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US-Brazil Relations: Expect More Conflict

By Peter Hakim
Infolatam, October 21, 2010

Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

Brazil’s outsized global aspirations and its newly acquired diplomatic weight were both on full view in Tehran this past May. That was when Brazilian President Lula da Silva triumphantly announced that he and his Turkish counterpart had persuaded Iran to shift a major part of its uranium enrichment program overseas—an objective that had previously eluded the US and other world powers. Washington, however, was not applauding. Secretary of State Clinton reacted angrily to Lula’s negotiating success, which was viewed as threatening the fragile agreement that the US had finally achieved among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to impose new, harsher sanctions on Iran for violating its nuclear treaty obligations.

As Lula, Brazil’s most widely admired president ever, nears the end of his second and final term, US-Brazilian relations are badly strained.  In the past two years, the two governments have openly clashed over many issues. Despite a still large reservoir of genuine good will between the two countries, the situation may worsen in the coming period as Brazil, regardless of who is elected president, seeks to expand and consolidate its ambitious international role.

Regional Leaders

It is almost inevitable that Brazil and the US will, for some years to come, be bumping up against one another in this hemisphere and worldwide. They both have a central stake in global politics and a deep concern about the world’s common problems. Their policies and agendas, however, will reflect their divergent, interests, priorities, and approaches to international affairs. If they cannot find significant common ground or, at a minimum, work to keep their disagreements in check, tension between them is likely to increase. Indeed, on most issues, the US-Brazil relationship will involve both conflict and cooperation—as do US ties with other global actors like China, Russia, and Japan as well as many European nations. 

In the past year or so, the US and Brazil have squabbled over several hemispheric issues—as Brazil has taken on a more assertive role in Latin America. Brazil surprised and irritated the US and neighboring Colombia when it joined nearly every other South American nation in opposing a newly announced military arrangement allowing US expanded access to Colombian military bases. By subsequently mending fences with Colombia and announcing its own, albeit more modest, military accord with Washington, Brazil demonstrated a welcome flexibility and accommodation. It also made clear, however, that US military initiatives in South America henceforth require prior consultation and agreement from Brazil—which is hardly an unreasonable demand. Indeed, this should be routine by now for Washington.

Brazil has been far less accommodating in its policy toward Honduras’s political crisis, which occupied center stage in inter-American affairs for much of last year. Despite their initial agreement on how to respond to the military coup that deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, Brazil and the US ended up pursuing sharply divergent approaches to resolving the crisis. While the US and many other nations have recognized the validity of Honduran elections and the authority of the country’s new president, Brazil continues to demand major concessions to the ousted president. The US-Brazilian disagreement has sustained a divisive impasse in hemispheric relations affairs.

US and Brazil also take polar opposite positions with regard to Cuba’s role in hemispheric affairs. In this instance, it is Washington that stands alone in its refusal to end its diplomatic and economic isolation of Cuba. Every other country in the Americas has re-established normal relations with the island.  For most Brazilians and other Latin Americans, US policy toward Cuba is virtually incomprehensible.

Although the US and Brazil will surely collide on other hemispheric questions in the years ahead, the US and Brazil have also demonstrated a capacity for cooperation in regional affairs. The US has strongly supported Brazil’s lead role in the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti since Aristides departure from the country in 2004, and has worked closely with Brazil on humanitarian relief in the aftermath of the country’s devastating earthquake. Washington has also expressed support for Brazilian leadership in developing a more politically and economically integrated South America—the so-called Union of South American nations or UNASUR—even though a stronger, more institutionalized UNASUR will likely restrict the role of the OAS and diminish US influence in hemispheric affairs  And Brazil has, from time to time, helped to moderate the anti-American campaign of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, even though the US and Brazilian governments have taken very different approaches to addressing the challenge that Chavez represents. 

The US-Brazil relationship is likely to be most seriously jarred in coming period by global, not regional, issues—because these are now more important for both countries. At the same time, however, the international arena may provide some opportunities for cooperation as well.

Iran and the Nuclear Issue

Brazil’s close, supportive ties with Iran have most exasperated Washington and unsettled the US-Brazilian relations in recent years. And there is considerable justification in the US position. Brazil has long defended Iran’s nuclear program—claiming, despite mounting and broadly accepted evidence to the contrary, that it is directed only toward civilian purposes. It has overlooked Iran’s repression at home, its continuing support of terrorist groups abroad, and its unrelenting threats toward Israel. Washington was particularly galled when, this past May, Brazil joined with Turkey to negotiate an agreement with Iran to halt a US-led drive for new UN sanctions against Tehran for its persistent violations of UN resolutions regarding its nuclear development activities.

Neither Brazil nor the US managed this incident particularly well. A letter from Barack Obama to Lula da Silva initially appeared to encourage the Brazil-Turkey-Iran talks—although Washington subsequently made clear its strong opposition to the talks, and its unwillingness to back down from its demand for harsher sanctions. At the same, however, the US—if it had not been so narrowly focused on preserving a big power consensus for the sanctions—might well have recognized that there was potentially some value in the deal negotiated by Brazil and Turkey and not simply rejected it out of hand.

Iran will surely be a cause of continuing friction in the US-Brazilian relation, primarily because of Brazil’s defense of Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts—while the US is persuaded these are directed toward building a nuclear bomb. Brazil will almost certainly continue to oppose sanctions against Iran (although it has pledged to respect those that have been imposed by the UN). The US and Brazil together might usefully explore the question of what evidence would be sufficient to conclude either that Tehran is pursuing a weapons capability or that its intentions are peaceful. Narrowing the gap between the two countries on this issue would help to ease tensions.

Over time, Brazil’s own nuclear program may emerge as an even more contentious issue than Iran for US-Brazilian relations.  To be sure, Brazil has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and is bound to forego nuclear weaponry by its own constitution, by an agreement with Argentina, and by the Latin American-wide Tlateloco treaty.  The US today has little concern that Brazil is preparing to develop an atomic weapon. But Brazil has embarked on a uranium enrichment program, and will almost certainly acquire the capacity to build such a weapon. Today, Brazil and the US are at odds over Brazil’s refusal to sign the NPT’s additional protocol, which requires far more intrusive inspections of enrichment facilities than the original treaty.

Washington sees Brazil’s rejection of the NPT’s additional protocol as vitiating an already weakened non-proliferation regime. Brazil, on the other hand, claims it is entirely within its rights, and asserts that it is the US and Russia who are most in violation of the NPT provision because of their failure to vigorously pursue its nuclear disarmament provisions. US-Brazilian frictions over the issues involved may increase as Brazil and several other countries come closer to a weapons capacity.

Ironically, nuclear development could be an area for cooperation between the US and Brazil. Certainly US scientific and technical resources could importantly bolster Brazil’s efforts to develop its nuclear energy industry.  The recent US agreement with India (a country that has already has a nuclear arsenal) may serve as model for US technology transfer to Brazil. What the US would surely want from Brazil in exchange, however, is sustained support for enhanced nonproliferation policies.

Business Disagreements

Last year, tensions over trade rose sharply after Brazil prevailed in its WTO suit claiming US cotton subsidies violated international trade rules. Because the US Congress will not consider reducing the subsidies until the legislation mandating them terminates in 2012, WTO rules give Brazil the right to retaliate with a countervailing tariffs on an array of US products. By agreeing to directly compensate Brazil for its losses (thereby subsidizing both US and Brazilian cotton growers), the US succeeded in postponing the retaliatory tariffs for the next couple years.  Brazil is now contemplating further WTO challenges to US agricultural subsidies, tariffs, and quotas.

Despite their continuing clashes over trade, Brazil and the US share a wide range of interests in global commercial arrangements. By joining forces, the US and Brazil, the world’s two leading food exporters, would substantially increase the prospect of reviving the stalled Doha global trade talks and directing them toward a successful outcome—which has been a high priority for both. But that would require Brazil and the US to make politically difficult concessions, not only on agricultural issues, but also on trade in services, industrial tariffs, and intellectual property. Brazil would have to risk discord with its closest Doha allies (including India and China) by pressing them likewise to give ground on these issues.

Brazil has worked hard in recent years to secure greater decision-power in multilateral forums. It is hard to dispute its claim that developing nations, given their increasing global economic importance, deserve stronger representation and influence in such institutions as the UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO, and others. And it has allied with other countries in a variety of ways to press for that representation. Among its steadiest partners in this have been India, China, South Africa, and Russia. But this has not been an area of tension with the US. Just the contrary. The US has supported Brazil’s efforts to gain more voting power for emerging markets at the IMF and World Bank, and to replace the G-7 (made up only of larger, highly industrial countries) with the G-20 (which includes the most important developing countries) as the principal forum for debating global economic questions. The US is not likely any time soon, however, to endorse Brazil’s quest of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council—in part because it is opposed by many other Latin American states. 

It is clear that Brazil and the US will have major roles in addressing the increasingly urgent issues of climate change and energy development. How Brazil manages the Amazon and exploits its newly found petroleum will have enormous impact on global effort to deal with climate and energy challenges. So, of course, will US policy, when it is finally formulated. . What is still uncertain is whether on these and many other global and regional issues, they will end up cooperating or clashing—or some measure of both—but they will have to confront one another time and again in many different arenas.  

Even as the US-Brazil relationship has become increasing strained in recent years, the two countries have never considered themselves adversaries—and both governments, with few exceptions, have sought downplay disputes and have been willing to tolerate considerable disagreement. For the US and a newly powerful Brazil to build and sustain a constructive relationship into the future, however, will likely demand far greater effort and attention by both governments than has been the case to date Both sides need to better understand the interests, priorities, and positions of the other on important regional and global issues—and to be routinely informed of proposed decision and actions of the other. More systematic consultation might have avoided (or at least reduced the intensity of) both the dispute over the Brazil-Turkey-Iran negotiations and the friction over the US-Colombia security agreement.  The US and Brazil should also be able to identify more opportunities for cooperation on many of the issues discussed above, in which both countries have a major stake. 

Still, no one should think US-Brazil relations will be easy to manage in the coming period. They will surely be tested by frustration and disappointment on both sides; conflict may be more common than partnership. That should be expected when two powerful countries have to contend with one another, no matter who is in charge.