When Donald Trump was first elected U.S. President, there were few like-minded elected leaders in other countries. Seated next to unapologetic globalists like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump always seemed the odd man out–and more so after President Emmanuel Macron’s election in France six months after his. Trump’s unapologetic, sometimes belligerent nationalism made him an awkward aberration and a problem the globalists wanted to solve. Things have changed. In one polarized nation after another, strongmen are now in vogue. While Macron suffers domestically and Merkel plans to wrap up her chancellorship of Germany by 2021, populist nationalists are thriving at the top of the world’s largest democracies–from Trump himself to India’s Narendra Modi to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte to Italy’s strongman Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. To that list, we can now add Brazil and Jair Bolsonaro.
Most media coverage of Bolsonaro’s decisive victory in Brazil has focused on his macho rhetoric, confrontational style and promises to sweep his country clean of urban crime and endemic political corruption. But his views on foreign policy also represent a sharp break with Brazil’s recent past.
During 13 years of Workers’ Party governments led by former Presidents Luis Inacio Lula da Silva and then Dilma Rousseff, Brazil embraced its role as emerging-market heavyweight of the Americas and a brake on U.S. regional hegemony. With fellow BRICS countries Russia, India, China and South Africa, Brazil’s government offered a counterweight to U.S. authority.
Bolsonaro sees things differently. The man sometimes nicknamed the Trump of the Tropics has publicly expressed admiration for the U.S. President and vows to improve relations with Washington. He applauded Trump’s controversial decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and says Brazil will do the same. He also plans to shut down the Palestinian Embassy in Brasilia. Like Trump, he’s a critic of large multilateral institutions. In Brazil’s case, that means less investment in the South American trade bloc Mercosur and more bilateral trade deals, like the ones Trump has said he hopes to forge with Japan and with post-Brexit Britain.
Bolsonaro also takes a Trump-like view of China and its trade practices. Nearly a decade ago, China became Brazil’s largest trade partner, but Bolsonaro sees this less as a historic opportunity than as a growing threat. Like his U.S. counterpart, he accuses China of predatory trade practices. China is welcome to buy Brazil’s abundant agricultural products, he argues, but its attempts to invest in strategic sectors like energy and infrastructure are bad for Brazil and no longer welcome.
Yet there are key differences between the U.S. and Brazilian Presidents. Unlike his 43 predecessors, Trump never served in government or the military before becoming President; Bolsonaro is a veteran of both. Trump’s presidency is in part a product of the U.S. culture wars; Bolsonaro’s win reflects widespread public disgust with years of political scandal and record levels of violent crime. But what they share is the ability to draw power by explicitly pitting one group of citizens against another and offering themselves as the only credible solution to their country’s problems. It’s the same talent that has allowed Duterte, Salvini and others to thrive.
The question now is whether these like-minded nationalists will work together on the international stage, perhaps to destabilize or counterbalance the interests of multilateral institutions like the E.U. or the U.N. In reality, there seems little chance of that. While globalists see virtue in cooperation, nationalists don’t. They see no advantage in sharing values. They share interests only until those interests conflict. In that sense, Bolsonaro’s victory is one step deeper into a world of every nation for itself.
This appears in the November 12, 2018 issue of TIME.