A New Phase of U.S.-Brazil Relations?

by Anna Prusa

U.S.-Brazil relations have a long and complicated history. The visit of Brazilian President Rousseff to Washington, DC June 29–30 is a positive step forward for bilateral relations after the chill the NSA spying disclosures caused in 2013. However, it remains to be seen if the visit truly marks a new start for a U.S.-Brazilian partnership or merely marks a more cordial phase in a relationship that frequently cycles between cooperation and frustration.

Meeting on friendlier terms.

(Blog do Planalto/Flickr)

For over two hundred years the relationship between the United States and Brazil has oscillated between cordiality and suspicion, yet the proximity of these two continental-sized nations with global ambitions makes it impossible for either to ignore the other. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s visit to Washington, DC last week—almost two years after she cancelled an official state visit following disclosures of spying by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA)—is a nod to this impossibility. It remains to be seen, however, if the United States and Brazil can move beyond suspicion and past grievances toward an enduring strategic relationship, one that prioritizes partnership on critical regional and global issues over short-term domestic politics.

As both presidents emphasized in their joint statement on Tuesday (June 30), Brazil and the United States have much in common and much to learn from one another. Multiracial and multicultural, both are struggling to confront the legacies of slavery and historic inequality. Both are strong democracies, yet face ongoing challenges to improve transparency and ensure that government works for the good of the people. And both countries have sought to be a leading voice on many of the key international issues of the 21st century, from global health to climate change to economic development.

Yet the United States and Brazil have never developed the close strategic partnership the United States enjoys with other global powers, such as Germany or India or China. As U.S. foreign policy moves from one global crisis to another, it has had limited resources and time to devote to South America, a relatively peaceful region with few U.S. national security implications. Brazil is simply not a foreign policy priority, compared to the threat posed by ISIS or the ongoing Greece/Eurozone disaster, and rarely has been. Brazilians still remember that the United States ignored their country in favor of giving aid and attention to Europe in the aftermath of World War II, frustrating Brazil’s expectations of a reward for its contributions to the Allied cause. Indeed, Franklin Roosevelt supposedly promised Brazil a seat on the soon-to-be established United Nations (UN) Security Council and Brazil also hoped for economic assistance, but neither materialized in the post-war years. In fact, the United States has been frequently cautious in its recognition of Brazil as a global player, possibly due to the propensity of the two countries to disagree in international forums. Although Obama endorsed India’s quest for a UN Security Council seat in 2010, he has yet to do so for Brazil’s bid (perhaps anticipating close U.S. ally Mexico’s distaste for the idea). And U.S. officials criticized Brazil’s diplomatic forays into Middle Eastern affairs under President Lula in 2009 and 2010. In short, the United States has been slow to warm to a globally active Brazil.

Complicating this dynamic, Brazil has long been wary of a close relationship with the United States. Traditional Brazilian foreign policy thought emphasizes the belief that U.S. hegemony is an impediment to the exercise of Brazilian power, leading to the idea that Brazil should align its interests with those of other emerging powers—such as China, India, and South Africa—to counterbalance U.S. power and thereby gain influence on the global stage. This preference for a multipolar international order is compounded by a historic distaste for U.S. willingness to intervene in the domestic concerns of other countries, stemming from U.S. support for the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964—1985) and other covert U.S. actions in Latin America during that period and intensifying during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Thus the news that the NSA was spying on Brazilian citizens—that it had listened in on the private conversations of President Rousseff herself—quickly roused lingering suspicions over U.S. intentions. A strong rise in anti-U.S. sentiment in Brazil following Edward Snowden’s disclosures and an upcoming election made it politically impossible for Rousseff to continue with her planned visit to the United States in October 2013. But her decision to cancel an official state visit unquestionably chilled relations between the two countries.

On the surface, last week’s presidential meeting in Washington, DC signals a renewal of positive relations and both leaders seem inclined to pursue further cooperation. Domestically, Rousseff faces an entirely different landscape than in 2013. Her popularity has plummeted since her reelection last October as the economy continues to founder and the Petrobras corruption scandal continues to widen. Rousseff is eager for the economic initiatives and investment—and corresponding positive press—a productive U.S. visit could provide. For his part, Obama showed a clear willingness to affirm Brazil’s role as a key global player, stating unequivocally during their joint press conference on Tuesday, “We view Brazil not a regional power, but as a global power…[and] an absolutely indispensable partner.”

The slew of initiatives and agreements announced on Tuesday suggest that this renewed determination to strengthen relations at the highest levels of government also has a solid bureaucratic foundation. Many of the agreements signed represent progress on key bilateral economic issues: patent registration and social security (aimed to streamline investment); increased energy cooperation (oil and natural gas, biofuels, renewables, and nuclear); additional academic, scientific, and technical collaboration; and commitments to work toward visa wavers for travelers from both countries and preferential market access for U.S. and Brazilian exporters. In addition to bilateral agreements, the presidents also announced expanded collaboration on several critical global issues such as climate change, food security, and global health moving forward.

The question now, however, is not whether the two countries can move beyond the NSA debacle—for clearly they have—but whether they can move beyond a history riddled with frustrated expectations and mistrust. As Rousseff herself stated in response to a question from the press on Tuesday, all bilateral relationships are tested from time to time. The challenge for the United States and Brazil is whether they can forge a relationship now that is strong enough to withstand future conflicts.

Anna Prusa is a Contributing Editor for Charged Affairs. She has worked on U.S.-Latin American relations and Brazilian foreign policy for a number of organizations, including the U.S. Department of State, and is fluent in Portuguese. Prusa holds a MA in Latin American and Hemispheric Studies from the George Washington University.