By Edmund Ruge
Bottom Line Up Front
The current political and economic climate in Brazil has created an opportunity for stepping up bilateral relations between Washington and Brasilia. The US would be foolish to miss this opportunity to renew US-Brazil cooperation.
Brazilian President Michel Temer has made it his strategy to seek foreign investment and strong international ties to in order to fight the Brazilian recession. This will Brazil especially open to foreign influence over the next several years.
The Trump administration should ramp up existing trends towards enhanced trade with Brazil as well as fortify the natural cultural alliance between the two giant democracies in the face of other autocratic countries.
The current political and economic climate in Brazil makes the current moment a critical juncture for stepping up bilateral relations. Under Lula, Brazil stepped up its international profile, engaging in a number of regional and global leadership roles, often antagonizing the US. But the economic slowdown and political opening that occurred along with the shift from Rousseff to Temer have diminished the role of ideology in Brazilian foreign policy. At the same time, deep domestic economic troubles have forced Brazil to seek foreign investment wherever possible. Though the US remains a critical partner, a neglected Brazil may turn to Mercosur partners or to the China in search of economic support.
Less than a decade ago, the US chafed at Brazil’s forays into international diplomacy. Brazil sought to bolster its global standing and exert what Lula in particular saw as its soft power by engaging in economic development in Angola and Mozambique, leading the 2004 MINUSTAH Peacekeeping Operations in Haiti, and competing for World Cup and Olympic hosting nation status. Under Obama, the US appeared to acknowledge Brazil’s clout as a regional partner. On the other hand, the Lula administration also took a number of bolder initiatives. Efforts to coordinate post-coup logistics in Honduras in 2009 exasperated the State Department, and joint Brazil-Turkey attempts to negotiate their own Iran nuclear deal behind the back of UN negotiators further soured bilateral relations, and indeed Brazil’s relations with the US and Europe more generally. At the time, it seemed true that, as US ambassador to Brazil Thomas Shannon remarked in 2010, “as Brazil becomes more assertive globally [...] we are going to bump into Brazil on new issues and in new places.” But it’s possible for something to be true for the long term and still an annoyance in the short term.
It was through these policies that an economically powerful Brazil demonstrated its soft power and asserted itself on the global stage for the first time in decades. In 2008, Brazil was the world’s eighth largest economy, riding a commodity boom paired with what many deemed a new model of economic development worthy of emulation. But over the 00s, and first years of the 10s, Brazil saw major drops in domestic inequality and poverty, and its economy today is a far cry from what it was just a decade ago.
US-Brazil relations suffered briefly in 2013 following the Snowden revelations of US phone tapping. But this was isolated, and the fallout mostly confined to posturing. In nearly all other realms, Rousseff drew Brazil closer to the US. She calculatedly snubbed Iranian president Ahmadinejad where Lula had embraced him; replaced the more nationalist Foreign Minister Celso Amorim with former Brazilian Ambassador to the US Antonio Patriota; and rescheduled her visit to the white house for less than a year following the Snowden incident. Simultaneously, Brazilian presence international politics shrank as the economy fell into its current recession. As the fiscal situation worsened, Brazil cut back on paying its dues to the UN, to the OAS and to international development initiatives. If Brazil grew in international prominence under Lula, its role shrank significantly under Dilma.
This environment, characterized by a Brazil that is at once preoccupied with problems at home, and in need of external solutions to them, is the one inherited by current president Temer. It is as a provider of these external solutions that the US could find its opportunity.
The Temer administration has only had a number of months in office, but it has already made one point clear: it will pursue a more traditional neoliberal model of economic development, courting international investment wherever possible. Temer even telephoned President-elect Donald Trump weeks ago to discuss economic cooperation.
That said, the US is not Brazil’s only option for economic support. The US remains Brazil’s second largest export and import destination for trade, second to China, and as outgoing US Ambassador to Brazil Liliana Ayalde recently noted, recent agreements in trade and security seek to intensify ties between the US and Brazil. However, despite recent policy moves towards protectionism in Europe and the US, there is no shortage of countries and businesses willing to engage with Brazilian business. The US cannot take it for granted that Brazil will fall into its lap without work put in on the issue
Months ago, foreign minister Jose Serra released a list of ten directives for the future of Brazilian foreign policy. Among the directives are familiar notes on Brazilian core values and environmental protection, but also more startling indications about regional and global partnerships. Though Serra makes a specific point of addressing the need for approximation with the United States as a traditional partner, he also makes space for “new partners” such as China and a host of “emerging” countries, and for the need to fortify Mercosur. The message is clear: Brazil will seek investment and cooperation where they can find it. Brazil has upheld environmental conservation, diversity, and human rights as central tenets of its own soft power, but the current economic crisis may prove dire enough for countries like Russia and China -- both of whom hold abysmal records in all three -- to take advantage. The Trump administration must therefore be careful not to “lose” Brazil.
The Obama administration recently appointed and confirmed P. Michael Mckinley as the new Ambassador to Brazil to begin next year. Two elements merit attention here: one, he will swear in and begin work prior to Trump’s inauguration; and two, Mckinley is the former ambassador to Afghanistan and Colombia. If the Obama administration undertook such a move to demonstrate continued engagement, the message is clear: Brazil matters.
The current mixture of political turmoil and economic distress in a right-leaning regional context means that the US faces a unique opportunity for serious rapprochement. Ideological issues that used to dominate have fallen to the wayside, and economic interests now primarily comprise Brazil’s foreign policy. The Temer administration is looking to attract foreign investment. Negligence on the part of the next US president could risk losing opportunities for greater economic and security linkages to other countries, notably China. The climate is right for closer ties, and the Trump administration would be foolish to pass up the chance.
Edmund Ruge is Lead Fellow at the Met Society. Follow him on Twitter @edmundruge