When Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff canceled her October 23 White House state dinner, she created yet another foreign-policy embarrassment for the Obama administration. Rousseff’s visit, which was announced back in May, was supposed to be an opportunity for highlighting a new era of strategic cooperation between the Western Hemisphere’s two largest countries. It would have been the first state visit by a Brazilian leader since Bill Clinton hosted Fernando Henrique Cardoso in April 1995.
The bigger deal, however, is Obama’s persistent failure to make the U.S.-Brazil relationship a top priority. “No one doubts that forging a closer relationship between the United States and rising power Brazil makes good strategic sense,” writes former National Interest editor Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. “Yet the Obama administration seemingly can never find the time to devote the energy and political capital needed to get the process underway.”
As journalist Geoff Dyer points out, Obama has established close relationships with the leaders of other rising democracies, including Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and India’s Manmohan Singh. “Yet Brazil has never been seen as such a high priority,” notes Dyer. For example: After Turkey and Brazil attempted to broker a uranium-swap agreement with Iran in 2010, “Turkey was quickly forgiven, but Brazil was in the administration’s doghouse for a couple of years.”
To be sure, Brazil deserves much of the blame for the turmoil in bilateral relations. Its foreign-policy establishment still has a pronounced anti-American streak, and the Brazilian left in particular is still deeply resentful of U.S. power and influence in the hemisphere. For that matter, Brazilians of all stripes still nurse grievances over Washington’s role in their country’s 1964 military coup. “The Americans have no idea how hard it is to be pro-American in Brazil,” a senior Brazilian official (“close to Rousseff”) recently told Reuters.
Under former president Lula da Silva, who served from 2003 to 2011, Brazil was excessively friendly with anti-American dictatorships in Tehran, Havana, and Caracas. (Lula called the late Hugo Chávez “Venezuela’s best president in the last 100 years.”) President Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla, has distanced her government from the theocracy in Tehran, but she has also been shamefully quiet about the destruction of democracy in neighboring Venezuela.