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Brazil and the US – Not on Same Page

The US is reported to be planning a state visit for Brazil’s president, the first of a Brazilian leader in two decades. The two largest democracies in the Western Hemisphere have much in common, yet are often at odds. The US has the world’s largest military, Brazil’s ranks 10th; the US has the world’s largest economy, Brazil ranks sixth. Some in the US are surprised by the notion that its neighbor does not automatically follow a superpower’s lead on trade or foreign policy. A key example: US disapproval of a joint initiative by Brazil and Turkey to broker a deal with Iran, sending Iranian enriched uranium for reprocessing abroad to prevent diversion to weapons programs, reports Alistair Burnett, editor of the BBC’s The World Tonight. The US, busy elsewhere in the world, often assigns low priority to regional relationships to the point of neglect. As a consensus-seeker in global affairs, one that emphasizes soft power, Brazil is building global influence, offering other emerging economies an alternative to an American point of view. – YaleGlobal

Brazil and the US – Not on Same Page

Consensus-seeking Brazil balks at serving as US junior partner
Alistair Burnett
YaleGlobal, 12 April 2013
Divided by democracy and power: Brazil celebrates democratic transition from President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, right, to Dilma Rousseff in 2010 (top);  Brazil shows independence from the US by siding with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

RIO DE JANEIRO: Relations between the two giant democracies of the Americas, Brazil and the US, should be easy. After all, the two countries have much in common. Both are complex societies, with territory stretching across their respective continents and a history of European colonists taking land from indigenous Americans. Granting differences between British and Portuguese colonial traditions, both were built by immigrants, most who came willingly and others like slaves, indentured servants or prisoners who didn’t. Both are well-established democratic federal republics.

Yet, when it comes to foreign policy and trade relations there are constant tensions. These could be addressed soon, with reports that President Dilma Rousseff will make a formal state visit to the United States, the first of a Brazilian leader in two decades.

To the irritation of Washington, Brazil has failed to extend support on issues such as the 2011 intervention in Libya, where Brasilia thought the Western powers were jumping the gun and  abused the UN mandate to pursue regime change. For its part, Brazil has been irked by US failure to support its long-held ambition for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Washington, traditionally the main foreign-arms supplier to the Brazilian armed forces, won’t overlook Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s February visit to Brazil to sign an agreement on selling air-defense equipment with President Rousseff. 

But the highest profile disagreement between the two has been over the Brazilian attempt, along with Turkey, to break the deadlock between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear program. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva went to Iran with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in May 2010 to sign a confidence-building deal with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to send some Iranian-enriched uranium for reprocessing abroad, so it could not be diverted to any weapons program. 

Brazil has tried, along with Turkey, to break the deadlock between Iran and the US over Tehran’s nuclear program.

The US immediately rejected the deal. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Brazil and Turkey of making the world “a more dangerous place.” Then Foreign Minister Celso Amorim insisted the US had been kept abreast of the negotiations; when asked at an international security conference later in the year why the US had later rejected the deal, he said “some people just can’t take ‘Yes’ for an answer.” He suggests the Americans were happy to go along with the initiative because they thought it would fail; when it succeeded, they turned on Brasilia. The agreement was essentially the same as a proposed deal that Iran and the UN Security Council’s permanent five powers, plus Germany, almost signed eight months before in Geneva – another reason Brazil was taken aback by the US condemnation.

US diplomats and analysts take the view that Brazil is often unhelpful, by which they seem to mean it doesn’t always support US policy. For their part, the Brazilians say the US doesn’t want to accept that the world has changed and Washington can’t accept that it must deal with emerging economies on an equal footing.

The countries have also had their share of trade disputes over products from orange juice to cotton, whereas the US has tried to limit access to its markets for Brazilian produce. Since the 2008 crash, Brazil has accused the US of currency manipulation by using quantitative easing to devalue the dollar.

There may be more to US-Brazil tensions than simple policy disagreements. Comparing US relations with another emerging power, India, is instructive.

US analysts take a view that Brazil is often unhelpful. Brazilians say the US doesn’t accept that the world has changed.

India, like Brazil, is an emerging power and, unlike China and Russia, a multiparty democracy. The US has come out in support of Delhi’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, despite the fact that India also refused to follow US lead on issues like Libya. The US has courted India, partly for the obvious reason that it borders China and both countries share suspicion of growing Chinese military power. But the US has received little in return for its support of India – not even a guaranteed market for arms exports. Last year, for instance, US companies lost out to French competitors on a contract to sell fighter jets to Delhi.

Washington cuts Brasilia far less slack. One reason may be a surprising lack of knowledge and understanding of each other’s policies and priorities. A member of a leading Washington think tank recently confided that relations are poor, partly because of a lack of US expertise on Brazil. With a few exceptions, like historian Thomas Skidmore or former journalist Paulo Sotero at the Wilson Center, few in the US specialize in Brazil. While tourism has increased in both directions in recent years, it’s noteworthy there are still no direct flights between Brasilia and Washington.

Americans seem in no hurry to make up for this deficit in knowledge. South America is not high on Washington’s list of priorities, given the challenges from an increasingly powerful China, turmoil in the Middle East, war in Afghanistan and nuclear threats from North Korea. Historically, the US has regarded the rest of the Americas as its backyard, taking for granted it will remain that way. Despite direct challenge to US policies in the region from the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, this US outlook on southern neighbors has not changed much.  

Brasilia has begun to project influence on the world stage – greater activism means it rubs against US interests more often.

President Barack Obama, unlike his predecessor, has stressed that Washington needs to work with allies and friends to achieve foreign-policy goals, rather than go it alone. But old habits die hard. Part of the reaction to Brazil’s Iran initiative lies in a Washington mindset that the US is predominant; it welcomes policies of emerging powers if they accord with Washington’s.

Brazil, too, has blinders. Like the US, it’s a huge, complex country more concerned with matters at home than abroad. Like the US, it supports the interests of domestic constituencies, such as the huge agribusinesses producing soya; this brings it into direct competition with the US, also a major agricultural producer.

With its recently established status as a BRIC nation and an emerging economy with burgeoning economic links with Asia and Africa, Brasilia has begun to project influence on the world stage with an expanded diplomatic service and new embassies across the global South. This greater activism, added to its distinct policy agenda, means it rubs against American interests more often. Brazil sees itself as a consensus-seeker in global affairs and emphasizes soft power, eschewing use of military force in international affairs. 

In many ways, Brazil represents an implicit challenge to the US sense of its role in the world.

A strong thread through US foreign policy has been the idea of US exceptionalism – that the US serves as an example to the world. In recent years, this ideology has tempted US theorists like Samuel Huntington or Ivo Daalder to think that if only the whole world were democratic and shared “its values” there could be a true Pax Americana.

Yet Brazil is a democracy that does not always agree with the US, especially when it comes to use of force. Crucially, unlike India, which is culturally and geographically distant from the US, Brazil is a New World society and political system and as such represents a potentially attractive alternative model to a US for emerging economies.  

This ideational challenge, added to different approaches in how international affairs should be conducted, and the reluctance of Washington to accept the changing global balance of power produce fundamental tensions between Brasilia and Washington, not easily resolved even if there was a will in either capital to do so.     


Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight, a BBC News program.

Rights:Copyright © 2013 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

19 April 2013
How strange that the world's fifth largest country should create its own unique brand of Manifest Destiny, then pursue its own self-interests, assert itself whenever its self-interests don't fit the likes and dislikes of others, and have enough brainy people to figure out that one really shouldn't take seriously America's age-old habit of trying to lead by repeating - as if others are intellectually challenged - "Do as I say, not as I do."
Time to grow up America, pick up your ball and pout all the way home.Globalization means learning how to play with others. The Bad Boy routine is really getting boring.
-Henry Franceschi , Panama
16 April 2013
It is great that BRICS countries have matured to such a level that they want to play a deserving role in the world politics. I remember the time when non-aligned movement had great influence and success in helping each other and keeping the super powers at bay.
Therefore, it is a welcome sign that Brasilia has begun to project influence on the world stage and if this greater activism means it rubs against US interests more often, then be ut.
Why every decision in the world politics should take in to consideration, as to what USA wish or do not wish.
Such mindset among Americans have already created enough misery on the planet. Someone must put an end to it.
-Bashy Quraishy , Copenhagen
15 April 2013
The failed intervention of Brasil and Turkey on the Iranian nuclear issue carries a lot of significance and clears the mind of many people that in doubt or fearing the belief of conspiration theorists chose to side with American propagandistic talk.
The United States of America has shown the world that, contrary to what the rodents in Washington use to declare in front of TV cameras, it is not interested in peace with Iran (or no one for that matter) but in fact is determined to "teach Iran a lesson" for ousting American oil companies from a true paradise of exploitation at the price of the rain.
It shows that American rhetoric of spreading democracy and protect human rights are no more than propaganda to cover up their real intent, promote their predatory interests and exploit other nations at their own convenience and no resistance.
Americans will stop at nothing but the heads of the enemies they create to justify grabbing their land and looting their resources!
With this incident America has shown those with an aye for it they are the true BARBARIANS of the XXI.
Eventually it will become a global understanding that the United States of America is the greatest threat to peace and prosperity to the world we share.
-Paulo Borges , Brasil
13 April 2013
I like so much the flow of information on this article although I myself have to revisit some basic conceptions of Foreign Affairs so as to have a better understand of the subject.
To be honest, I totally agree as Brazil playing a soft power position and redisigning the Geopolitc scenario of today´s world.
- Claudio L. Mattos , Brazil
12 April 2013
It is important to say that not all Brazlians think in the same way of her presidente or his former president, mainly on Iran issue. But a big part of Brazilians don't agree with the American means to deal with the country because of its imperialism. For Brazilians it's time to talk and not to receive messages to be accomplished without any word. Brazilians think that it's time Americans change it's means to deal with the world.
-Cirval , Brasil
12 April 2013
I work in a Developing Country and increasingly sayings on competitiveness are making the rounds in meetings that draw loud ha-ha's from Emerging Market decision makers:
- Do unto others exactly what others have done unto you.
- The IMF new employee asked at a training meeting, "Do we include training, economic aid, and loans in the proposal? Said the IMF Director, Are you crazy? No sensible business person creates their own competitor.
- What do you do when you competitor is in trouble? You hold his head under water until he stops struggling.
- Advice to Emerging Market decision makers: Don't be a "nice guy." It's time High-Income Countries paid for the consequences of their bad choices.
- Never help your competitor when he's making a mistake.
- What's the funniest joke on Earth? That international organizations located in High-Income Countries are really
- Learn from China, Learn to think like your competitor. That's how China took over the West without firing one bullet.
- Learn from the West: Lies, damned lies, and statistics... as prepared by your own people.
- Western civilization's Achilles Heel is that it never learned to work with others. By that will the West continue its inevitable decline.
- What animal eats its young? The HIC.
-Dr. A-F , Panama
12 April 2013
Down, down, down, The US imperialism is falling down...
-Hector Capucho , South America
12 April 2013
Why are BBC Journalist so biased against India?.This is a recent article yet you chose to overlook India's decision to vote against Iran,that too twice.and as far as arms sales are concerned India and Saudi Arabia are biggest buyers of US arms.As far as french getting The fighter jet deal,well face the facts french were better and if i remember correctly it was UK fighter jets that were shown the have to understand India does not aspire to be a client state of any country.As far as UN security council is concerned,It can wait.India will join on its own terms because we are not in a hurry.India must insist on veto power because unlike Germany, India is a rising power.and accepting UN permanent seat without veto power will forever relegate India to a second grade power status .Your contention that India and china will fight each other is just wishful thinking on your part.Indians now understand that China can be a friend,in fact a better friend than Controlling USA.
-Abhishek , Noida