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.
Rousseff clearly understands that anti-U.S. posturing can be winning card in Brazilian domestic politics. By calling off the state visit, she wasn’t simply expressing her disgust with NSA espionage, she was also trying to boost her sagging poll numbers ahead of Brazil’s 2014 presidential campaign. Rousseff is gearing up for a reelection bid amid high inflation, sluggish economic growth, rampant crime, major corruption scandals, and widespread public unrest. The nationwide protests that shook Brazil this past summer have largely subsided. However, the past month has witnessed demonstrations over teacher salaries, and far-left anti-capitalist activists are doing their best to create havoc in the streets of Rio de Janeiro and other cities. To make things worse, the country’s biggest criminal organization (known by its Spanish acronym, PCC) has threatened to unleash a “World Cup of terror” during the 2014 global soccer tournament, which Brazil will host.
In short: Rousseff is struggling to address a range of domestic woes, and the spying scandal provided her with a golden opportunity to stoke Brazilian nationalism and distract public attention from problems at home. Her decision to snub the United States has done significant short-term damage to bilateral relations, but that’s a price she was willing to pay. President Obama reportedly tried to change her mind during a 20-minute phone call on September 16; he also spoke to her for 45 minutes on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Russia on September 5. Yet Brazilian officials still felt that Obama and his team weren’t taking their outrage over the NSA issue seriously enough. “As resentment festered in Brasília,” the New York Times reported, “the Obama administration seemed to put the tension with Brazil on the back burner, focusing on other issues like Syria.” Rousseff was unmoved by Obama’s appeals, and the cancellation of her visit was announced on September 17.
The espionage controversy also jeopardized Boeing’s attempt to sell Brazil $4 billion worth of F-18 fighter jets. Other bilateral trade deals may be delayed, as well. Meanwhile, Brazil continues to expand strategic cooperation with Russia. On October 16, it announced that it would be purchasing $1 billion worth of Russian anti-aircraft technology. “More than buying military equipment,” said Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim, “what we are seeking with Russia is a strategic partnership based on the joint development of technology.” The Brazilians already bought twelve Mi-35 attack helicopters from Moscow in 2008.
It is not hard to understand Brazil’s strategic importance: An oil-rich country of roughly 200 million and a leading global exporter of iron ore, orange juice, soybeans, sugar, and other commodities, the South American giant is now one of the six or seven biggest economies in the world, with a middle class that has grown by 40 million people over the past decade alone. Writing in this space about 18 months ago, I discussed the various ways in which Brazil was effectively “the India of Latin America.” Beyond the obvious similarities—each nation is a rising democracy and a regional powerhouse with a rapidly emerging consumer base—both countries have a long history of strained diplomatic relations with the United States. During the Cold War, India was a founding member of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and it maintained close ties with the Soviet Union. Brazil never formally joined the NAM, but in the mid-1980s it launched the Rio Group, a hemispheric forum that deliberately did not include the United States. Brazilian officials hoped the Rio Group would function as a diplomatic alternative to the Washington-based Organization of American States. Not surprisingly, it effectively sided with the Soviet-backed Sandinistas and FMLN guerrillas during the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
In other words, both New Delhi and Brasília were often at odds with Washington during some of the fiercest diplomatic battles of the late 20th century. Yet the U.S.-India relationship fundamentally changed during the George W. Bush administration, thanks to a concerted effort that was driven by President Bush himself. During the Bush years, the United States and India completed a major nuclear agreement and began building a genuine strategic partnership. “When history is written,” Prime Minister Singh declared in September 2008, “I think it will be recorded that President George W. Bush played an historic role in bringing our two democracies closer to each other.”
Prior to the NSA revelations, the Obama administration had been making incremental progress with Brazil. In 2011, for example, Washington and Brasília signed a bilateral Agreement on Trade and Economic Cooperation—the type of pact that often precedes a free-trade agreement—which created the U.S.-Brazil Commission on Economic and Trade Relations. That was an encouraging step, as was the decision by the U.S. Congress to eliminate a longstanding tariff on imported ethanol. But these were small-ball initiatives; the U.S.-Brazil agenda should be much broader and much bolder. As Gvosdev puts it, Obama’s Brazil policy needs to become “a comprehensive effort akin to the George W. Bush administration’s full-court press to improve relations with India.”
Brazil will never be an easy partner for the United States, and there’s only so much the Obama administration can accomplish without greater cooperation from the Rousseff government. But Obama could be doing much more. Hopefully the canceled state visit will convince him to make Brazil a much higher priority.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.