Autonomy or alignment? The US-Brazil relationship in a changing world order

August 2023

  • If Brazil wants to play on the global stage, it will have to find a way to update its strategy of strategic autonomy.
  • At the same time, the United States must eschew any hope that Brazil will become a stable part of an anti-hegemonic coalition aimed at curtailing China’s influence writ large.
  • And if the United States wants a deeper partnership, it will have to accept that helping Brasília advance its claim for greater voice and vote in global affairs does not come with a bargain to join forces on China.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva meet in Washington
Editor's note:

What follows draws on three sessions on U.S.-Brazil relations convened by Brookings between May 9 and May 17: a virtual briefing from senior U.S. and Brazilian officials; a public keynote address and panel, both in-person and online; and a private workshop for experts. These were generously supported by the Lemann Foundation. The first and third session were conducted under the Chatham House rule; the public session is available online here.

Executive summary

U.S.-Brazil relations are deep and complex, and issues that strain and motivate the relationship are enduring. The context in which these issues are set, however, has changed dramatically and rapidly. That is true for issues of democracy and governance; climate change; crime; and sustainable development — in each case, both domestic and international trends have accentuated the challenges. Both sides will need to adapt if the relationship can advance. But there’s this challenge too: the two countries view very differently the evolving international order, especially around the role of China. If Brazil wants to advance its global ambitions, it has to update its understanding of the geopolitical dynamic it finds itself in. Similarly, if Washington wants a closer relationship with Brazil, it will have to eschew any aspiration for pulling Brazil into an anti-China coalition, and recognize that an autonomous Brazil — one that makes meaningful contributions to regional security, climate change, and global food security — can help advance a stable international order.

What a roller-coaster it has been.

For much of the post-Cold War period, U.S.-Brazil relations have been stable, if distant; professional, if under-attended. But not of late. The election of former U.S. President Donald Trump created uncertainty and confusion, as it did in many of America’s foreign relations. The subsequent election of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro ironically created a positive channel at the top, even as it threw Brazilian governance into chaos. Then, when U.S. President Joe Biden was elected in Washington, returning something like normalcy to one half of the equation, a big question mark hung over the relationship. But all that was as nothing to the ups and downs that swiftly followed.

Over the course of just more than half a year, U.S.-Brazil relations have experienced the following twists and turns: important American support to Brazilian electoral institutions to help ensure a free and fair result; the historic return of Lula da Silva to the presidency; the dramatic attack on Brazil’s Congress on January 8, with its strong echoes of the January 6 attempted autogolpe in the United States; a visit to Brasília by U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, triggering the rapidly planned Biden-Lula summit in Washington, D.C. a month later; and a powerful statement of shared priorities between the region’s two largest democracies. Even while that was happening, Lula was also signaling his emphasis on an autonomous foreign policy. He started to put it in action in the form of an effort to carve a leading role for Brazil in peace negotiations around the Ukraine war, including Senior Policy Advisor Celso Amorim’s shuttle diplomacy. This effort took most prominent form during Lula’s trip to Beijing and, in that context, his statements about the U.S. role in “encouraging” the war in Ukraine, comments that drew rare, fierce, public White House rejection. Less fanfare attended the following also-important developments: the U.S. decision to provide $500 million to the Amazon Fund; the election of Dilma Rousseff to the position of president of the BRICS’ New Development Bank, the most important non-Western ordering institution, at a moment when Washington is seeking to defend the existing order; the alignment between the United States and Brazil at the International Atomic Energy Agency in the face of Chinese efforts to frustrate the high-priority Australia-U.K.-U.S. agreement on nuclear-powered submarines; and Lula’s participation in the G-7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan.

Quite the run for a country too-often accorded less focus than warranted, in a region that itself gets too little attention in Washington. As the noted Brazilian think tank director Matias Spektor has noted, “…there has been an under appreciation both in Washington and crucially in Brasília as well, as to the importance of this relationship.” But that’s changing. Whatever the costs to U.S.-Brazil relations of Lula’s Ukraine gambit and his rhetoric in China, one clear outcome of the last several months is this: Brazil under Lula is resurrecting a profile as the most important country in Latin America and a meaningful player in global affairs.

While there are long-standing diplomatic, institutional, commercial, and societal ties between the United States and Brazil, the official relationship increasingly will be refracted through the lens of a rapidly changing world order — through the prism of U.S.-China ties, wider geopolitical competition, and a rapidly changing geo-economic landscape. This is not just because the world’s top powers are competing for influence in every region of the world, including the Western Hemisphere; it’s also because both the United States and Brazil act upon a wider, global worldview. Former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon Jr. recently put it succinctly: “both countries have global ambitions that extend far beyond their geography. While the geographical address of Brazil might be South America and the geographical address of the United States might be North America, the existential address of both countries extends far beyond our hemisphere.”

Each country, facing its internal challenges, will continue to shape the future of the region; and both will be involved in the struggle to redefine the contours of the changing international order.

This means that there’s a lot more at stake than simply the bilateral relationship. Each country, facing its internal challenges, will continue to shape the future of the region; and both will be involved in the struggle to redefine the contours of the changing international order. While the United States’ role is obviously far more consequential, leading officials in Washington increasingly recognize that Brazil is a potentially important partner — and thus also a potentially important obstacle — in the effort to defend and adapt key components of an international order under stress.

The two acid tests are: Is the United States prepared to accommodate Brazil’s appetite for a greater voice on the world stage and decision-making weight in global economic, political and security institutions? And can Lula’s team update its geopolitical strategy, retaining its emphasis on independent decision-making while also constructing healthy relations with Washington that reflect the deep changes underway in U.S.-China/Russia relations?

Of democracy…

It is not only global dynamics to which U.S.-Brazil relations need to adapt. There are also important internal democratic and economic changes that are shaping each country’s politics, and their relationship.

The United States and Brazil are not the regions’ only democracies. Nor are their democracies the most eroded by recent populist politics (an ‘honor’ that surely goes to Mexico under Andrés Manuel López Obrador.) But as two of the world’s top five most populous democracies, the health of constitutionalism in Washington and rule of law in Washington and Brasília matters a great deal — to each, to the region, and to the overall stability of democracy in the world.

It is intrinsic to representative democracy that the overwhelming weight of significant political or policy change must come from within. Still, as we’ve already seen, U.S. support to Brazilian institutions can help — U.S. actors played an important role in limiting efforts within Brazil to erode those same institutions and helped secure a free and fair electoral result. Despite some recent efforts to portray that as an effort to interfere, it is evident that the focus of U.S. efforts was to prevent internal Brazilian forces from manipulating, cheating, or defying the results, as opposed to putting the thumb on the scales in one direction or another.

The United States is not without its own democratic backsliding challenges and anti-democratic actors in both countries not only remain active but also have been known to collaborate across borders. A more regularized bilateral arrangement — exchange of lessons learned, sharing of good practices, and capacity building where needed — would help build trust and then could be extended to other areas of democracy, human rights, and rule of law. Such exchanges should extend beyond the executive branch. An effort to build relations between U.S. and Brazilian parliamentarians, for example, could help build confidence between governments. It would be a way, too, to acknowledge that the immediate crisis of January 8 may have passed, but the challenges endure, just as they do in the United States.

The need is perhaps greatest — but also the opportunity strongest — in response to disinformation, arguably the most virulent threat to healthy democratic discourse and free elections. There is ample scope for knowledge sharing between researchers, technology companies, and government officials. Cooperation among civil society institutions could help develop robust responses, tailored to the specific needs of each country.

There is also an essential need in both countries to strengthen and protect judicial independence and judicial oversight of electoral processes. The U.S. Department of Justice investigation and prosecution of those responsible for attempts to negate the November 2020 election and otherwise erode the rule of law, although unfinished, is encouraging. U.S. judicial and law enforcement actors should pay close attention to Brazil’s swifter and more decisive efforts in this regard — for example, in their swift move to bar Jair Bolsonaro from running for re-election. Brazil’s authority to bar violators of electoral rules from running for office is particularly noteworthy. In both cases, adjudicating disputes around electoral and constitutional issues in the courts, both to defend the constitution and to legitimize the judiciary system, will help each country address systemic disillusionment with democracy and support for authoritarianism. Although there is some risk of politicization of the judiciary, legal avenues, if properly handled, are certainly preferred over the insurrection-style violence that have occurred in both countries.

Neither country can isolate the challenge to democracy they are each facing from deep economic strains.

At the same time, neither country can isolate the challenge to democracy they are each facing from deep economic strains. Brazil’s democratic challenge comes in a context of per capita income that is roughly 20% of American per capita income (as measured in PPP dollars). The disparity in income levels, however, may overstate the differences between the two countries’ internal dynamics. While per capita income has been growing (slowly) for U.S. workers, working class wages were largely stagnant until very recently, and inequality was at its highest level in decades prior to some (probably temporary) relief from huge government transfers during Covid. Moreover, average life expectancy for Americans has been declining. These phenomena are closely linked to populist sentiment and political dissatisfaction.

Still, the United States has sustained per capita GDP growth since the global financial crash, while Brazil has not. For Brazil, the salient fact is its own variant of the “middle income trap” —  but in this case, not just static growth but rather year on year decline of per capita income for over a decade (after more than a decade of robust growth, much of it fueled by spiking commodity prices, in turn fueled by Chinese resource consumption). It is unlikely that Brazil can move much beyond the current democratic challenge without simultaneously improving the living standards of most Brazilians. In this sense, democratic protection and economic development are closely inter-woven.

… and development

In short, Brazilian economists and development scholars seem to agree that Brazil needs a new national development strategy to reflect current realities. A central area of uncertainty in U.S.-Brazil relations in this new era will lie in the impact of the American shift away from the “Washington Consensus” of neo-liberal economics towards a semi-protectionist industrial strategy.

There’s an irony here. Brazilians have long critiqued the Washington Consensus — and the shift towards a wider set of government interventions (there have always been several, of course), so-called “home-shoring” or “friend-shoring” measures, and industrial strategy in the technology sector, will push Washington ideologically closer to a Latin American and even Brazilian perspective on the role of the state in economics. (Indeed, there are useful lessons that the United States could learn from Brazil’s innovations — started under Lula, continued under Rousseff — to develop mechanisms inside the president’s core planning team to target defense expenditure in ways that helped produce local economic and social benefits.) But whether Washington’s version of this approach will benefit Brazil remains to be seen. Much depends on how far the United States goes towards protecting U.S.-based industry, and whether Brazil can fall inside the friend-shoring arrangements. The success of recently agreed joint ventures between two defense giants, America’s Boeing and Brazil’s Embraer, and of the U.S.-Brazil Defense Industry Dialogue, may do much to shape the question of how Brazil fares in America’s new re-globalization efforts. That Washington (and to a lesser extent the rest of the West) is committed to re-globalization (or “de-risking”, to use the latest term of art) is a reality that Brazil will have to incorporate into its development strategy more fully. But it also creates opportunities.

Across development strategy options, education and capacity building are key for Brazil. To grow and develop, Brazil needs to invest substantially in infrastructure, both digital and physical, and in regional integration (as does the United States). But all of that ultimately relies on a workforce able to take advantage of new digital connectivity. That means “up-skilling,” re-training, and education designed to help workers get jobs, contribute to sub-regional development, and boost productivity.

Here, the United States has much to offer. For all the current challenges faced by the American polity, it still has a large reservoir of human capital capacity, embedded in higher education institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations, across virtually every domain of learning, industry, technology, and society. Brazil has begun investing in important capacity-building programs, including educational exchanges, but much more could be done here. Even with a fraction of the investment that the United States has put into educational and scientific exchange programs with the Quad nations, the United States could do a lot to build on exchanges started under the Obama administration, and significantly boost Brazil’s capacity-building and educational efforts. Although the United States has a particular comparative advantage at the level of tertiary education and high technology, there is also ample scope for support and collaboration at the level of primary and secondary education.

There’s nothing new in saying Brazil needs an effective development strategy, or in there being windows of opportunity for both U.S. private sector investment and public sector assistance. But the context has changed. The core of that is a strong, bipartisan (if still inchoate) desire from the United States, still the world’s most powerful market, to re-tool some key features of globalization away from excess reliance on Chinese manufacturing and trade. The shape of that is still to be defined. Brazil has an opportunity to help the United States diversify its supply and move up the value chain in so doing.

Both these points — the opportunity for collaboration in education and training, and the opportunity to profit from a push towards re-globalization — come together in a critical area of past tension and potential future collaboration: climate change and the green economy.

Of climate change…

A crucial area where the changing context creates new opportunities for Brazil lies in green technology. Here too, there’s a new context. The notion that the world is in, or at the very least rapidly heading to a climate emergency is one that has begun to penetrate Western discourse and even policy. While the United States is still home to some of the most important recalcitrant actors in climate politics, there’s wide public support for climate action now. The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (in real terms, a climate and infrastructure bill) will drive a scale of U.S. spending that will begin to reshape American and global markets. Across much of the rest of the world, a deeper acceptance of the reality of climate change is shaping — though not yet driving — industrial policy. An ironic outcome of the Ukraine war is a faster-than-expected transition in Europe away from natural gas, which should spur still-greater expansion of industries like electrical car production. Climate change is no longer a niche topic; it’s a central plank of most countries’ national strategy. And there-in lies a major opportunity for Brazil — one of the world’s real leaders in green energy production and consumption.

Brazil is already a powerhouse in clean energy production. With growing global demand for green energy technology and products, and the current state of Chinese dominance in some of those lines of technology, there’s ample scope for new providers to move up the value chain. Outside financing will help, and even more so, support for technology transfer and development in certain parts of the global supply chain. As the economist Monica de Bolle has noted, there are particularly important opportunities in green hydrogen, where Brazil has both significant comparative advantages and a first mover opportunity. Brazil also has critical minerals to offer to the global supply chain to help support green industries.

In addition, Brazil is an agricultural powerhouse, and the political economy of those two industries — energy and agriculture — will at times clash. But to take advantage of new dynamics in re-globalization, Brazil will have to re-focus its attention on green industries. That signals the need for job creation, re-training, and capacity-building in key sectors.

These job creation efforts must include the Amazon — and specifically, the urban centers of the Amazon. This is important, as 30 million people currently live in the Amazon, and more than 20 percent of the Amazon has been destroyed. Lula’s return to Amazon protection has crucially re-positioned Brazil globally and removed a major sticking point in U.S.-Brazil relations. Yet, to be sustainable, forest protection must be combined with real investment in sustainable livelihoods and job creation. Conservation and adaptation finance can play a critical role in funding this model to support a climate/jobs agenda in the region. Sustainable urbanization is fundamental in the fight against climate change. This must be coupled with a strong investment by philanthropy in building sustainable cities in the Amazon.

There is an opportunity for both countries to actively build a green economy through activities that support green energy and strengthens their partnership in a meaningful way.

Green industry could be a core part of the kind of U.S.-Brazil educational and capacity-building exchanges noted above. There is an opportunity for both countries to actively build a green economy through activities that support green energy and strengthens their partnership in a meaningful way. Much of this can be done by fusing federal and sub-national efforts. The sub-national level has limits but has two distinct advantages: greater proximity to the real political economy of industry and urbanization that must inform strategy, and an ability to be insulated (at least to some degree) from political swings at the federal level. Thus, institutions in the United States and Brazil with the capital to mobilize funds in an effective manner should collaborate, when possible, to identify and implement solutions for the climate crisis (e.g., through investments and constructive dialogue).

There’s also a need for active collaboration on the issues of the blue economy — that is, in work to protect the Atlantic Ocean off Brazil’s east coast, both from environmental degradation and illegal fishing. The United States has now developed extensive techniques to combine Coast Guard activity, remote sensing, and the application of computational technologies (including AI) to track illegal fishing and wider maritime domain surveillance and awareness, much of which has been piloted in the central stretches of the Pacific. All these could be applied, with greater ease and lower cost, to collaborate with Brazil on protecting the western Atlantic. This collaboration could fall under the umbrella of a recent multi-national agreement among coastal Atlantic countries, which will be formally launched at the U.N. in September 2023, and of which Brazil and the United States are both active members.

… and crime

There’s a new context, too, when it comes to another perennial challenge in Brazil and in U.S.-Brazil relations: crime.

The criminal landscape is undergoing a significant transformation as the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) emerges as the dominant Brazilian organized crime group. This shift is part of a global synthetic drug revolution impacting the criminal underworld. The PCC has consolidated its position as Brazil’s largest criminal organization, operating nationwide but increasingly extending its reach overseas, particularly in Africa. Its activities encompass drug trafficking, environmental crimes, and extortion. The group is expanding its influence, collaborating with other crime organizations, and perfecting its money-laundering abilities. It rivals Mexican cartels, Cartel de Sinaloa (CS) and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG).

Chinese criminal networks, such as the Triads, are also rising in Brazil, primarily engaging in environmental crimes through corruption. This contributes to wildlife trafficking, unregulated fishing, and corrupt lumber practices. Brazil is also becoming a prominent hub for cybercrime. The global dimension of all this limits the capacity of the Brazilian state to tackle or deter criminal actors.

Important to note here is the close inter-connection between the issues of Amazon protection/green jobs, and efforts to counter criminality. Recent work by the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian think tank, has shown how upwards pressure on global commodity prices quickly translates into new demand for mining operations and illegal commodity trafficking in the Amazon, and how this often goes hand in hand with narcotics trafficking.

The Brazilian security response has historically been reactive and costly, lacking an intelligence component. Public security decisions have been episodic, responding to incidents rather than adopting a sustained long-term strategy. Violence, perpetuated by both organized crime groups and police officers, has remained high. Some past experiences, though, offer lessons for improving the situation. São Paulo’s approach, which included the use of body cameras, randomized controlled trials (RCTs), and enforcing control and accountability among police officers, has had positive results. Similarly, Rio de Janeiro’s 2009 policing program, though context-specific, demonstrated the importance of addressing crime and socio-economic issues simultaneously in favelas.

However, sustaining operations and securing necessary investments have proved challenging. Corruption within police forces remains a significant issue that requires attention and resolution. And while American policymakers are wont to focus on counter-corruption in the current political climate, there will be limits on the extent to which U.S. advice or support is welcome there. Other actors, like the World Bank and the EU, may have greater traction in Brazil at this juncture.

Still, the United States has ample opportunities to assist Brazil in addressing security and countering emerging criminal threats. One key area is coordinating efforts, under Brazilian leadership, to secure the Amazon and enforce environmental policies. The United States can provide support in assisting Brazil’s plans to develop alternative livelihoods for individuals engaged in environmental crimes. Collaboration can also focus on joint responses to prevent zoonotic diseases and new pandemics. Both countries can advocate for mitigating wildlife trafficking in pandemic treaty negotiations.

And perhaps most important: the United States can wield its extensive overseas relationships and intelligence operations to help Brazil deal with the global dimensions of the problem — most of which are beyond the reach of the Brazilian state.

And China: Or, geopolitical and global governance in flux.

With Lula’s return comes a rejuvenation of Brazil’s desire to play a larger role on the world stage, and in the decision-making fora of global politics and economics. As Latin America’s leading economy, the 10th largest economy in the world, and the 7th most populous country in the world, it has every claim to do so. Indeed, the fact that a country like Brazil, with those features, has a very modest role in global governance is a central part of the distress and distrust of the West emanating from the global South writ large.

U.S. perspectives on this have long fit the pattern of tepid, passive support; a willingness in principle to see global governance reform that would bring countries like Brazil into decisional circles; but in practice, lukewarm diplomatic support at best and a perfect willingness to allow reform efforts to founder and fail.

Here too there’s a changed context, created by the diplomacy surrounding the war in Ukraine. The limitations on U.S. efforts to mobilize diplomatic support for Ukraine in fora like the U.N. has brought home to leading officials that the United States has a significant problem in the global South and with non-Western emerging powers. Twenty years too late, to be sure; but perhaps better late than never. The fact that the United States has recently introduced a resolution that would expand the number of permanent seats in the U.N. Security Council — a central Brazilian demand and aspiration — is indicative of this shift in attitude. A harder fight is coming, though, on international financial institutions and the multilateral development banks, where the United States is the keeper of the keys and the primary obstacle to governance reform. Biden recently signed on to the outcome statement from the Paris Summit in support of the Bridgetown Initiative on global financial reform; but the fact that instead of going to the summit he hosted Indian Prime Minister Modi in Washington on the same day, is perhaps indicative of the relative importance the United States places on the issue.

Of course, all of this is shaped by the wider U.S.-China struggle. How Brazil navigates this new dynamic will be crucial to its success or failure. So far, though, the evidence suggests that Lula has somewhat misjudged the geopolitical context into which he is seeking to renew Brazil’s search for voice. A false start is not a failed strategy, though.

In the short term, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is likely to remain a sore point. Lula’s ill-timed, ill-framed and so far, ill-fated gambit at being the mediator has done much to erase early trust built up between the two administrations. Still, neither the trust nor the role are unrecoverable. There will surely come a time, perhaps soon, when the United States is more open than it has publicly been to lay the groundwork for negotiations towards war termination. When that time comes, it is likely that the actual process of negotiations will have several tracks, including one where third parties play a convening and cajoling role. A “friends’ group” of middle powers could play constructive roles, perhaps together with the U.N. Secretary-General, in nudging the parties forward in the negotiations, while countries like the United States and China are — in the formal tracks — more likely to serve as guarantors than mediators. (In parallel, the real work is likely to be done in a U.S.-Russia-EU-Ukraine format.) There’s every reason for Brazil to be part of a “friends’ group” like that, and Washington could certainly support such an effort — at the right time, and with the right preparation.

The United States should not expect that Brazil will make a choice between preserving a partnership with the U.S. versus China

The thornier issue is China. The United States should not expect that Brazil will make a choice between preserving a partnership with the U.S. versus China; the huge scale of Chinese trade with Brazil makes this totally impracticable. What Washington can hope for, and work towards, is a widening realism about China’s behavior, both in Latin America and in Asia, and greater Brazilian support to U.S./Western efforts to constrain the destabilizing parts of that behavior. The fact that Brazil cast its lot in with the United States at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), when China sought to delegitimize the Australia-U.K.-U.S. nuclear submarine deal, may have been motivated by a latent Brazilian desire to expand its own civilian nuclear use, including potentially for submarines; but it nonetheless should have been noted as an important case of alignment between U.S. and Brazilian strategic interests.

Across these domains, it’s important for Washington to recognize two dimensions of Brazil’s changing role in global affairs: its own legitimate appetite for greater say; and its meaningful diplomatic sway in parts of the wider global South, especially in Lusophone countries. India has started to position itself as a “bridge” between the West and the global South, and certainly has roles to play there; but so does Brazil. While the United States may find elements of Lula’s foreign policy orientation and ideology hard to align with, it will also discover that wide swathes of the global South are sympathetic to Lula’s worldview. Finding some pathway for collaboration is not just important in U.S.-Brazil terms, but in terms of the wider American goal of burnishing its somewhat tarred credentials in the South.


It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day; will it be a new life for U.S.-Brazil relations?

Over the last few years, key parts of the context for ties between the hemisphere’s two giants has changed. U.S.-China relations, for example, have morphed from difficult cooperation to increasingly tense rivalry and are likely to stay that way, or deteriorate. If Brazil wants to play on the global stage, it will have to find a way to update its strategy of strategic autonomy for this new context, a context in which hands-off neutrality is likely to be unhelpful in forging constructive roles.

But within that framework, there are many areas for meaningful collaboration. On job creation in Amazonian cities. On the technological underpinnings of a green economy. On better approaches to policing in a multi-racial society. On combating the global sources of organized drug trafficking and cyber-crime. And in due course, on helping create space for war termination in Ukraine.

At the same time, the United States must eschew any hope that Brazil will become a stable part of an anti-hegemonic coalition aimed at curtailing China’s influence writ large. Rather, more targeted approaches to limiting Chinese negative influence in global affairs may yield productive areas for collaboration with Brazil. And if the United States wants a deeper partnership, it will have to accept that helping Brasília advance its claim for greater voice and vote in global affairs does not come with a bargain to join forces on China. Brazil is in search of autonomy, not alignment. For Washington, the question may be as simple as this: Is an autonomous Brazil better than a Brazil aligned with China?