Like most Latin American nations, Brazil has never mattered much to the United States. At no time has it been viewed as a security threat or a country of great economic opportunity, and it has only rarely served as a critical partner in regional or international affairs. Although mostly amicable, US-Brazilian ties have long been marked by limited cooperation (and mostly on issues of secondary importance to both nations), many areas of discord, and a few unpleasant clashes. Relations have been particularly cool and distant during the past half a dozen years, a period when governance and economic crises compelled the Brazilian government to focus on a troubled domestic agenda and left the US confused about the country’s future and cautious in its engagement. Moreover, this was a period when Washington directed its foreign policy priorities to Middle Eastern wars and terrorist threats, the fast-growing economies of China and other Asian states, and the security challenges posed by China, Russia, and Iran.
Still, President Trump’s enthusiastic welcome of Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in last October’s presidential elections was not a huge surprise. Trump seemingly had found a strongman he could depend on in Latin America. Often called “the Tropical Trump,” Bolsonaro shared the US president’s explosive temperament, minimal civility, intense nationalism, and extreme right-wing views on most issues. He gave his unconditional support to nearly every foreign policy measure of the Trump White House—whether restraining Iran, containing China, or fully backing Israel. From denying worldwide climate change to pressing for regime change in Venezuela, he pledged Brazil’s alignment with the US agenda. Although swiftly blocked by military leaders, Bolsonaro went so far as to propose the US locate a military base in Brazil.
Immediately following Bolsonaro’s electoral triumph last October, Trump was on the telephone congratulating him and calling for the two nations to “stand side-by-side” as “regional leaders of the Americas.” Five months later, Bolsonaro traveled to Washington for his initial bilateral presidential visit, breaking a long tradition of heading first to neighboring Buenos Aires. Trump and his most senior aides embraced him as a friend and an ally. Extravagant promises of friendship and collaboration were made by the two presidents. Senator Marco Rubio, a key advisor on inter-American affairs (and Florida politics), published a lengthy Time Magazine article setting out an ambitious agenda for a new US-Brazilian partnership. The visit was an unusual exercise in mutual camaraderie between the two Western Hemisphere giants.
Not all Americans share the White House’s view of Bolsonaro, however. Many are appalled by his views and behavior. Less than a month after his visit to Washington, the Brazilian president was scheduled to fly to New York to be honored as the Person of the Year by the US-Brazil Chamber of Commerce. Once it was made public, the award ceremony was greeted by protests and editorials denouncing the Brazilian president for his continued denials of climate change and plans to curtail long-standing protections of the Amazon basin. In addition, he was accused of open racism, indifference to human rights, and disrespect for women, indigenous peoples, and the entire LGBT community. His praise for Brazil’s 21 years of military rule was also harshly criticized. The mayor of New York declared that Bolsonaro was not welcome in his city. The Museum of Natural History cancelled its agreement to host the affair, which was relocated to Dallas, and several major US corporations withdrew promised financing for the event. Trump, of course, has similarly been a target for much of the damning rhetoric aimed at Bolsonaro.
But even in the Trump White House, enthusiasm for Brazil’s president may be waning. Bolsonaro has so far failed to demonstrate that he is capable of forceful leadership and able to exert the authority needed to impose his agenda on Brazilian politics. Despite some successes, he does not appear to be a particularly powerful strongman. His first seven months in office turned out to be rather chaotic with clashes among his cabinet member and close advisors, pushbacks on several issues from congress and the courts, and scandals affecting his family members and key ministers. Congressional leaders, not the executive branch, took charge of overhauling Brazil’s excessively generous and costly pension system, considered the most critical legislation to pass congress in several years. Bolsonaro’s poll numbers, although still in a respectable range, have been falling since his inauguration.
Bolsonaro has also been forced to backtrack on many of his promises to align Brazil policies with those of the US. He reversed, for instance, an earlier decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, which threatened to undo a recently negotiated free trade arrangement between the EU and Mercosur. Bolsonaro found little support at home for putting the brakes on Brazil’s rapidly expanding commercial and technological ties with China, as the US had been urging. The economic consequences were just too great for even for the government’s own economic team, let alone for Brazil’s powerful business and banking communities. Similarly, Bolsonaro’s postponed his pledge to join the US in moving its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem when $10 billion in Middle Eastern trade appeared to be endangered and when military leaders underscored the potential of jihadist terrorism in Brazil.
The White House and US government agencies are also aware of the limited power and prestige of Brazil in Latin America. Despite its size, population, and wealth, accounting for about one-third of the region’s economic activity, Brazil today exerts no real leadership in the region. Its contribution to confronting the problem of Venezuela, currently the most critical challenge for the US in South America, is no greater than a half a dozen other Latin American nations. This partly reflects the country’s troubled situation at home, and the military’s resistance to foreign interventions of any kind. But most of the region’s governments, led by more moderate and pragmatic leaders, are wary of Bolsonaro and his far-right agenda. They may also be disturbed by his seeming idolization of the US and the Trump administration, which has bullied and offended most countries of the region.
Rather than building a robust partnership with the United States, Bolsonaro’s current trajectory may end up with Brazil facing a largely indifferent Washington. Yes, Trump did declare this week that he wants a free trade deal with Brazil, but even if Brazil can find a way around Mercosur’s rules and begin to pursue a bilateral accord, negotiations will take several years to complete. A successful outcome is not out of the question, but it will require Brazil (as finance minister Guedes has proposed) to thoroughly overhaul its highly protected economy, which is among the most insular in the world. For its part, Washington will need to lift many of its long-standing politically sensitive barriers to agricultural imports. A new trading arrangement will surely not be easy to accomplish, as previous leaders in both countries can attest.
If Trump fails to win a second term, the Brazilian president may well confront a hostile Democratic administration, especially if he continues to express, as he has just this month, to supporting child labor, ending protections for indigenous peoples, arresting journalists for Brazil, and dismissing solid evidence produced by government scientists of a sharp rise in Amazonian deforestation this year. It is hard to predict how Bolsonaro’s plans to fill the vital post of Brazilian ambassador to the US with his youngest son—who lacks minimal training or experience for the job—might affect US-Brazil ties. Some argue that it would facilitate communication and further enhance ties between Trump and Bolsonaro, which could only benefit relations between these two countries. But that is not a problem. The presidents and their top advisors already have easy access to one another. The president’s son will mostly be judged on his success in carrying out the multiple complex tasks of an ambassador to Washington. So far, the prospective appointment has mostly raised new doubts about Bolsonaro’s own judgement.