Directly behind the desk of Ernesto Araújo stands a white flag emblazoned with a red cross, which once adorned the caravels of early Portuguese conquistadors. This represents a connection to the past, says Brazil’s foreign minister, harking back to a time when his nation was known as the “Land of the Holy Cross”.
Yet its presence also speaks to the future. Since the election last year of rightwing president Jair Bolsonaro, Christianity and western values have emerged as dominant forces shaping the domestic and foreign policy of Latin America’s largest country.
The triumph of the democratic liberal west, Mr Araújo says, “was to a large extent due to a Christian core”.
“Part of the problem of our societies now is that we threw away something that was essential to the way we behave and our success . . . Christian values should be back at the core of how we see the world.”
Under the guidance of Mr Araújo, Brazilian diplomacy has shifted sharply as the country’s long-standing solidarity with developing nations gives way to a closer alignment with conservative, nationalist governments in the US and Europe.
“It is a convergence of minds and ways of seeing the world. We see that as very positive, that we are not alone,” said Mr Araújo, pointing to the “natural” deepening of ties with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel and Donald Trump’s America. One highlight of that was the meeting in March of Mr Trump and Mr Bolsonaro for a jocular bilateral summit.
This contrasts with the “rainbow” diplomacy of recent years that made Brazil a neutral broker of progressive causes around the world: backing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, advocating green policies, joining the G20, becoming a part of the Bric grouping, and developing partnerships with Latin American and African nations.
“The elements that are absolutely rooted in Brazilian diplomatic culture, such as a quest for autonomy and the emphasis on the multilateral role, are being left aside,” said Monica Herz, a senior fellow at the Brazilian Centre for International Relations.
Mr Araújo is unbothered by such concerns. Referring to relations with Mr Trump, he said: “We have lots of things in common in our vision and are very open to work with each other” because of a shared idea of “sovereignty, of national identity, of how to behave in the world.”
A career diplomat who served stints in Washington, Brussels, and Berlin, Mr Araújo was appointed foreign minister after rallying to Mr Bolsonaro’s banner during the election last year — a move that surprised many at the country’s internationalist foreign ministry.
Mr Araújo has emerged as a leading figure among the ideologues of the president’s entourage, influenced by the Brazilian far-right ideologue Olavo de Carvalho, who thinks Nazism is a leftist ploy. On his blog and in social media, Mr Araújo harangues climate change activists, quotes liberally from the Bible and decries “globalism”.
He is an embarrassment. He never used to have these opinions, so the question is whether he is an opportunist or he actually believes these things now
At the foreign ministry, known as Itamaraty, his rhetoric has left diplomats aghast.
“He is a lamentable person, an embarrassment,” said one Itamaraty source. “No one ever expected him to have a big career, he was always mainstream and very timid. He never used to have these opinions, so the big question is whether he is an incredible opportunist or whether he actually believes these things now.”
Measured and soft-spoken, Mr Araújo’s demeanour indeed cuts a sharp contrast with his more pugnacious public persona. On his desk lay a book on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a biography of the famous 19th-century French diplomat, Talleyrand.
He denies that his diplomatic focus on countries with like-minded far-right nationalist governments such as Hungary, Italy and Poland has come at the expense of Brazil’s old alliances, especially in the developing world — although his ministry closed embassies in small Caribbean nations aligned with socialist Venezuela.
At one point, Brasília also openly discussed moving its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, a plan that infuriated Arab nations, many of whom buy large quantities of halal beef from Brazil. In the end, they opted for a trade office in the city.
China also looms large over foreign policy as Brazil’s largest trading partner. In business terms, the relationship is simple: Beijing needs Brazil’s vast supply of commodities to fuel its economy. Brasília needs Chinese investment. The equation, however, is complicated by politics. While still a presidential candidate last year, Mr Bolsonaro visited Taiwan, raising Beijing’s ire. He also slammed China publicly.
Mr Araújo is known to share such concerns. As such, many within the government see Brazil’s China policy being led by Hamilton Mourão, the pragmatic deputy president and former army general who is more pro-Beijing. Mr Araújo argues that Brazil can “have meaningful, successful, economic relations” with China without seeing eye-to-eye on their “different” systems.
Closer to home, he is less ambiguous. His objective as minister is to help “consolidate South America as a democratic region”, mainly by supporting a democratic transition in Venezuela away from the socialist regime of Nicolás Maduro — another policy in which he is in close alignment with Washington.
“Our very important relations with the US were very much neglected because there was this sentiment that everything you do with the US is negative,” the minister said. “Basically, we are trying to reconnect with very important partners”.
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