The Future of US-Brazil Relations

Blog do Planalto / Brasil / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

By mid-2014, as Brazil was preparing to host the FIFA World Cup, its relations with the United States had sunk to their lowest point since civilian rule was restored nearly 30 years ago in 1985. Indeed, Brazil’s military, for much of its 24 years in power, may have enjoyed better relations with Washington than today’s democratically elected government. It was a year ago, in September 2013, that the public disclosure of the United States’ massive spying operation in Brazil triggered one of the most severe shocks ever to US–Brazilian ties. The revelation, by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, was especially disturbing because the secret surveillance extended to private communications between President Dilma Rousseff and her top advisers, and to the commercial files of the country’s industrial crown jewel, its national oil company, Petrobras. Washington’s unconvincing, at first almost indifferent, responses to Brazil’s concerns made things even worse.

The Brazilian government reacted angrily. Openly displaying her irritation with the United States, President Rousseff called off a long-awaited and highly prized state visit to Washington. She subsequently took the issue to the United Nations and other international forums, denouncing the US for ‘grave violations of human rights and of civil liberties, the invasion and capture of confidential information concerning corporate activities, and disrespect to national sovereignty’, adding ‘it is an affront to the principles that should otherwise govern relations among countries’.

Two months later, Brazil decided to purchase nearly $5 billion worth of fighter jets from Swedish manufacturer Saab, rather than from its US rival Boeing. ‘Brazil Snubs Boeing’ headlined the New York Times. It was clear from the timing that this was indeed a rebuff to Washington: in an election year, after huge public protests against government profligacy, there was no other reason for Brazil to make such a lavish spending decision—one which successive governments had deferred for years. The Brazilians, however, did turn down Snowden’s request for asylum, thereby avoiding an even more serious breach with the United States.

By itself, the Snowden affair would have been deeply damaging to US–Brazil relations. But it also compounded the impact of another severe bilateral clash, only three years earlier, over Iran’s nuclear programme. Two major confrontations, directly involving the presidents of the two countries, in such a short timespan have left US–Brazil ties badly frayed—and do not augur well for the future, when things could get even more fractious.

Relations over the past year have often been portrayed as frozen or paralysed. During the World Cup, some ten months after the initial Snowden releases, US Vice-President Joe Biden met with President Rousseff. His announced goal was rather modest—to restore relations to normal. The Brazilians were not happy that the Vice-President brought no apologies or regrets for the US spying; not even a promise it would not happen again. The visit ended without a single public comment by Rousseff, while her Vice-President declined to join Biden in issuing an official statement. Perhaps he just picked a bad time for fence-mending. Facing a tough bid for re-election in just three months, the Brazilian President had a lot on her mind: increasingly unfavourable poll numbers, a rapidly deteriorating economy, continuing public protests, and a widely criticized football tournament. More likely, however, the disappointing outcome of the Biden visit realistically reflected the troubled state of the two countries’ relationship.

Relations between the two giants of the Americas have not been very constructive for more than a generation. Despite their continuing rhetoric to the contrary, Brazil and the United States have never made much progress towards defining a cooperative relationship that would serve their mutual interests. Although both nations say they assign top priority to expanded commercial ties, for example, they have not negotiated a single major economic pact for nearly three decades. During this period, the United States has signed more than 20 free trade agreements worldwide, eleven of them with Latin American governments.

For some time now, Brazil has pursued its international interests and aspirations by standing apart from the United States. It has regularly emphasized and sometimes trumpeted its differences with Washington, even when bedrock US interests have been at stake. In recent years, Brazil has increasingly sought to curb US presence and influence in Latin America, particularly in South America. For its part, the US often seems to consider Brazil an interloper in world affairs, a nation that does not quite measure up to the status and power it claims. Neither country today appears ready to do much to alter a relationship that, although mostly amiable, has been marked by limited cooperation, considerable discord and a few unpleasant clashes.

The central question for both the United States and Brazil is whether the two nations can rise above their differences and find reasons and ways to cooperate more effectively. What will it take to develop a fresh relationship that allows them to join forces to advance their interests? Can the two countries identify a few high-priority areas for collaboration? If they are not able to cooperate much, can they still maintain friendly relations and avoid harmful confrontations? Can they avoid sliding backwards if they cannot move forwards?

The recent past suggests that building a genuinely productive relationship will not be a simple task for either country. Brazil has achieved its current stature and influence, not through cooperation, but largely by acting on its own and regularly saying no to Washington. For its part, the United States has become wary of an increasingly powerful Brazil that more often than not stands in opposition to US policies. Even when their interests and goals have been compatible, the two governments have seldom sought to align their approaches or strategies. Where they have worked together successfully, as in Haiti, it has been on issues that are not a high priority of either. 

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