United States-Brazil Relations are Critical

March 5, 2010

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on President Lula da Silva of Brazil this week, hoping, among other things, to receive Brazil’s support in the United Nations Security Council for imposing stricter sanctions on Iran in response to that country’s nuclear program. Lula pre-empted her message even before they met by opining that it would not be prudent to back Iran against a wall. The dispute highlights Brazil’s willingness and capacity to carve out an independent world role, not necessarily antagonistic to the United States but not subordinate to Washington.

For all its immense challenges, Brazil is an increasingly successful and influential country. It has opened most of its economy to international competition, modernized its vast agricultural sector, developed industries with continental and even worldwide markets and expanded the global competitiveness of its engineering, financial and other services. Brazil has also slowly but steadily strengthened both its state and its nongovernmental institutions. It has achieved a high degree of previsibilidad, i.e. stability of expectations about the rules of the game and about the established process by which they could be altered. And it has forged an increasingly firm centrist consensus on the broad outlines of macroeconomic and social policies, including the urgent need to reduce gross inequities and alleviate extreme poverty, to continue to expand its large and expanding middle class and to improve the quality of education and access to it at all levels.

Brazil plays a growing role in international negotiations on trade, climate change, the environment, public health, food security and intellectual property. It is an active leader of the Global South and works closely with China, India and South Africa on several issues. It is also one of the influential and fast growing BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations, the darlings of international investors and geopolitical analysts. Brazil is developing its ties with many other countries around the world, including Iran, and it is ever more active in the United Nations, the G-20 and other multilateral fora.

In recent months, a good deal of comment has emerged about “rifts” between Brazil and the United States. The two governments have, in fact, had some notable differences, beyond the disagreement over the Iran sanctions issue. They had somewhat antagonistic perspectives on how to handle the Honduran imbroglio, as Brazil thought that Washington’s willingness to accept as legitimate the results of the elections conducted by the de facto Micheletti regime was tantamount or nearly so to condoning the unconstitutional coup. And Brazil also raised questions and made critical statements about the U.S.-Colombia military base agreement.

Some such differences should perhaps be expected between large countries with diverse and complex interests, in which foreign policy on both sides is inevitably affected by conflicting domestic political imperatives. They may well turn out to be relatively minor differences, perhaps less important in practice than long-standing and more mundane disputes over tariffs on orange juice, specialty steel and ethanol, restrictions on the transfer of certain technologies and subsidies to U.S. corn and cotton growers. But all these issues, whether of high politics or of routine engagement, need to be managed with keen sensitivity to consistently respectful communication and to overcoming a legacy of paternalist presumption, lest they cumulate and consequently interfere with cooperation on other and more important questions.

The fundamental challenge for U.S.-Brazil relations is to build greater synergy on major world challenges: strengthening global regimes for trade, finance and investment; developing and implementing measures to cope with climate change; preventing and responding to global pandemics; curbing nuclear proliferation; and reforming international governance arrangements. On all these issues, Brazil and the United States both have a lot at stake. Their interests are not identical but they are potentially compatible. Opportunities to work together on this whole agenda, in the Americas and beyond, should now be actively and consistently pursued as a high priority. Now that Ambassador Thomas Shannon, one of this country’s most accomplished diplomats, has finally reached Brazil after his confirmation was held up for months by partisan squabbling in Washington, he should concentrate on helping to build a strategic relationship that recognizes and respects Brazil’s role and aspirations, smoothes needless frictions and focuses sharply on how to strengthen cooperative efforts. And Brazil should invest equally in doing so, for a solid working relationship with the United States will yield far more for Brazil than cozying up to Iran.