Why Dilma is right to say no


In the end, it was an easy choice. With a tight election race looming next year, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff preferred not to risk being seen as weak and submissive in the face of an ongoing US spying scandal and canceled her trip to Washington, D.C. More revelations right before or during a glamorous state visit, the only formal event of its kind planned in Washington this year, the first by a Brazilian president since 1995, could have made her the laughing stock of the opposition and the public. As a consequence, Rousseff's advisers had been urging her to say no for days.

The cost of not going had been low all along. There were no big issues to be discussed or solved, and the visit was meant to be, above all, a US recognition of Brazil's growing importance and, paradoxically, a symbol of growing respect. As Matias Spektor points out, spending a night in the White House was unlikely to turn Brazil into a more interesting investment destination, solve visa issues or increase trade between the two. Finally, the United States was not going to support Brazil's candidacy for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Thus, while the episode is surely embarrassing, it is unlikely to stymie cooperation on trade, regional affairs and other issues for years to come, as some observers have pointed out. If both sides remain pragmatic, the recent upward trend in the bilateral relationship (largely thanks to Brazil's former Foreign Minister Patriota) can continue - even though both countries are unlikely to become best friends. 

At the same time, a defense contract worth more than $4 billion that Boeing is seeking for the sale of 36 fighter jets to the Brazilian Air Force may become the main victim.

Policy analysts in the United States have pointed out for weeks that those shocked that U.S. intelligence is bugging Brazil really ought to "do a little reading". For example, James Gibney recommends to

start with James Bamford’s excellent “Body of Secrets,” published more than a decade ago. Skip to the index entries for Brazil, and you will see that by 1945, the U.S. had cracked Brazilian codes and was reading its diplomatic traffic; during the 1960s, it was reading the dispatches of the Brazilian ambassador to Cuba as a U.S. spy ship, the USS Oxford, was -- with the unwitting help of the Brazilian navy -- vacuuming up Brazil’s military communications; in the early 1990s, U.S. spy agencies helped level the playing field for the U.S. defense firm Raytheon by providing electronic evidence that Brazilian officials were taking bribes from a French company. And those are just the stories that made it to print.

And indeed, the outrage voiced by leading foreign policy makers and former President Lula was an indicator of savvy politics rather than genuine surprise. At the same time, the decision to cancel the state dinner is be seen as a show of strength in many countries around the world, particularly in the Global South, where suspicion of U.S. supremacy is pervasive.

India's influential The Hindu rightly pointed out that

In cancelling her state visit to the United States on account of the National Security Agency’s spying excesses, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil has taken a principled position that most leaders around the world have shown little appetite for. While every major power affected by the NSA’s intrusive surveillance programme — with the honourable exception of Germany — has gone out of its way to brush U.S. highhandedness under the carpet, Brazil has expressed its displeasure at the highest diplomatic level.

India's reaction, at the same time, was unusually tame. The Hindu writes that

India too was affected by the NSA’s schemes: it is now on record that our embassies, government leaders and ordinary citizens were spied upon. When NSA documents were made public, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid sought to justify the Agency’s conduct as commonplace. And where Ms Rousseff chose to cancel her visit, there are indications that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh might end up making concessions on a host of issues that are of great concern to American businesses when he meets with President Obama on September 27.

Dilma's decision may thus increase political pressure in Delhi, Berlin and elsewhere to show a stronger reaction to the spying revelations, at least in rhetoric.

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Photograph: Joedson Alves/AP