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.


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.