America Must Take Brazil Seriously

June 15, 2015 Topic: Diplomacy Tags: BrazilAmericaForeign Relations

America Must Take Brazil Seriously

The United States must move beyond the vague notions of partnership and romantic assumptions of shared interest that traditionally frame its thinking regarding Brazil.

BRAZIL IS on the move. Its economic strength over the past decade has provided the primary means for it to develop long-standing ambitions for a larger global-leadership stake—a path that U.S. policy makers have encouraged for many years, presuming that a stronger, democratic Brazil more actively engaged globally would be a natural ally for the United States. In so doing, however, it has pursued a foreign policy independent of Washington, leading at times to misunderstandings and dashed hopes. This was in evidence even before the revelations of National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 temporarily froze bilateral relations. Over the past two years, growth has slowed in Brazil and in other nations with which Brazil maintains significant economic links, while the U.S. economy has been on a long march to recovery. With the late 2014 reelection of President Dilma Rousseff on a platform focused on addressing the unmet economic expectations of a rising middle class, a framework now exists to improve relations between the two countries when Rousseff travels to Washington at the end of June. Still, getting relations back on track will require a more realistic understanding of Brazil’s aspirations and worldview. The United States must move beyond the vague notions of partnership and romantic assumptions of shared interests that traditionally frame its thinking.

Since it gained its independence from Portugal in 1822, Brazil has considered itself a natural claimant to at least a slice of global leadership, along with other continent-sized nations and large democracies. Brazilian leaders, particularly officials responsible for foreign policy, have been greatly frustrated that, despite a demonstrated willingness to be a responsible member of global-governance institutions, Brazilian aspirations have neither been officially recognized nor rewarded by those countries that established the existing global political and economic framework. The nation actively fought with the Allies in World War I, particularly in support of naval operations; in World War II, it sent troops to Italy and also served as a critical staging area for U.S. forces in North Africa and Europe. These were politically difficult actions to take in both instances, given significant domestic opposition and the lack of a direct threat to the Brazilian homeland, and they contributed to a sense of frustration among Brazilian elites when the nation was not rewarded with membership on the permanent executive committees of either the League of Nations or the United Nations.

Nonetheless, the realities of being a developing nation meant that such ambitions would remain only aspirations until Brazilian political, economic and military strength increased relative to those who had established the postwar international system. For the remainder of the twentieth century, a highly professional and effective diplomatic corps promoted Brazil’s case for enhanced global leadership through the use of soft power and moral suasion, always within the confines of the existing global order.1 In the modern era, Brazil has worked effectively for many years within international institutions such as the UN, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and its successor the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and others. It has done so even without formal leadership roles by positioning itself as a voice for developing nations and a counterpoint to the agenda of the developed nations whenever the two were perceived to conflict. This strategy has several benefits. It promotes Brazilian interests without generally putting Brazil in direct opposition to those managing the institutions of global governance; it establishes Brazil as a leader among developing nations while providing enhanced political and economic access for Brazil across the developing world; it builds goodwill and support for Brazilian ambitions to join the UN Security Council as a permanent member; and it allows Brazil to play an active, informal role in global affairs and influence geopolitics and economics without the need to bear the commensurate costs that global leadership entails.

From a regional perspective, the traditional priority of Brazilian strategists has been to build a sphere of influence, first within South America and then more broadly. Key to this vision is maintenance of a sound relationship with Argentina. This is Brazil’s primary strategic touchstone, providing the rationale for creation of Mercosur (the Common Market of the South) in 1991. Mercosur, in turn, has served as the main vehicle for Brazilian aspirations to build out its self-identified regional sphere of influence.2 Simultaneously, Brazil works within regional groupings such as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Development Bank when Brasília determines it to be in its interests to do so.

The same is true in terms of bilateral relations with the United States. Over the years Brazil has proven to be adept at working with Washington whenever convenient, while keeping its overall strategic vision of building global and regional influence firmly in mind. In recent years, Brazil and the United States have collaborated to keep peace on the border between Ecuador and Peru, and to implement UN Security Council resolutions in Haiti. They have joined others in Middle East peacekeeping operations, and they have enjoyed a strong bilateral relationship on issues ranging from energy to agriculture to environmental protection. The two nations are the most populous and most influential democracies in the hemisphere, and democracy promotion across the region is also presumed by Washington to be a core shared value.

It is the anticipation of cooperative actions and assumed mutual interest that has largely animated U.S. policy makers’ impressions of Brazil over the years, and led them to build an expectation of Brazil as a natural ally and partner in the promotion of a broader regional and global agenda. But this benign vision fails to take account of Brazil’s own aspirations to be a significant actor in its own right, rather than following the outlines of a script written in Washington. At times this misperception has led to an undercurrent of frustration and condescension about dealing with Brasília. Increasingly, senior U.S. leaders do acknowledge and even sympathize with the Brazilian worldview, while also pointing out that the benefits of global leadership must be paired with its burdens. The idea is that until Brazil shows a greater willingness for burden sharing in support of the international (Western) community, there need not be any particular urgency in ceding additional space for Brazilian leadership in global governance.


BRAZIL NEVER accepted this calculus, however, and the first national victory of the Worker’s Party (the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) in 2002 brought to power a more ideological administration less patient with Washington and more willing to try an alternative approach to foreign policy, working around rather than within existing regional and global structures. This new approach was enabled by a growing economy and spreading prosperity under the centrist economic management of Rousseff’s predecessor, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Under Lula, Brazil’s economy boomed and millions of citizens were brought out of poverty. Brazil struck oil off its coast and became a global energy superpower. Its growing, investment-grade economy brought it into the ranks of the world’s largest, while the global economic crisis in the latter half of the last decade gave Brazil and other developing nations bragging rights and undermined impressions in many emerging markets of the natural superiority of the developed world’s economic model. Economically, Brazil was on a roll, reaching high rates of growth and never falling into recession, even in the depths of the 2008–2009 economic crisis.

At the same time, traditional foreign-policy rival Argentina faced political and economic uncertainty and slipped further into Brazil’s shadow, while the bombastic leadership of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez afforded Brazil the opportunity to expand its own regional voice as a “third way,” neither subject to perceived U.S. domination nor as radical as Venezuela and its regional allies. When Brazil was chosen to host the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Summer Olympics, it was perceived as a global acknowledgement of the nation’s long-anticipated and generally celebrated emergence onto the world stage.

Meanwhile, great-power relations were also in flux. The United States was preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan and its broader “war on terror,” and gave low priority to issues on the hemispheric agenda. It devoted only limited diplomatic resources to the region, and foreign assistance was reduced year after year. China, in contrast, was just waking up to the potential for regional engagement, primarily for purposes of its own internal economic growth but also for reasons of global governance and influence. China’s entrance into Latin America proved to be a game changer for Brazil, as commodities upended traditional trade relations and China became Brazil’s top trade partner. Brazil’s purposeful outreach to China and China’s own interests laid the groundwork for closer relations between Brasília and Beijing, allowing Brazil to triangulate U.S. interests in the region with China. It also reduced U.S. leverage in the region, given China’s willingness to finance projects and engage with leaders heretofore acting outside the previous hemispheric consensus. Talk of regional economic and political “decoupling” from the United States became prevalent.

Ultimately, however, these broader currents only provided some very tempting tools to use in the promotion of Brazilian interests, requiring individuals to take the reins and act within this more accommodating environment. The foreign-policy team brought to power by Lula’s election saw the opportunity to marry Brazil’s newly robust economic weight with changing global circumstances. Their worldview adopted the tenets of regional solidarity against perceived North American imperialism, affinity for the developing-world movement, and distrust of the existing global economic system and its institutions of governance. In addition, Lula needed to ensure the acquiescence of the PT base, many of whom were agitating for a more populist and redistributive approach, to his centrist economic agenda. This encouraged him to give freer rein to his foreign-policy team as a means of occupying and rewarding the powerful left wing of his political movement. He himself was a very successful promoter and spokesman for these ideas and became somewhat of a global celebrity as a result.


THE ASCENSION of the PT occurred as frustration continued to build with the slow pace of change in the postwar political and economic architecture. After all, with a growing economy surpassing even some G-7 members, a stable democracy, a continental presence, and a record of working within the institutions of global governance and international law dominated by countries which themselves were under immense economic and political strain, Brazil’s inability to institutionalize its ambitions for a more significant international voice became untenable.3 If institutions could not be reformed from within in a manner supporting Brazilian ambitions and interests, Brasília under PT leadership was now willing and able to consider collaboration with like-minded nations to work around existing institutions or even, in some cases, to establish new, parallel institutions, both regionally and globally.

Trade relations have been particularly amenable to a new approach. For example, when Brasília determined in 2003 that WTO negotiators in Mexico were on the verge of concluding a deal that was not in its interests, its diplomats organized a group of twenty like-minded nations that blocked agreement. Brazilian diplomacy successfully highlighted developed-world agricultural policies, including import restrictions and subsidies, which hit Brazil unfairly hard as a globally competitive agriculture producer. Negotiations remain open to this day. Regional trade diplomacy is similar. In 2005, Brazil’s active engagement with other countries, including Argentina and Venezuela, scuttled negotiations for a free-trade area spanning the Americas. Brasília believed that the United States and its economic interests would necessarily dominate a hemispheric trade zone, limiting Brazil’s own ability to exercise its regional ambitions. Establishment of such a trade area was the key agenda item—in addition to institutionalization of democracy as a precursor for full participation in the hemispheric system—stemming from the Summits of the Americas launched in Miami in 1994.

In the meantime, Brazil has actively worked to establish the building blocks of a new inter-American system, with Mercosur as the economic center. Originally including Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay in addition to Brazil, Mercosur added Venezuela as a member in 2012 for both political and commercial reasons, and other South American nations are also affiliated. Additionally, Brazil has moved purposefully to establish the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which is attempting to play an increasingly prominent political role, as well as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, consisting of every Western Hemisphere nation except the United States and Canada. The latter has conducted summit meetings with both China and the EU. A nascent panregional military body has even been proposed in parallel with the Inter-American Defense Board. Such institutions have become viable because existing forums, such as the OAS and the Summit of the Americas process, are ineffective and riven by political division. The OAS has proven unable for years to address the most significant challenges to democracy and security across the hemisphere, while the Summit of the Americas is now a periodic meeting that, apart from the April 2015 handshake in Panama between U.S. and Cuban leaders, has lost purpose and ambition.

Until now, the concrete impact of most of the parallel regional institutions has been minimal. This could change as the groupings mature and leaders seek progress where they can in the absence of other effective hemispheric institutions. The impression that is left is of a region purposefully organizing itself apart from the United States and Canada as hemispheric institutions that do include North America become increasingly ineffective.

In addition to working with others to create a parallel architecture for hemispheric governance, Brazil has actively resisted a number of recent U.S. initiatives in the region. For example, in 2009, Brazil strenuously objected to an agreement between the United States and Colombia for the use of seven military bases in Colombia as springboards for interdicting narcotics shipments from South America. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity for enhanced counternarcotics cooperation given Brazil’s own burgeoning drug demand, the Lula government chose to interpret the agreement as a direct challenge to both the contemporaneous emergence of UNASUR and the historic aspiration to exclude the United States physically from South America. Brazil amped up regional criticism of the deal, as did Venezuela’s Chávez, who intentionally exaggerated and misconstrued U.S. intentions. Ultimately, the agreement was voided. Brasília also complicated efforts to address the 2009 political crisis in Honduras, offering asylum to deposed leader Manuel Zelaya at its embassy in Tegucigalpa and taking a public position against efforts to bring the crisis to a close through the constitutionally mandated electoral process. Both of these efforts wrong-footed the United States in the hemisphere shortly after Barack Obama had taken office and had proposed a fresh start for hemispheric relations during the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. Along with the regional effort to reintegrate Cuba into the OAS, which the United States and Canada resisted at the time, these actions cut short Obama’s honeymoon in the Americas, depriving a flummoxed United States of initiative and broadening a leadership vacuum consistent with Brazil’s own interests in assuming a more significant regional role.

But the ways in which Brazil and the United States have historically exercised leadership are different. Brazil under the PT prefers a lower profile on questions of regional democratic governance; its overriding ideological concern is nonintervention (by the United States). Neither has Brazil shown a desire to serve as an economic backstop or to take responsibility for addressing regional financial challenges. The gathering political and economic crisis in Venezuela and its client states offers a compelling case: so far Brazil has resisted efforts to reverse the downward spiral beyond supporting UNASUR as a vehicle for mediation between the entrenched Chavista government and its disenfranchised opposition. Brazil has also called for Caracas to set a date for midterm elections by the end of this year. Economic interests are also an important consideration for Brazilian foreign policy. In this regard, trade relations are often seen “defensively” as a means to protect the domestic market, even at the expense of Brazil’s neighbors. Development aid is limited, and primarily promotes Brazilian products and business interests.


BEYOND THE hemisphere, Brazil has been an aggressive promoter of the BRICS (consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), infusing this analytical acronym with a political and economic significance that was never intended when it was first identified in 2001. Brasília has used BRICS summits and related meetings strategically to position itself as a leader of the emerging global community with a direct call on a significantly greater share of global political and economic governance. Initially more symbolism than substance, the BRICS have taken steps recently to become operational. In July 2014, in Fortaleza, Brazil, the leaders of the BRICS countries agreed to create a New Development Bank, capitalized at $50 billion and set to launch in 2016. China will clearly be the dominant voice within the New Development Bank, as it is among the BRICS generally. But this effort has the potential over time to pressure existing institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF to be more inclusive of Brazil and the others, while also offering an intriguing possibility of developing into a parallel institution that gives borrowers an alternative to the Western-dominated institutions of the Bretton Woods system. Given such strong economic links, it almost goes without saying that Brazil has had little to say about China in terms of currency valuation, trade or other complicated issues, even though the Brazilian private sector has attempted to sensitize the government to the current unbalanced bilateral trade relationship, and Rousseff has taken some limited steps to address this. There seem to be no similar hesitations when it comes to criticizing the United States; for example, over the quantitative-easing policies of the Federal Reserve, Snowden’s spying revelations, or U.S. trade policies deemed to be restrictive or unfair.

Brasília’s enthusiasm for the BRICS has sometimes taken the country in further awkward directions. At the July 2014 summit, Brazil welcomed Vladimir Putin without any public comment on Russia’s efforts to destabilize Ukraine or Moscow’s support for the rebels who downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Brazil and its Mercosur partners separately refused to condemn Russia’s takeover of Crimea. Rather than supporting Western sanctions against Russia, Brazil has gained a windfall by supplying Russia with embargoed agricultural products, thus undercutting efforts to moderate Russia’s destabilizing and expansionist behavior. Similarly, fellow BRICS member India was given a pass by Brazil in July 2014 when it refused to drop its objections to an important trade agreement painstakingly negotiated, ironically, by the Brazilian head of the WTO, and despite the fact that India had previously consented. India’s about-face was a significant setback to the entire international trading system.

Nonetheless, while the substance of Brazilian foreign policy has remained consistent since 2002, led by an engaged and activist professional and political corps, distinctions between Lula and Rousseff should not be lost. Rousseff is a Lula disciple and clearly a product of the PT, to be sure, but her style is more subdued and she has been more focused on domestic affairs. Moreover, her final term has just begun, so she no longer has to worry about reelection. Rousseff may now be in a good position to reshape relations with the United States.

The timing of her coming visit to Washington is propitious. As Brazil’s economy struggles, corruption scandals unspool and public frustrations about unmet expectations proliferate, the primacy of foreign policy is arguably slipping and the desire to rethink relations with the United States may be increasing.4 The recovering U.S. economy is a draw for Brazilian economic interests, and the political moment is also more accommodating, given the recent steps that the Obama administration has taken on Cuba consistent with Brazil’s expressed desires. At the same time, Brazil’s top trade partner, China, has not only seen its growth slow considerably, but is also prioritizing its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which focuses on Asia and directly implicates fellow BRICS nations Russia and India. Over time, the BRICS may prove to be a less durable organizing framework for international relations, leaving Brazil the odd man out, even though Premier Li Keqiang’s late May visit to Brazil and other South American nations shows China’s continued interest in building ties to the region.


THESE TRENDS suggest that it may now be a fortuitous time for the United States and Brazil to seek a newly expansive, mutually rewarding path forward for a bilateral relationship that has essentially been frozen in place since Rousseff cancelled her 2013 state visit. U.S. officials must be clear-eyed about the opportunities and also the realities. At this stage, it is apparent that Brazil is not the strategic ally that a number of observers have suggested, but it is also not a foe. Rather, it is akin to France, albeit without its own force de frappe: an important, self-aware nation with a proud history and large ambitions, sharing the values and interests of a Western democracy but strongly independent, willing and increasingly able to buck Washington when its self-interest dictates.

Like most nations, Brazil has made its mistakes, and it has overplayed its hand from time to time. Perhaps the best-known example was its effort in 2010, along with Turkey, to facilitate a nuclear deal with Iran. When Brazilian ambitions run up against core U.S. interests, there should be no hesitation to assert them and to take appropriate actions in response, as indeed the United States did in this instance. Closer to home, recent examples of overreach include suspending Paraguay from Mercosur in 2012 in order to pressure Asunción to acquiesce to Venezuelan membership. Washington was not particularly affected or concerned by this step, however, and responded accordingly.

But Washington should also be proactive in facilitating Brazil’s rise along a path consistent with the U.S. vision for bilateral relations. With such an approach, an agenda for action would emerge. On one hand, the United States should work with Brazil as a partner and friend wherever possible and whenever it is mutually beneficial. In Africa, for example, Brazil is doing important development work that the United States can support, and vice versa. Similarly, the United States and Brazil share significant interests in agriculture, education, energy, health care, peacekeeping operations, technology development, and global climate change and environmental protection, among other issues. They should work purposefully together in support of each of these agenda items.

Brazil should also gain a greater say in existing institutions of global governance—for example, the World Bank and the IMF—and could be invited to join the G-7 now that Russian membership is suspended and the size of Brazil’s economy exceeds others in the group. Permanent UN Security Council membership—and the veto that goes with it—should continue to await broader UN reform. Regionally, Brazil is entitled to continue its efforts to organize hemispheric affairs through new and different institutions, although it is disappointing that such efforts exclude the United States and Canada.

At the same time, the United States must recognize that its own influence in the Western Hemisphere has declined and take meaningful steps to reverse this trend. Obama’s outreach to the Castro government is clearly consistent with such a calculation.5 Additional moves should be made, including investing significantly greater resources in regional institutions like the OAS, while also committing sustained, senior political-level attention to regional issues. It means nominating highly qualified ambassadors and quickly confirming them, and fully staffing embassies without the long vacancies that are regrettably becoming the norm. It means moving forward with immigration reform and trade expansion, while reducing domestic drug demand, the illegal export of weapons and illicit cash flows. It means standing up against violations of democracy and appropriately promoting the values of democratic governance and human rights, taking the time and effort to make the case for democracy rather than just looking for ways to punish those who don’t practice it.

Finally, the United States must recognize that the moment in time has passed when pursuit of a common regional agenda agreed upon by all hemispheric nations is likely. As an ultimate goal, it remains an important vision, as it has been since the days of Simón Bolívar, Thomas Jefferson and numerous others. But for now, at least, pursuit of an effective regional agenda requires that the United States identify allies and friends who are willing to work in concert with it to promote mutual interests broadly, not just sector-specific or narrow self-interests.

In that regard, the creation of the Pacific Alliance in 2012 is a development that the United States can fully embrace and support. The four nations involved—Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile—are all free-trade partners of the United States and generally see the world through a similar lens. They have joined together in support of economic integration and joint competitiveness, showing impatience with U.S. reticence to engage more actively on the hemispheric trade agenda and also wariness of economic and political integration initiatives led by Brazil. The Pacific Alliance is an independent, organically organized grouping that is likely to expand in the near term.

The United States should take concrete steps to develop an economic cooperation and integration agenda with the Pacific Alliance, incorporating NAFTA, CAFTA and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiation partners together with other interested nations such as Paraguay and Uruguay—whose own aspirations for political and economic options beyond Brazil’s embrace must be recognized—to support U.S. interests. This would not be targeted at Brazil or anyone else. Indeed, the door must always remain open to the establishment of a strategic economic relationship with Brazil, including a bilateral free-trade agreement or a U.S. agreement with Mercosur, as unlikely as either may be under current circumstances. Nonetheless, there is no compelling reason why Washington should give Brasília or any other regional capital a pocket veto over the pursuit of U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere. It is time to move smartly ahead, as Washington is doing in the Pacific region with the TPP and in Europe with the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Brazil’s rise is significant and good, a long-standing desire promoted by generations of policy makers in Washington. But it has also altered the bilateral, regional and even global dynamic. The reelection of Dilma Rousseff and her imminent visit to Washington present a compelling opportunity for the United States to reevaluate and strengthen its approach. The time has come to cast aside romanticism for reality in order to pursue successfully a reinvigorated and healthy relationship with Brazil.


Eric Farnsworth served as senior adviser to the White House special envoy for the Americas during the Clinton administration and began his career at the State Department and the Office of the United States Trade Representative. Since 2003, he has headed the Washington office of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. The views expressed here are his own.

1 The primary exception to this approach was the effort to develop nuclear weapons to counter the perceived strategic threat from Brazil’s historical rival, Argentina, but this effort was abandoned after both nations returned to democracy and forswore nuclear weapons.

2 The desire to organize the region under its own leadership is also why Brazil reacted with uncharacteristic fury against the U.S. decision in 1997 to name Argentina a “major non-NATO ally,” temporarily bringing Argentina toward the U.S. orbit and contributing to Brasília’s sense that a U.S.-led unipolar hemisphere would prove to be contrary to Brazil’s own historic aspirations.

3 One exception is the G-20, in which Brazil is a charter member and has a coequal role with other members. The group is accorded great consideration by Brasília in the conduct of international financial affairs; Lula used the forum to impressive effect in promoting Brazil’s global position.

4 Brazil’s budget for its foreign ministry is today less than half of what it was under Lula, constraining as a practical matter its ability to engage internationally.

5 It will be important to watch whether and how significantly U.S. steps toward normalization with Cuba change the political dynamic between the United States and countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Image: Flickr/r loewenthal