U.S. and Brazil: Together and Apart

U.S. and Brazil: Together and Apart

As the Brazilian president arrives in Washington, a look at the progress and underlying tensions in the U.S.-Brazil relationship.


President Dilma Rousseff’s visit to Washington this week, just one year after President Obama’s celebrated visit to Brazil, is a good illustration of the growing maturity of the relationship between the two powerhouses of the hemisphere.

The visit is the latest stage in an ongoing effort to elevate and deepen cooperation between the two nations. Next week, Secretary Clinton will travel to Brazil for dialogues on global security and open government, signaling the intense desire of both governments to do even more together. Yet this embrace is likely to go only so far given the underlying tensions that animate a growing rivalry for influence on the regional and global stages.


The Good News

On balance, the United States and Brazil are getting along fine, with both sides proactively working to resolve differences on a wide range of issues and find common ground on relatively safe ones like science, education, racial diversity and innovation. Even on more sensitive topics like defense cooperation, Iran, Cuba and currency policies, Washington and Brasilia are managing their differences in ways that protect the overall positive tone of the partnership both presidents seek to project.

On the bilateral level, Brazil and the United States are opening new windows of dialogue on strategic issues such as energy, science and technology, and economic and financial cooperation. Sensitive to the deficits in Brazil’s education system, Rousseff is promoting her signature initiative to expand overseas science and education opportunities to improve Brazil’s skilled workforce with visits to Harvard and MIT, complementing Obama’s own push for greater educational exchanges with the region. Both presidents understand that the winners of the twenty-first-century economy will be those societies that go beyond the traditional commodities exports and industrial-dependency models to a more technologically sophisticated and globally integrated economic-growth engine.

With the lifting of tariffs on Brazilian ethanol, massive investments in oil drilling off Brazil’s coast, and potentially lucrative commercial opportunities surrounding its hosting of the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, there is much to be gained from better relations. Finding common ground to confront China over financial and economic policies that harm Brazilian and American companies would also be a win-win. On the downside, the Pentagon’s abrupt cancellation of an impending deal with Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer to purchase a fleet of light aircraft to be produced in Florida cast a cloud over the visit. But the deal may yet be rescued and, in any event, will not spoil the visit.

Emerging Conflicts

This relatively positive bilateral agenda looks gloomier when it comes to regional cooperation. Brazil appears determined to position itself as the Latin American hegemon as it deepens its investment in various schemes of regional political and economic integration that pointedly exclude the United States. The main casualty of this approach is the Organization of American States (OAS), the world’s oldest regional organization, which faces a steady erosion of support from Brazil and others.

On recent cases involving Cuba and Honduras, for example, Brazil insisted on pursuing an approach that put the United States at odds with its neighbors. When the human-rights arm of the OAS issued a decision to prevent Brazil from building a power plant without consulting the affected indigenous community, Brasilia, in a fit of pique, withdrew its ambassador and threatened to cut off its dues payments, already embarrassingly low. Its support for Cuba’s participation in the upcoming and future Summits of the Americas, despite its lack of democratic qualifications, is further evidence of a willingness to undermine the core identity of the OAS. Ever since the collapse of the Free Trade Area of the Americas talks, primarily due to Brazil’s unwillingness to sign on to the deal, both countries have pursued their own respective trade interests as well. Signs are strong that Brazil intends to continue down this path of strategic autonomy from the United States, which traditionally has had its way in setting the hemispheric agenda.

A similar though more nuanced approach is at work when it comes to U.S.-Brazil cooperation at the global level. On fundamental security issues like nonproliferation, counterterrorism and nuclear security, the two countries’ policies share much in common, though important differences remain on tactics. Likewise, Brazil and the United States see eye to eye on the basic values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law but have different views on how best to advance them globally. Brazil’s campaign for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council is another touchstone for determining the future course of its emerging role as either a distant or close partner of the United States.

This is most clearly seen in the latest debates regarding international action in Libya and Syria. Brazil supports the doctrine of responsibility to protect, for example, and voted for the UN Security Council resolution to refer Colonel Qaddafi to the International Criminal Court. It abstained, however, on authorizing the use of force to protect civilians because it didn’t want to support arming the opposition and deposing the regime at such high costs. In the bloody aftermath of the battle for Tripoli, Brazil took the lead in proposing new international principles for “responsibility while protecting,” rules designed to constrain (U.S.) military force in such situations in favor of exhaustion of all other diplomatic remedies.

An Opportunity?

The implosion of Syria offers an opportunity for Washington and Brasilia, neither of which wants to see military force deployed in this case, to work together on developing much more robust diplomatic tools to find an exit strategy for Assad and initiate a democratic transition. If they succeed, they will have created a new model for giving the responsibility to protect doctrine real teeth across the whole range of potential strategies.

Regardless of the outcome of the Syria case, the question remains whether Brazil is ready to go beyond the comfort of an “agree to disagree” posture, which plays well with certain domestic constituencies, to a real partnership with Washington on the global stage. Its quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, which President Obama has not explicitly endorsed, just may weigh in the balance.

Ted Piccone is a senior fellow and deputy director of foreign policy at The Brookings Institution.

Image: Ricardo Stuckert/PR