Relations between the two giant democracies of the Americas, Brazil and the US, should be easy. After all, the two have much in common. Both are complex societies, with territory stretching across their respective continents, and a history of European col
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 US, 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 Brazil, won’t overlook Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s February visit to Brazil to sign an agreement on selling air-defence 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 programme. Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva went to Iran with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May 2010 to sign a confidence-building deal with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to send Iranian-enriched uranium for reprocessing abroad, so it could not be diverted to any weapons programme. The US immediately rejected the deal. Then 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 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.
Comparing US relations with another emerging power, India, is instructive. India, like Brazil, is an emerging power and, unlike China and Russia, a multi-party democracy. The US supports Delhi’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, despite the fact that India also refused to follow US leads 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. Americans seem in no hurry to make up for this deficit in knowledge. While tourism has increased in both directions in recent years, there are still no direct flights between Brasilia and Washington. South America is not high on Washington’s list of priorities, given the challenges from 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 a direct challenge to US policies in the region from the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, this US outlook on southern neighbours has not changed much.
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 the 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 emerging economy and 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, 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 emphasises soft power, eschewing use of military force in international affairs.
In many ways, Brazil represents an implicit challenge to the US’s 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 the US for emerging economies.
This 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 programme.
Yale Centre for the study of globalisation.