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Seeking Common Ground in the U.S.-Brazil Relationship

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Brazil President Dilma Rousseff in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque).

Editor's note: In this blog post, Harold Trinkunas discusses what type of relationship the United States should seek with Brazil as Brazil's impact on global governance increases. This is the second post in a two-part piece highlighting policy recommendations from the recently released report Brazil’s Rise: Seeking Influence on Global Governance. Part 1 outlines steps Brazil can take to more effectively impact the global order.

It has been a difficult twelve months for Brazil-U.S. relations. In the wake of information leaked by Edward Snowden on U.S. espionage in Brazil, Brazilian President Rousseff postponed her state visit to the White House scheduled for October 2013. Bilateral U.S.-Brazil negotiations on a range of key issues lost momentum or ground to a halt after the postponement of the presidential visit. President Rousseff responded to the Snowden revelations by denouncing NSA global espionage efforts at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in October 2013, and Brazil worked with Germany at the United Nations to push for limits on U.S. surveillance efforts. Some observers also attributed Brazil’s decision to award a contract for the purchase of advanced fighter aircraft to Swedish Saab instead of U.S.-based Boeing to the effects of the Snowden revelations.

However, it is important to look beyond the short-term difficulties and instead consider how to shape the future of this relationship. Brazil’s rising role in global governance highlights two important and related questions for U.S. policymakers to consider. Is Brazil likely to change its ideas about the international order sufficiently so that the two countries will expand common ground on which to work together? Should the United States encourage Brazil to more fully develop its military and economic capabilities so that it can contribute more effectively to global order?

Democratization of Foreign Policy May Produce Common Ground

The answer to the first question may depend as much on the evolving role of domestic politics in shaping Brazil’s foreign policy as on conversations among diplomats. Brazil’s foreign policy is beginning to democratize in the sense that it is influenced by a wider array of voices than the traditional elites that have long dominated this discussion. Brazilians’ core values favor democracy, equality, inclusion, development and human rights. Yet Brazil’s foreign policy elites tend to prioritize non-intervention and sovereignty over democracy and human rights. As Brazil’s democracy further evolves and the role of citizens in foreign policy deepens, its government may face increasingly direct questions about how Brazil’s core values should be expressed in its foreign policy.

What Role for the United States?

The United States should also consider the shadow of the future. As my recent paper, Brazil’s Rise: Seeking Influence on Global Governance documents, Brazil’s aspirations and trajectory have been clear for some time. We can follow this trajectory forward in time and clearly see a time when Brazil will become a fully-fledged major power. Some in the United States, critical of Brazil’s present foreign policy, see little reason for a closer relationship between the two powers. However, disengaging with Brazil as it rises would only increase the distance between the United States and one of the few emerging powers whose citizens share many of the same values as U.S. citizens. If the U.S. bets on cooperating with Brazil as it becomes a major power, then it is in the U.S.’s best interest to encourage Brazil to commit more fully to developing its military and economic capabilities to support global order, much as the U.S. has done with allies in Europe and Northeast Asia.

There are still many hopeful aspects to Brazil-U.S. relations. Trade and economic relations remain strong, and the Brazilian government continues to provide scholarships for thousands of young Brazilians to take advantage of educational opportunities in the United States. In addition, there are some adjustments Brazil should consider making to its international strategy to consolidate its status as a major power. Expanding Brazil’s role in international peacekeeping and development assistance and seeking out areas of agreement on global governance with the United States would contribute to Brazil’s rise. These would have the added benefit of building common ground for Brazil-U.S. cooperation. It may not be realistic to expect much change before Brazil’s presidential elections in October 2014, but bilateral relations should be a priority for both countries in 2015.

Read Part 1 of this piece: Four Steps Brazil Can Take to Influence Global Governance More Effectively