Moving beyond dispensable: Strengthening U.S.-Brazil relations

President Dilma Rousseff’s visit to Washington, D.C. on June 30 is an important signal of warming U.S.-Brazil relations. Diplomatic relations have been poor since NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed U.S. espionage against Brazil and President Rousseff canceled a long-scheduled state visit in September 2013. More recently, a sagging economy, a spreading corruption scandal, and dwindling popularity at home have led the Rousseff administration to look abroad for policy success and political oxygen, this time in Washington.

Fickle U.S.-Brazil relations

Relations between Washington and Brazil are (in)famously variable. In their first terms, Presidents Obama and Rousseff orchestrated an elaborate array of working groups and task forces on a wide variety of issues, ranging from energy to education to science and technology.

But these efforts were largely paralyzed, almost overnight, following the Snowden revelations. This is not simply a product of the nature of the incident, but rather part of a pattern of false starts and mutual recrimination in the relationship that can be seen in the fallout of the proposed Brazil-Turkey-Iran nuclear deal, the failure of the Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations, disagreements over the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NATO intervention in Libya, and the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Friction over these incidents has built up a generation’s worth of bad blood between U.S. and Brazilian diplomats.

The “deep freeze” in the U.S.-Brazil relationship over the past two years is a reflection of how easy it has historically been for the two countries to walk away from each other when they disagree on policies and principles. Contrast this with the U.S. relationship with Germany post-Snowden. There was a similarly angry reaction over NSA surveillance from Chancellor Angela Merkel and her administration, but the broader U.S.-German partnership continued: on NATO and the Ukraine crisis, addressing the aftereffects of the global financial crisis, and more.

And this is not specific to Germany. Even when U.S. relationships have become seriously strained with other rising powers, such as with China, the momentum for a broader collaborative agenda persists. For example, as bad as the recent alleged Chinese hacking of U.S. government personnel databases appears, no one expects the U.S.-Chinese relationship to grind to a halt as a consequence.

Even though there is a significant potential upside to U.S.-Brazil cooperation internationally, there is also very little cost to a poor relationship between the two countries. Unlike Russia and China, Brazil does not represent a geopolitical threat to the United States. Nor does a positive relationship offer an obvious geopolitical advantage, as is the case for the United States and India. South America is a particularly peaceful region with comparatively low risks for international terrorism or proliferation. Similarly, the United States does not represent a serious geopolitical threat for Brazil, despite the fantasies of some fringe strategists.

What is fundamentally different about the U.S. relationship with Brazil in comparison to other major global players is the lack of a weighty constituency in each country for maintaining good relations. In spite of a significant trade relationship, the U.S. and Brazilian economies are not integrated into each other’s economic value chains. Unlike Canada, China, Germany, India, or Israel, where a wide array of actors in the private sector, civil society, and government care deeply about mutual trade, investment, security, and the wider global order, no such powerful Brazil lobby exists in Washington or U.S. lobby in Brazil.

In general, Americans and Brazilians have positive evaluations of each other, but these sentiments are diffuse while the hard feelings are concentrated, especially in Itamaraty and Foggy Bottom. This makes it all too easy for either side to “exit” the relationship when trouble crops up.

Toward an indispensable relationship

What would it take to overcome this (thus far) mutually dispensable relationship?  No one would find it desirable for the geopolitical situation in South America to take a turn for the worse so that U.S.-Brazil relations might become more salient. The region’s increasingly durable peace is a striking positive trend in an otherwise troubled world.

This means that the constituencies favoring a positive relationship in Brazil and Washington would have to become larger and more influential. Many of the building blocks exist—such as the Brazil caucus in Congress, the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce, the U.S.-Brazil CEO forum, and think tank and university programs focused on Brazil—but they alone have not been enough.

Achieving a permanent change in the dynamics of the relationship is a long-term and difficult project that will require the United States and Brazil to institutionalize the foundations for a permanent mutual interest in each other’s well-being. The most likely prospect for achieving this is by strengthening the economic relationship. Brazil’s Finance Minister Joaquim Levy has signaled that he wants to open Brazil’s relatively closed economy, and this is an opportunity for expanded ties between the U.S. and Brazilian private sectors. And although there has been some progress on trade facilitation, the big win for an improved collaborative relationship would come from bilateral and regional agreements on trade and investment.

The relationship should also be grounded in a positive geostrategic agenda. For example, both countries have extensive interests in improving security in West Africa, a region that recently suffered from an Ebola epidemic and where some countries stagger under the impact of illicit drugs exported from Brazil on its way to Europe. The United States and Brazil also both have an interest in a soft landing for Cuba and avoiding regional spillover effects from an increasingly troubled Venezuela.

In the long run, collaboration on a bilateral economic and security agenda would provide the framework, when institutionalized, around which a concentrated and influential constituency would coalesce. Such a constituency would voice support for a positive relationship and pressure both governments to continue cooperating even in the face of occasional friction among U.S. and Brazilian diplomats.