Why aren’t the United States and Brazil closer allies? In terms of twenty-first-century international relations, the natural bonds between the established power and the rising power couldn’t be stronger: Brazil is a stable democracy and a world leader when it comes to devising—and exporting—novel ways to alleviate poverty. It is the only member of the BRICs (the rising powers of Brazil, Russia, India and China) whose newfound strength simplifies U.S. security calculations. And as the Western hemisphere moves back toward energy independence, the United States looks to import a good bit of the oil that Brazil is readying to tap from its vast offshore oil deposits, resources that are recoverable in part thanks to the involvement of U.S. companies like Chevron.
Yet such an alliance doesn’t appear on the horizon. In Washington on Monday, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and President Obama treaded lightly around contentious topics, opting instead to announce an increase of U.S. consulates in Brazil and an agreement to trade more of their iconic spirits, cachaça and whiskey. Rousseff then hurried off to Massachusetts, laying the groundwork for her science initiative with meetings at MIT and Harvard.
But in general, the United States has been reluctant to anoint Brazil’s rise—for good reason. Brazil’s ascent to the top echelon of world powers was attended by unremitting anti-Americanism. Not wanting to appear reactionary, President Lula da Silva’s foreign-policy team spun this approach as “autonomy through diversification.” In practice, it meant glad-handing elected autocrats like Hugo Chávez and Vladimir Putin, downplaying trade with the United States and European Union in lieu of more informal trade ties with fast-growing China, and yang-ing automatic U.S. support for Israel by backing Iran’s right to nuclear power.
Opposition to Western policy peaked in the summer of 2010 when Brazil and Turkey tried to broker a fuel-swap deal with Iran. The gambit failed, replaced by the current biting regime of UN sanctions against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
Since then, Brazil has given a cold shoulder to Iran. It has refocused its Middle East diplomacy to champion Palestinian independence. And Rousseff has repeatedly objected to the Islamic Republic’s human-rights record, turning a cold shoulder to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he visited Latin America in January.
Turkish prime minister Recip Tayyep Erdogan, though, evidently hasn’t lost the scent. As Washington Post reporter David Ignatius notes, Erdogan has served as an effective back channel between Obama and the Iranian leadership, possibly warming Khamenei to the idea of backing down on fissile enrichment and readying the Iranians for the need to come to talks—to be held in Istanbul in mid-April—with concrete commitments to allow inspections.
Comparing Turkey with Brazil highlights two major shortcomings of South America’s rising power, both of which persist despite the fact that President Rousseff is more inclined to agree with the United States than her predecessor Lula was: Brazilian foreign policy is erratic, and grandstanding gets more attention than follow through.
Similar shiftiness is on display on a number of other fronts. A recent article by Eduardo Gomez for Foreign Policy describes Brazil’s recalibrations as it looks to gain sway in Europe. Regarding Europe’s debt woes, six months ago Rousseff pledged, “You can rely and count on us.” Brazil weighed direct purchases of European bonds but ultimately decided to give $10 billion to the IMF instead. In turn, as Gomez puts it, “Brazil seems to be relishing the opportunity to impose conditions on the IMF.” Then Brazil stalled in delivering the funds to the IMF and ultimately decided that it wanted to set conditions on EU Central Bank policy as well.
Within Latin America, Brazil’s track record is hardly better. After talking up a trade deal with Mexico in 2010, Brazil has failed to take the necessary steps to implement the deal. In the meantime, the balance of trade with Mexico went deep in the red. So instead of addressing the fundamental issues related to tantivy Brazilian consumerism, the country is now trying to enact quotas on Mexican-made cars.
At nearly every turn, Brazil has responded to signs of its own domestic economic problems by pointing the finger elsewhere. Foreign minister Guido Mantega, a holdover from the Lula administration, has repeatedly claimed that a global “currency war” was driving up the value of Brazil’s currency and causing dangerous distortions throughout the economy. Unfortunately Rousseff has echoed him. If other countries buy into this line and impose “safeguards” similar to the ones Brazil recently enacted, a wave of tit-for-tat protectionism could be unleashed on the world.
Unlike China, India, Russia or Turkey, Brazil is glimpsing the world from the vantage of a key power for the first time. This is turning out to be a mixed blessing: the country doesn’t face regional rivals, so it’s able to concentrate efforts on nonmilitary development. At the same time, Brazil has no experience with the sort of measured diplomacy needed to ensure predictable outcomes over time. To praise what some have called Brazil’s “swagger” only condones erratic behavior at a time when more tempered judgment is needed.
Sean Goforth is author of Axis of Unity: Venezuela, Iran and the Threat to America.