignty, what Brazil means to the world,” Bolsonaro said over the weekend, previewing Tuesday’s appearance at the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, which has been preceded by a climate summit and a two-day youth conference aimed at spurring action to combat global warming.
“We will not single anyone out, point fingers at any head of state,” he said, a month after his feud with French President Emmanuel Macron over the Amazon devolved into disparaging allusions to Macron’s wife. “The idea is to make a speech that is about who we are, our potential, about what changed in Brazil.”
He vowed not to repeat promises of previous Brazilian leaders to expand indigenous reserves in the rainforest to protect them from development, a move he said would “make Brazil unviable.”
Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Norway’s government over the summer expressed concern at Bolsonaro’s environmental policies, prompting The Brazilian leader to say, “They have no authority to discuss the environmental issue with us,” Bolsonaro said in July.
When a sharp upswing in fires — most apparently set on deforested land — hit the Amazon during the first year of Bolsonaro’s term, Macron called for international efforts to save the region, calling it “our house” and accused Bolsonaro of lying about his environmental commitments.
“We cannot allow you to destroy everything,” Macron said. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, endorsed a Facebook post that insulted the appearance of Macron’s wife and rejected a European offer of aid to help fight the fires, though he did send in troops to help fight the fires.
Brazil traditionally opens the General Assembly meeting, adding to the attention Bolsonaro will draw. U.S. President Donald Trump, representing the host country, will address the 193-member body immediately after Bolsonaro.
So far there are no one-on-one meetings with other leaders on Bolsonaro’s scheduled 30-hour stay. Its brevity, aides said, is because he is recovering from recent abdominal surgery.
A U.N. critic since his days as a backbench lawmaker, Bolsonaro blames nonprofit organizations, leftists and foreign powers — except the United States — for the criticism of his handling of Brazil’s environmental crisis and has suggested many of them are hostile to Brazil’s development.
“As president he has shown he cares more about his supporters than the international community,” said Rubens Ricupero, a former Brazilian environment minister who also headed the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development. “The problem for Brazil is that stakes are higher after the Amazon fires, wrong words could hurt more.”
Ricupero said that could affect Brazil’s efforts to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which promotes economic progress and world trade for its 36 member nations. The dispute over the Amazon already appears to have helped stall a major free trade agreement between South American nations and the European Union.
Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university in Sao Paulo, said Bolsonaro seems to revel in irritating foreign powers.
“Bolsonaro seems to personally enjoy that status. In a way, he is reproducing on the global stage what he was as a famous backbencher in Congress,” who was noted for flamboyant far-right statements.
“He is now known as a radical who doesn’t respect diplomatic norms,” Stuenkel said.