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 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