Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returned empty-handed from Brazil. Neither Foreign Minister Celso Amorim or President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva were responsive to her arguments for supporting stronger sanctions against Iran.
This shouldn't have been a surprise. Brazil has long made clear its stance on the Iranian question: it wants proof that Iran is working not on mastering nuclear technologies, but on actually constructing a weapon. Barring some sort of Adlai Stevenson moment-which the Obama administration has not been able to generate-Brasilia is not eager to condemn what it sees as activities that any rising power should have the right to engage in.
But the ramifications go far beyond getting Brazil's support in the Security Council. Efforts to get a new stronger sanctions resolution are running against not only the expected resistance from China, but reluctance on the part of Turkey to endorse this approach. Meanwhile, India's private sector shows no real enthusiasm for cutting off commercial relations with Tehran. Instead of showcasing the determination of the "international community," the Obama administration is facing the reality of a divided world. Even if successful French diplomacy with Russia ameliorates Moscow's opposition, the current drive for sanctions looks largely like a "Euro-Atlantic" initiative-and if so, it loses a good deal of its punch if half the world chooses to ignore them.
Two years ago, Washington was abuzz once again with the prospects for a "League of Democracies" that would support U.S. global leadership. But in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Burma/Myanmar, a very clear rift opened up between the democracies of the advanced north and west, which advocated an intervention on humanitarian grounds, and the democracies of the south and east, which proved to be far more receptive to China's call for defending state sovereignty. In the Doha round of trade talks and in the ongoing climate change negotiations, the leading democracies of the south and east-Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, India and Indonesia among them-have tended to line up with Beijing instead of joining Washington's banner.
In the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008 and the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, there were hopes that the coordination among the nations of the BRIC-Brazil, Russia, India and China-might have been checked, especially with both Brasilia and New Delhi signaling that they were interested in further upgrading relations with the United States. Yet while Russia got a "reset" and a new, high-level Sino-American dialogue was floated, India and Brazil seem to have been left by the wayside. India was not one of the highest priorities of the secretary of state, and New Delhi strenuously fought against being relegated back into hyphenated balance with Pakistan as part of the mandate of special envoy Richard Holbrooke. The president himself had a breakout moment at the Summit of the Americas in 2009, but there was insufficient follow-up to take advantage of the momentum generated by the Trinidad meeting. Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that there is no high-level administration official who is tasked with developing and nurturing a "special relationship" with either India or Brazil; no latter-day equivalent to the special commissions that Vice President Al Gore headed during the 1990s. For India, after decades of cool relations with Washington, and Brazil, which harbors the same resentments many Latin Americans have for the exercise of U.S. power in their region, it will take time and careful nurturing to deepen nascent partnerships.
The rebuff of Clinton in Brasilia this past week did not have to be a foregone conclusion. But it is a dramatic reminder that even the inspirational presidency of Barack Obama is not sufficient to pull the "southern democracies" into a closer partnership with the United States.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.