Over the past year, a litany of top Biden administration officials have traveled to Brazil to deliver a simple message to the country’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro: Stop attempting to undermine Brazil’s October elections.
The missives have come from national security adviser Jake Sullivan, the White House’s top foreign affairs adviser; Victoria Nuland, a prominent State Department official; and William Burns, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
One name is absent from the list: the U.S. ambassador to Brazil. Because the United States doesn’t have one.
Brazil is hardly unique in that regard. Two years into Joe Biden’s presidency, more than 40 of the United States’ ambassadorships remain vacant, according to the American Foreign Service Association. The U.S. has no top envoy to Italy, a Group of 7 nation, or to India, the world’s largest democracy.
The vacancy in Brazil may soon expose what experts and foreign policy observers increasingly consider an emerging diplomatic crisis.
Bolsonaro has spent the last two years spreading conspiracy theories about Brazil’s Oct. 2 election, which most polls suggest he will lose either in Sunday’s first-round vote or in a subsequent runoff later in the month. He has sought to enlist the Brazilian military ― which overthrew a democratic government in 1964 and established a 21-year dictatorship ― in his efforts, sparking fears of a potential coup attempt. He has called his supporters to the streets for mass rallies, generating concerns of a Brazilian version of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
The Biden administration is clearly worried. An authoritarian takeover in the world’s fourth-largest democracy, or even an attempt at one, would have ripple effects across the Western Hemisphere. And it would deal a major blow to Biden’s stated goal of counteracting the rise of authoritarianism and promoting democracy worldwide.
The lack of a confirmed ambassador, observers and some U.S. officials say, reflects a relative detachment that has complicated the administration’s efforts to support Brazil’s democracy.
“This is one of our biggest and most important relationships in the Americas, and one of the most important globally,” a senior U.S. official said. “This is arguably the most consequential election for Brazil since the end of the dictatorship. It’s unfortunate and shows a lack of seriousness that we will not have an ambassador in Brazil, and many other places, at this moment.”
A Burgeoning Crisis
Most foreign policy veterans say there’s no single culprit to blame for the glut of ambassadorial vacancies. The Biden White House has at times been slow to nominate candidates, and in some cases hasn’t named a nominee at all. In the Senate, meanwhile, once-routine diplomatic confirmations have become another casualty of GOP obstructionism that has rendered the chamber dysfunctional.
The ambassadorship to Brazil suffers from a confluence of factors: It took Biden seven months to pick a replacement for former Ambassador Todd Chapman after he announced his retirement in June 2021. The nomination of Elizabeth Bagley, who served as ambassador to Portugal under Bill Clinton, then stalled in the Senate after the conservative Washington Free Beacon published comments Bagley made about Jewish and Cuban American voters in 1998.
A deadlocked vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee prevented Bagley’s nomination from advancing, but Biden has no plans to abandon his pick. “We remain committed to Ambassador Bagley’s nomination and look forward to the Senate confirming her as the next Ambassador to Brazil,” a National Security Council spokesperson told HuffPost in an email. “Until then, we will continue to engage both in Washington and in Brasilia to strengthen our enduring partnership with Brazil.”
As a result, the ambassadorship won’t be filled before the election, leaving a major void at a time of obvious tension in Brazil, especially in the diplomatic community. In July, Bolsonaro called a meeting of foreign ambassadors and diplomats ― including from the U.S. ― at the presidential palace in Brasilia, using the occasion to further spread lies about the integrity of the country’s electoral system.
“I can’t imagine a worse time not to have an ambassador,” said Thomas Shannon, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Brazil from 2010 to 2013. “Here you are with this very contested election [and] a very complicated political environment, in which the diplomatic corps has been drawn into the election by President Bolsonaro’s meeting ... This is when you want to have an ambassador on the ground.”
The effects are both practical and political. An ambassador has authority to steer an embassy’s priorities and interact with foreign governments in ways that a chargé d’affaires — the title given to officials who head an embassy during the periods between ambassadors — cannot. Especially in countries like Brazil, where lawmakers and diplomats tend to adhere closely to diplomatic protocols, ambassadors typically have direct access to the president, government ministers and top political leaders. Their messages and statements, meanwhile, carry far more weight than missives delivered by lower-ranking officials.
Senior envoys like Sullivan or Burns may be direct representatives of the president ― and, as with Burns, may have Senate confirmation ― but they are also intermittent intermediaries who aren’t focused exclusively on Brazil.
“We have a great embassy. But the reality is, ambassadors are nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate,” Shannon said. “Especially at this point in time, that brings a very special kind of status or prestige to an ambassador, because the host government knows that that person is the personal representative of the president of the United States.”
Bolsonaro is a close ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump, and he has modeled his own presidency on that of his American counterpart. When record fires in the Amazon rainforest drew global outrage against Brazil in 2019, Bolsonaro found refuge in the close alliance he and Trump had formed. When Trump questioned the results of the 2020 election, Bolsonaro echoed his claims, and refused to congratulate Biden on his victory.
Chapman, who Trump appointed as ambassador in 2020, also forged intimate ties with Bolsonaro’s government, and became a direct conduit for the relationship that had formed between the two leaders. Chapman’s approach to the job generated sharp criticism from both Brazilian and U.S. officials who perceived him as openly political, too cozy with Bolsonaro and his family, and partisan in his dealings. In 2020, Chapman reportedly pushed Bolsonaro’s government to lift tariffs on ethanol in order to boost Trump’s election chances ― a move that generated swift backlash from leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who drafted a letter to Chapman that expressed “alarm” at his actions and demanded an explanation. Chapman denied the claims in a statement at the time.
After Trump lost, concerns that Bolsonaro would seek to undermine the 2022 election began to percolate through the political establishment ― and the U.S. diplomatic corps — almost immediately. Bolsonaro, who had questioned the Brazilian election system ahead of the 2018 contest he ultimately won, adopted and began to spread Trump-like voter fraud conspiracies in late 2020. When the Capitol insurrection occurred in January 2021, many Brazilians interpreted it as a sign of things to come in Latin America’s largest democracy.
Some U.S. officials began preparing for numerous scenarios, arguing internally that the embassy should deemphasize its relationship with Bolsonaro and begin to outline strategies for how the United States could support the country’s democratic institutions, including Brazil’s Supreme Court and its top election tribunal ― both of which Bolsonaro has targeted with a constant stream of attacks.
Chapman, however, was largely dismissive of those concerns, according to a former U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Chapman ignored at least one internal memo that raised concerns about Bolsonaro’s threats to the election system, refusing to even respond, the former official said.
Back in Washington, the Biden administration was largely focused on other priorities. Its policy toward Brazil centered on its desires to persuade Bolsonaro to protect the Amazon and rejoin the global push to limit carbon emissions ahead of the 2021 United Nations climate summit ― an effort that Biden saw as key to his own ambitions to rebuild the United States’ international reputation. The administration’s Western Hemisphere policy prioritized limiting Chinese influence in the Americas more broadly, and migration, political corruption and drug issues in the Northern Triangle nations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras specifically.
Chapman said that he discussed “a wide range of issues” with Bolsonaro and his top advisers, including “democratic themes” around the election, during various meetings. As ambassador, he said, he encouraged input from and debate among diplomats, and said that criticism of his approach to Bolsonaro and concerns about the election amount to “Monday-morning quarterbacking” from people who don’t have the responsibility of maintaining a relationship with a foreign president.
Chapman said he sees Bolsonaro’s claims about the election ― and the institutional efforts to counter them ― as a sign of healthy democracy, not a threat to it.
“What you’re seeing in Brazil is something that around the world we hope for,” Chapman said. “An election that’s wide open, where there’s freedom of the press, where there are multiple candidates who are heatedly discussing their views, their differing visions. It is a thriving, robust democracy ... That brings with it some tension.”
“I believe that I had greater confidence in the durability, and in the institutionality, of democracy in Brazil,” he said. While some political rhetoric may “seem a little aggressive or a little exaggerated, I think that what we’re going to see in the end is a hotly contested election, one in which the institutions will prove themselves worthy and strong.”
Chapman’s retirement in July 2021 left the embassy in the hands of Douglas Koneff, who is now the chargé d’affaires of the 1,400-person U.S. diplomatic mission in Brazil.
Koneff is an accomplished foreign service officer with a deep knowledge of Brazil, and he has placed more focus on threats to the election and the United States’ relationship with Bolsonaro, sources with knowledge of the situation said. Koneff is well-regarded by his staff and well-connected in Brazil, with access to many of the country’s top politicians and political officials, according to the sources.
But a chargé d’affaires is only supposed to act as a temporary placeholder until a new ambassador is confirmed. The U.S. recently learned what kind of problems can arise when that never happens: In the weeks leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the chargé d’affaires in Kyiv couldn’t score meetings with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said Eric Rubin, a former ambassador to Bulgaria who is now the president of the American Foreign Service Association. Ukrainian protocol, he said, means that Zelenskyy primarily meets only with ambassadors.
That was at least mitigated by a top-down alarm about a land war in Europe ― and by the Senate’s swift confirmation in May of an ambassador to Ukraine, Bridget Brink, just a month after Biden nominated her. The United States’ major concerns about democracy in the Americas, by contrast, have typically focused on nations like Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, countries ruled by leftist leaders. Threats from the modern far right ― even when they’re as telegraphed as they have been in Brazil ― are less familiar ground for a government that has historically viewed the left as the region’s biggest boogeyman, especially in a country that has for the past two decades been regarded as a stable democracy.
The same month Chapman retired, Burns, the CIA director, met with top Brazilian government officials, including a former general close to Bolsonaro. He told them to push the president to stop spreading conspiracy theories about the election system, which has never faced concrete allegations of fraud. Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, relayed a similar message during a trip to Brazil in August.
That the U.S. spent the ensuing year without an ambassador in Brasilia, however, may have sent its own message: that Brazil simply hasn’t been a major concern for the U.S., even at a critical time for its democracy.
“It is suggestive of the fact that Brazil is not, and has not been for a long time, a priority for the United States,” said Anya Prusa, a Brazil expert at the Albright Stonebridge Group, a Washington-based consultancy. “And this is true not just for the Biden administration, but for past administrations as well.”
What The U.S. Could Do
Even with an ambassador in place, the Biden administration would be limited in what it could do ahead of time if Bolsonaro has committed himself to an election challenge, experts say. Any action that the White House took before the election would carry the risk of inflaming a tense situation, especially if it looks like the U.S. is taking sides. And as prior administrations have learned the hard way, in the Americas and elsewhere, the U.S. can’t just fix a democratic or foreign policy crisis because it wants to.
But Brazilian institutions and civil society groups have been ringing alarms about its democracy and trying to attract global attention to Bolsonaro’s threats for more than a year. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a leftist former president who is now leading Bolsonaro in 2022 polls, met with U.S. embassy officials last week and implored the U.S. to immediately recognize the results of the election once it concludes.
There are things the administration can do to help, experts in both countries say. It could fund major election observation operations in Brazil (the Carter Center, a U.S.-based election observation organization, will have a small presence in Brazil next month). And it could coordinate with other countries in Latin America and Europe to release the sort of statement da Silva called for, in order to provide international credibility to Brazil’s electoral institutions in case Bolsonaro seeks to threaten or undermine them.
“From a policy perspective, you’re trying to create as many pressure points to get the outcome that you want,” said Nick Zimmerman, who served as the director of the National Security Council’s Brazil and Southern Cone division in the Obama White House. “You try to create a cacophony of pressure and noise to convince as many different parts of Brazilian society that, in a really bad environment, staying the path of democracy is in the country’s best interest.”
The U.S. has ramped up its efforts in recent months. Nuland, the State Department official, expressed confidence in the Brazilian election system during an interview with CNN Brazil in May. A well-timed leak made Burns’ July 2021 meeting with Bolsonaro officials public this summer, not long before Biden and Bolsonaro met for the first time at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. The U.S. Embassy issued a pointed statement, in Portuguese, that defended Brazil’s election system as “a model for the world” after Bolsonaro assailed it with lies and conspiratorial claims during the meeting with foreign diplomats in July.
“A number of senior U.S. government officials have clearly articulated our confidence in the Brazilian election system and in Brazil’s democratic institutions and that remains unchanged,” a State Department spokesperson said.
The administration has used other channels to warn the Brazilian armed forces, which highly value their relationship with the U.S. military, that a coup attempt would result in meaningful repercussions, according to Shannon, the former ambassador. “The administration has been very quietly messaging everybody they can get their hands on,” he said.
A respected voice in both countries, Shannon has spoken candidly with Brazilian press outlets about what a coup attempt or any other effort to undermine the election would mean for the country’s military, economy and foreign relations ― warning that such an event would leave Brazil isolated from the U.S., Europe and the rest of the Americas.
Asked about the administration’s efforts, the NSC spokesperson said that the White House has “trust in the strength of Brazil’s democratic institutions” and will follow the elections “with the full expectation that they will be conducted in a free, fair, transparent, and credible manner, with all relevant institutions operating in accordance with their constitutional role.”
It’s possible those messages have gotten through to the military and to Brazil’s business elite, many of whom fear that a rupture would lead to sanctions or a decline in foreign investment that could crater the Brazilian economy and leave the country isolated politically and economically on the global stage.
But there are lingering fears that the lack of an ambassador will limit the United States’ ability to help backstop Brazilian democracy if Bolsonaro does attempt to contest the election.
“It’s a really big problem,” Zimmerman said. “Notwithstanding the fact that the Biden administration has a group of very experienced Latin America hands, not having someone on the ground is a handicap. I don’t think there’s any question.”