In 2001, Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill famously coined the acronym “BRIC” to describe four of the world’s most populous countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—each of which boasted great economic potential. Since then, China has enjoyed breakneck GDP growth while making very little progress on economic or political reform, and Russia has devolved into a petro-autocracy dangerously reliant on global oil prices. As for Brazil and India, they have reaped consistent accolades for their commitment to democracy and economic stability.
The differences between Brazil (population: 195 million) and India (home to 1.2 billion) are too numerous to count, yet the countries also share certain broad similarities. Both are rising democracies with rapidly growing middle classes. Both have a history of promoting dialogue and cooperation with developing countries. Both have a foreign policy establishment that has traditionally been somewhat hostile to the United States. Both remain reluctant to speak out for democracy and human rights abroad. Both have aroused suspicion and resentment among their smaller neighbors. Both continue to embrace protectionist economic policies.
And, of course, both are critically important to U.S. interests in their respective regions.
Yet while Washington has recently cultivated a strategic partnership with India (largely because of concerns over Chinese military strength), it has made significantly less progress in boosting bilateral relations with Brazil. The Brazilians are especially upset that President Obama has backed a permanent United Nations Security Council (UNSC) seat for India but not for Brazil. Of course, if Obama did voice support for a Brazilian seat on the UNSC, he would anger many Latin American countries that are wary of Brazil’s burgeoning influence. (In a 2011 Foreign Affairs piece, former U.S. official Russell Crandall quoted one Latin American diplomat as saying, “The new imperialists have arrived, and they speak Portuguese.”)
As Obama prepares to host Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff at the White House later today, he should review the many ways (short of endorsing a UNSC seat) that Washington could improve ties with the South American giant. A 2011 Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report listed several smart options. For example, the United States could push for a bilateral tax treaty, which would help increase two-way investment. It could also establish a National Security Council (NSC) director for Brazil and a State Department Office for Brazilian Affairs, which would enhance interagency coordination of U.S. policy. Right now, as the CFR study noted, the NSC has a director for “Brazil and the Southern Cone,” and Foggy Bottom has an Office of Brazilian and Southern Cone Affairs, but neither has a director or office devoted exclusively to Brazil. Given the country’s growing prominence in world affairs, it is well past time to create a Brazil-only NSC director and a Brazil-only State Department office.
President Obama could also make a splash by publicly advocating a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA). The president took a step in that direction last March, when he and Rousseff signed an Agreement on Trade and Economic Cooperation, the type of accord that frequently is a precursor to an FTA. While Brazil has often complained about U.S. protectionism, it was pleased to see Congress eliminate a controversial import tariff on Brazilian ethanol last December. By touting a formal FTA, Obama would demonstrate that he is serious about taking U.S.-Brazil relations to a new level.
Brazil could do its part by tearing down its own protectionist barriers. (The World Bank’s 2012 Ease of Doing Business Index ranks Brazil below the likes of Russia, Uganda, and Swaziland, though ahead of India.) In terms of foreign policy, Brazil would be viewed as a more responsible and trustworthy power if it took a harder line on Iran and stood up for democracy in Latin America. Two years ago, former Brazilian president Lula da Silva effectively sided with Tehran against Washington on the nuclear issue by negotiating a meaningless uranium deal that undermined U.S. efforts to tighten sanctions. Thankfully, his successor has adopted a much cooler approach to the Islamic Republic. In January, an Iranian presidential adviser said Rousseff had “been striking against everything that Lula accomplished” and had “destroyed years of good relations.”
By getting tougher on Iran, Rousseff has helped repair some of the damage that Lula did to U.S.-Brazil ties. Yet she remains disappointingly hesitant to champion human rights in Cuba and Venezuela. That is no big surprise. Brazil has seldom been a reliable defender of hemispheric democracy. Back in the 1980s, for example, Brazilian officials launched the multilateral Rio Group, which sought to resolve the Cold War conflicts then raging in Central America. Yet the organization proved anything but a neutral and objective mediator. Instead, it worked to defend the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and Salvadoran FMLN guerrillas, both of which were Marxist-Leninist outfits that rejected liberal democracy.
The Reagan-era civil wars may now seem like ancient history, but Latin American democracy is still being threatened by populist autocrats. Unfortunately, when asked in 2008 about the dictatorial Hugo Chávez, Lula hailed him as “Venezuela’s best president in the last 100 years.” Indeed, Brazil’s coziness with Chávez and the Castro brothers remains a huge impediment to stronger relations with the United States. Hopefully, President Rousseff will be reminded of that during her visit to the White House.