Can Dilma Rousseff fix U.S.-Brazil relations?


CFR Task Force

Getting its ties to the United States back on track is one of Brazil's key foreign policy priorities this year. In this context, it is worth looking at a 2012 CFR Independent Task Force Report, titled “Global Brazil and U.S.-Brazil Relations”, directed by Julia Sweig, former Director of the Latin America Studies and Global Brazil Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations. The report explores Brazil’s international rise and the evolution of recent ties with the United States, a bilateral relationship of many unfulfilled expectations. The event was timely as Brazil's President Rousseff visited the United States in April 2012, after the BRICS Summit in New Delhi. It was set to be one of the most important foreign visits of her presidency at the time.

Brazil is geographically and culturally closer to Washington, D.C. than any other BRICS member. Unlike the other emerging powers, Brazil is fundamentally Western, yet with a rare capacity to engage "the rest", as Sweig and my colleague Matias Spektor point out in an op-ed published in the New York Times prior to Obama's Brazil visit nearly a year ago. In addition, Brazil is increasingly assuming regional responsibility, thus elevating U.S.-Brazil ties to a new level, essentially making them a conversation between the Hemisphere's Northern and Southern leader.

Traditionally, the United States has paid little attention to South America. U.S.-based Brazil specialists got very little airtime in the media or on Capitol Hill, which cared more about the Middle East, Afghanistan and now China. When I began my graduate studies in the United States with the aspiration of becoming a Brazil expert, faculty strongly recommended I also study other emerging powers such as India to boost my chances of landing a job in academia after graduation. In a debate last year at the Brookings Foundation, Moisés Naim spoke of the "American Airlines Syndrome" - just like AA's South America service was the worst and its machines flying South the oldest, the United States usually sent its worst diplomatic staff to the region and knew very little about it. To some degree, this is Brazil's fault - its presence in Washington, D.C. is too small to influence policy makers there, and it makes no use of the sizeable Brazilian diaspora in the U.S. - something that India does much better.

At the same time, Brazil's rise has not gone unnoticed in Washington, D.C., but the report's key recommendation that the U.S. should "recognize Brazil as a global actor" and adopt a strategy that "reflects the new regional reality" may still strike U.S. American policy makers as difficult to implement - after all, US-Brazil relations are complicated by several thorny issues, ranging from Brazil's break with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), its stance on Libya, Syria, and differing positions on climate change and the question of how to deal with Iran, Cuba and Venezuela.

Historically, the United States' often reacted angrily whenever it felt its generous policy towards an emerging power did not create the unbreakable alliance and eternal thankfulness it expected in return - a problem particularly visible in its policy towards India, which, just like Brazil, would never agree to a formal alliance with the United States. Such an agreement would simply reduce their space for maneuvre too much, complicating ties with countries that dislike the U.S.

Brazil is also likely to react allergically to blunt attempts by the United States to drive a wedge between Brazil and the other BRICS - as I have mentioned in previous posts, U.S. dipomats sometimes state such objectives explicitly during meetings, a practice that justifiably causes suspicion among Brazilian scholars and policy makers who do not see any contradiction between stronger ties with both the United States and other emerging powers. 

As Brazil's rise and the United States' relative decline is set to fundamentally alter bilateral ties, the report points to the potential for collaboration in new areas - such as how to deal with a rising China. As Matias Spektor points out in a recent interview, Brazil must adopt a proactive policy vis-à-vis the United States and build on Obama's statement that he "appreciates" Brazil's desire for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council - now, Brazil needs to follow-up and offer concrete proposals to show that it can assume global responsibility, and remain on the U.S.' radar after its 2-year stint in the Security Council has ended. The decision to promote the concept of the 'Responsibility while Protecting' is an important step in that direction.

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