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U.S. and Brazil: How can relations improve?

July 9, 2015
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Do they wake up in the morning thinking about each other's country? (Photo courtesy of Brazil's presidential office)

Do they wake up in the morning thinking about each other’s country? (Photo courtesy of Brazil’s presidential office)

Although Brazil’s relationship with the U.S. has always been characterized by a considerable degree of consultation and cooperation, it has also suffered from disagreement over such specific issues as tariffs, dumping, government bidding procedures and market access.

Foreign policy issues involving such countries as Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Iran have added friction to the relationship. More recently the revelations concerning the U.S. interception of President Dilma Rousseff’s phone calls and emails and her cancellation of her state visit to the U.S. put the brakes on bilateral contacts.

From the standpoint of U.S.-Brazil relations, Rousseff’s visit to the U.S. last week was clearly positive and very much in the interests of both our countries. At a minimum, the spying issue was put to rest. In Rousseff’s words, President Barack Obama will now just pick up the phone and call her if he needs non-public information. There is also the prospect that bilateral consultations on international issues, trade, investment, cooperation on environmental issues and the overall tenor of the relationship will improve  and become more productive for the two governments.

Melvyn Levitsky

Melvyn Levitsky

Several questions remain, however. First, will U.S. relations with Brazil – in fact with the entire hemisphere – have a more prominent place in foreign policy priorities? It is no secret that these relations have been on the back burner with such looming issues as the Middle East, nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the US-Cuba relationship and the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks heading U.S. interests.

I also believe the question of priorities applies to the Brazilian government. Rousseff faces a series of difficult challenges: the investigations stemming from the Petrobras corruption scandals and the charges that a number of Brazilian business and political leaders, some from her party and coalition, have been involved; the need for Rousseff to sell the fiscal adjustment (austerity) plan to the Congress; and a more general need to regain some of the popularity she enjoyed earlier in her presidency in order for her to govern effectively.

Given the challenges on both sides, I do not think bilateral relations will suddenly become more active or have more priority for our countries as a result of her visit. I do not think that either president wakes up in the morning with the other country on his or her mind.

I do believe, however, there are measures that could be taken that would benefit both. First, I believe it would be useful to establish annual bilateral cabinet-level consultations such as the U.S. has with Canada and Mexico. Brazil’s place in the hemisphere and internationally would warrant such discussions in my view.

Secondly, the U.S. could raise the level of the ongoing dialogue and of the attention it accords to Brazil. It seems clear that Secretary of State John Kerry will not be much involved given his focus on the Middle East, Iran and Russia. Vice President Joe Biden has developed an interest and involvement with Brazil, especially in his personal relationship with Rousseff. Brazil is certainly important enough for him to take a stronger role in the conduct of relations.

Finally, it is critical that both governments agree to consult before they talk or act on issues of international and bilateral importance. This would reduce possible misunderstanding and bring the relationship to a more mature and productive level, as befits two big, vibrantly democratic countries that share common interests and values. Let us hope that the good will brought about by the visit does not dissipate with the passage of time.

Levitsky, a professor of international policy and practice at the Ford School of Public Policy, served as the U.S. ambassador to Brazil in 1994-98. This op-ed was originally published in Portuguese in Folha De S.Paulo, Brazil’s largest daily newspaper.


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