Brazil Still Thinks America Is Trying To Steal The Amazon

For regular readers wondering why there haven’t been many posts for the last week, I have been on a lecture tour in Brazil, participating with American Interest colleague and longtime friend Dr. Josef Joffe of the Hoover Institution and Die Zeit, in a series of conversations, seminars and exchanges with Brazilian thinkers, businesspeople, journalists and professors in Sao Paulo, Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro and now in Recife.

Though Joe has gone back to Hamburg, leaving me to cope as best I can with Recife on my own, we’ve had a stimulating time here, and future issues of The American Interest will feature some of the Brazilians we’ve invited to be part of our attempts in print and online to “explain the world to America and America to the world.”

The trip has been part of what the US and Brazil are calling a new strategic dialog that aims to bring Brazilian and US-based thinkers into a deeper engagement with each other’s ideas. The theory in both Washington and Brasilia seems to be that Brazil’s emergence as a major global economic and political player requires a more profound level of understanding in both countries about how our interests and our values are — and sometimes aren’t — complementary.

I think that’s right. Depending how you count these things, Brazil is either the eighth or seventh largest economy in the world. Physically it is bigger than the continental United States and the fifth largest country in the world; its population of almost 200 million people makes it the fifth most populous nation and the fourth largest democracy in the world. In an era of commodity shortages, it is an agricultural superpower, one of the world’s most important producers of many key industrial products and, thanks to dramatic new oil discoveries off its southern coast, it looks set to emerge as a major oil exporter.

In many ways there are few countries in the world that are a better ‘fit’ with the United States than Brazil. Both economies are unusually diversified by world standards — we are both manufacturing, commodity and energy producers. Both of us are global traders; like the US, Brazil’s trade is divided into three roughly equal shares: trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific and up and down the western hemisphere. Both countries are multiracial democracies; both are exporters of culture and athletics (Brazil’s style of soccer has hypnotized the world); both are intensely religious, sexually and socially experimental and fun-loving, and not quite sure how to reconcile their inner puritan and playboy selves.

Like the US, Brazil is an individualistic society with a tradition of strong regions, a weak central government, and settlement by pioneers and prospectors who wanted to leave the oppressive bureaucrats and snooty elites back east while they ventured west into undiscovered lands. Brazil is a nation of immigrants with a proud cowboy tradition; Brazil took a lot of land from its weaker Spanish speaking neighbours in the nineteenth century and isn’t quite sure what to think about them today. Brazil is instinctively moderate and gradualist when it comes to politics; there has been very little violence in its political history since it bloodlessly separated from Portugal almost 200 years ago.

Brazil struggles with the legacy of slavery and unequal opportunity; today it wrestles with its conscience over questions like affirmative action and worries about how to deal with its mostly black urban underclass — whose culture of guns, drugs, fast women and faster music both fascinates and frightens society at large.

The recent tragic school shooting that left 12 children dead near Rio has focused national attention on gun violence. A largely secularized intelligentsia is struggling to understand a Pentecostal and evangelical movement that increasingly wants to turn questions like abortion and homosexuality into political issues.

Debates over the poor performance of public schools rage from one end of the country to the other. Intellectuals worry that the younger generation is giving up on books and is addicted to TV; Brazilian television shows are watched all over the world. Brazilians worry about Chinese manufacturing competition and whether their country is de-industrializing.

With so much culture, economics and history in common, we ought to get along pretty well, and for the most part, we do. Brazilians tend to like America and Americans, and vice versa. These days, with the Brazilian real riding high against the depressed dollar on world markets, America is one big discount market for Brazilians, and record numbers are coming to the United States to shop for everything from I-Pads to Florida condominiums. I’m told our consulate in Sao Paolo processes more than 2,000 visa applications a day; Florida real estate agents credit Brazilians for keeping the market from tanking even farther.

But in spite of all this, it isn’t all sweetness and light in the US-Brazilian relationship. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to some very smart Brazilians talk about this, and there are definitely a few flies in the ointment.

The political centre by and large is reasonably happy with the US, but as you go out towards both the left and the right, and when you talk to people from the two most nationalist ministries (foreign affairs and defence) you hear something different.

The leftists in Brazil who don’t like the US much are pretty predictable. Imperialism, capitalism, racism, support for dictatorships, aggressive superpower, George W. Bush, lack of sympathy for freedom fighters like Hugo Chavez, Palestine, Israel, support for military dictatorships during the Cold War, blah blah blah. It is the standard issue laundry list of complaints you hear around the world, only usually it’s said much more gently and sensitively here than in some places because so many Brazilians are just so darned friendly.

They can’t help being warm — even when they’ve got a chip on their shoulders the size of Mount Rushmore.

The criticisms that come from the nationalist right, and from the defence and foreign ministries, are often more original. For decades, some circles in Brazil have cherished what so far as I know is a stark raving looney-tunes paranoid fantasy that the US is trying to steal the Amazon. Maybe some Wikileaks documents will prove me wrong, but decades of studying American foreign policy leave me unconvinced that stealing the Amazon has ever played a role in US strategic thinking; if we got it, I’m afraid the environmentalists would make us turn it into a big national park so we couldn’t even rape it for minerals or log it to death.


Bizarre though this sounds, and it sounds about as bizarre as these things get, this idea has filtered into the background of Brazilian consciousness, at least for some people. During the military dictatorship as the traditional ‘Argentine threat’ faded into the background as a justification for large defence budgets, the menace to the Amazon seemed to gain traction. American environmentalists were sometimes perceived as the insidious shock troops of this latest imperial venture; I myself first heard about this when I attended the Rio environmental summit back in 1992. Another version of this urban legend holds that the NGO concerns about deforestation are part of an evil northern plot to “internationalize” the area. There is a surprisingly widespread belief in Brazil that a US geography textbook has a map that shows the Amazon detached from Brazil — evidence, clearly, of just how determined we are. (Actually, if you wanted to bury a secret American plan so no one would ever know about it, a middle school geography textbook would be a good place to put it.)

There are some who think that “Plan Colombia” is intended to introduce US forces into the region as the first step of implementing the Amazon takeover strategy. Among others, the focus is shifting. Brazil recently made some very promising deep water oil discoveries; there are those who believe the country needs a fleet of submarines to protect its oil wealth from the ravenous appetite of the neighbour to the north.

Hopefully one consequence of a deeper US-Brazilian strategic dialog will be that more and more Brazilians will see the shocked, amazed and incredulously amused expressions that Americans get on their faces when we hear about our alleged designs on the Amazon — and realise that we just aren’t that deep.

But the Amazon fantasy is just the flamboyant and outlandish outlier of deep seated Brazilian suspicion of American intentions. There is a widespread sense in the Brazilian foreign policy establishment that the US and Brazil are zero-sum competitors. America’s position in the world is due to our preponderance in the western hemisphere; as Brazil struggles to rival us for influence in South America and then make a bigger mark in the world (joining the G-20 group of countries; seeking a permanent, veto-wielding seat on the Security Council; standing up for its interests in world trade negotiations; engaging in talks with other emerging world powers including India, China and South Africa; and rebalancing its trade away from the dollar and toward south-south trade), US power must inevitably decline. For Brazil to get its place in the sun, the United States will have to move over.

Many Brazilians interpret the world through this lens and they believe that the United States is trying to thwart Brazil’s rise to hang on to what is left of its power. They saw the Clinton-Bush support of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) as the American plan to control the destinies of the hemisphere; they credit Brazilian negotiators with frustrating this attempt and with advancing made-in-Brazil alternatives that reduce US influence in the region. They see US policy toward Venezuela and the other “Bolivarean” states as part of a broader attempt to strangle any signs of independence in the hemisphere, and they want Brazil (which has its own problems with some of these quirky regimes) to stand in solidarity against the Colossus of the North. They think that the US is both threatened and alarmed by any sign of Brazilian “independence” whether this is increasing commodity exports to China or attending a “BRIC” summit. They confidently expect that Brazil’s new stature on the G-20 (which was clearly extorted from a reluctant north by the sheer magnitude of Brazil’s new power) plus its immense dollar reserves give Brazil some kind of power that, somehow, is going to translate into a restructured global order.

This tangle of beliefs and ideas exists in both very crude and very sophisticated forms — and everywhere in between. In the not so distant past there were foreign ministers whose speeches and even policies were informed by very sophisticated and nuanced forms of these perceptions. In some ways it reflects common errors about US goals and priorities found far beyond Brazil. I have even heard “Mayberry Machiavellis” and amateur geopoliticians talk this way in the US from time to time.

These views have built up over decades and even centuries and they won’t fade away overnight. US support for military dictatorships in Latin America during the Cold War gave many Brazilians good reason to view our intentions with suspicion. (Brazil’s current president Dilma Rousseff was tortured by the US-supported Brazilian military at one point.) Brazilians will never see Americans exactly as we see ourselves — nor perhaps should they.

I am less concerned that Brazilians may have too jaundiced a view of their bilateral relationship with the US, though, than with what seem to me some geopolitical blind spots that manifest both in this view of US-Brazilian relations and in broader ideas about Brazil’s place in the world. The US and Brazil have actually managed the bilateral relationship pretty well over the years, occasional tiffs and jars notwithstanding. President Lula was one of the few world leaders who expressed warm personal feelings about his relationship with George W. Bush. And President Dilma (as everyone in Brazil calls Ms. Rousseff) has gone out of her way to send extremely warm signals Washington’s way.

But Brazil is venturing out on a broader stage now, and like other emerging powers it’s going to have to get used to much closer scrutiny — and some nasty, hostile and often unfair criticism. In President Lula’s final year in office, Brazil did not exactly cover itself with glory when it thrust itself (along with Turkey) into the complex and dangerous negotiations between Iran and the “Group of Six” (the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) over that country’s nuclear program.

For its own sake as well as everyone else’s, Brazil needs to develop a grand strategy to guide its path to greater influence and visibility in the world. Brazil can and should play a larger and more interesting role on the world stage than it does now; over the next few days as I return to the US and plunge back into the semester I’ll write about the opportunities and responsibilities Brazil has — and say something about the obstacles that still block its path.

This post originally appeared at The American Interest.

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