The Real Change That’s Happening In U.S.-Brazil Relations

Most of what people write and say about international relations is sheer claptrap.  That is especially true when diplomats and distinguished journalists convene.  Get yourself on the international rubber chicken circuit and you will soon discover a world of pompous gasbags relentlessly pounding their audiences with barrages of platitudes.  Worse, you may start flapping your lips at a conference one day and discover that while you are making noise, and everyone is nodding sagely, you aren’t saying anything at all.

There are whole bureaucracies devoted to whomping up air soufflés: to making utterly worthless and pointless exercises in international jet setting look like serious events.  Visits of heads of state are particularly fertile terrain for the political equivalent of cotton candy: brightly-dyed insignificance spun out to occupy the largest possible space with the smallest conceivable amount of real matter.

Spurious “breakthroughs,” vacuous discussions of “chemistry,” “strategic partnerships”: the Preacher said it best in Ecclesiastes.  It is striving after wind and a weariness of the flesh.

But every now and then something actually happens, and even a summit meeting can register a real change in relations between countries.  Something like this happened when Edward VII visited France in 1903, and it happened again during President Obama’s recent visit to Brazil.  The relationship between the two countries is changing in truly momentous ways, and while the visit didn’t cause these changes (which have been gathering force for 20 years), it did help crystallize perceptions.

The change in the US-Brazil relationship is not as dramatic or consequential as the change in US-Indian relations since the Cold War.  The US and India share two paramount strategic concerns — the possibility that China might seek hegemony in Asia and the possibility that Islamic extremism will destabilize the Middle East and beyond — that make that bilateral relationship one of the keys to the global situation.  US and Indian relations may never produce a formal alliance, but the community of interest is so deep and has such obvious military and geopolitical implications that even casual newspaper readers will be increasingly aware of its importance.

The new US-Brazilian relationship does not quite live up to that, but the ramifications of the changing relations between the two dominant powers in the western hemisphere will nevertheless make waves.  It is likely in the 21st century that Brazil will join the group of countries Americans listen to and rely on the most, and the countries whose interests Americans take the greatest care to address.

Changes in both US and Brazilian perceptions about the world have combined to create the basis for a new kind of relationship.  On the US side, the end of the Cold War changed the nature of our interests in South America.  Before 1940, the United States sharply differentiated between the Caribbean and Central America, where we had strong security interests, and South America, where we did not.  Henry Kissinger’s famous crack that “Argentina is a dagger aimed straight at the heart of Antarctica” summarized this longtime US view.  Between the early 1800′s when Brazil and its neighbours became independent from Portugal and Spain, and World War Two, the United States was happy to trade with those nations, but cared almost nothing about how those countries governed themselves or which European countries dominated their politics and trade.

That changed in World War Two.  Chile, Argentina and Brazil all had deep ties with Germany.  Juan Peron, the Argentine dictator whose legacy remains a dominant force in that country today, was openly pro-fascist.  Getulio Vargas, the Brazilian dictator, had flirted with both fascism and communism.  With the fall of France and the approach of World War Two to the US, American policy-makers suddenly cared very deeply about Argentine and Brazilian foreign policy.  We wanted to use northeastern Brazil as part of an ‘air bridge’ to North Africa (the aeroplanes of those days needed frequent refueling stops and Brazil was an excellent jumping off point for Africa), and the US wanted to prevent any of the South American countries providing aid or shelter to Axis agents.

World War Two quickly gave way to the Cold War, and Americans continued to see security interests in South America.  In the global struggle with communism, there were no irrelevant countries, and the US was prepared to go to great lengths to make sure that communism did not take hold in this hemisphere.  That concern grew after the Cuban Revolution; the United States became much more deeply involved than ever before in the politics and economics of South America.

This era of US activism had its bright spots — the Alliance for Progress is still fondly remembered in some quarters — but overall the intensity of US interest, our willingness to collaborate with military and dictatorial governments against the communist menace, and the degree to which Americans interfered in the domestic politics of the South American republics created a legacy of distrust and strengthened the perception that South American countries needed to limit US power and influence if they ever wished to be truly free.

This is all reasonable enough from a South American point of view, and perceptions formed in this era continue to shape the way South Americans see us.  But the fall of the Soviet Union took the global struggle against communism off the table and removed any serious reasons for heavy-handed US interference in South America.  Today no global American security interests are challenged by the power of any South American state; the United States and its government wish the peoples of South America well, but we no longer have a compelling security reason to meddle in their domestic affairs.

A 50-year period of North American interference in South American affairs came to an end in 1990; unless Hugo Chavez finds a way to turn taunts and insults into a consequential security threats, the US has no need to treat him as anything worse than a nuisance.  Ditto for the rest of the continent; while US security and political interests are likely to keep us engaged in the traditional sphere of American interest in the Caribbean and Central America (extending at most to the northern fringe of South America), the US no longer has any desire to interfere with the domestic politics of countries like Brazil, Argentina, Chile and their neighbours.

On the Brazilian side, something even more important has happened: Brazil has begun to believe that the world economic system might just work to Brazil’s advantage.  Brazil was one of many developing countries which felt under siege by the forces of international capitalism during much of modern history.  In the 19th century Brazil was part of Britain’s ‘informal empire’; Britain was the dominant foreign investor in the country and Britain controlled the markets for the primary commodities (sugar, rubber, cotton, coffee) whose falling and rising prices set the tempo for Brazil’s growth.  But the system seemed rigged in Britain’s favour; Brazil could never escape its role as a commodity producer — a hewer of wood and a drawer of water in the international community.  Brazil did the backbreaking labour; Britain grew rich.

After World War Two, the Americans took over Britain’s old role as the leading power in the global economic system, and the Brazilians continued to feel like second class citizens.  For many Brazilians it was axiomatic that they could only develop by protecting themselves from foreign investment and foreign competition.  A fierce economic nationalism combined with resentment against real and perceived American threats to Brazilian security and autonomy to create (both on the left and on the right) a hostile and defensive attitude toward the United States and the global economic system it hoped to build.

Something similar happened in India; India and Brazil both developed a mindset of permanent victimization.  But in both countries, that began to change in the last fifteen or 20 years.  Both countries have gradually been opening to the world, and both have been stunned to see that their companies and their economies can benefit from global exposure.  India’s success in software and IT boosted India’s self-esteem and gave it new global clout.  Brazil’s success in a range of industries, like aviation, and the success of Brazilian companies that have become fully-fledged multinational players (a Brazilian firm now owns Anheuser-Busch, for example) make more and more Brazilians feel that on a level playing field, Brazil can win.

What that means is that Brazilians, even those on the left like former president Lula, are now less inclined to think that Brazil needs to overturn the global economic system.  Brazil now aims to tweak and reform that system rather than ripping it up by the roots.  In that sense, Brazil is now a European country: it has certain specific policy differences with the US and fights for its positions in various international gatherings, but it agrees with the United States that the basic architecture of the world economy is worth preserving.

So both countries have changed.  Since the end of the Cold War the United States has come to accept Brazil’s full independence and control over its own destiny; Brazil has come to accept its interdependence with the global economy.  The two biggest disagreements between the two countries have vanished into the air — though a nasty smell sometimes lingers.

More, the two countries have also moved much closer when it comes to policies for the region.  10 years ago, the US was pushing one vision of hemispheric cooperation — the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) — and Brazil was pushing another.  Today, this dispute seems outdated.  Brazil’s vision of an EU style gathering of American nations that excluded the United States has ground largely to a halt (it is hard to get Chile, Colombia, Argentina and Venezuela to agree to very much), and the US has lost interest in the FTAA.

The US withdrawal from a political role in South America created a vacuum; Brazil’s cautious steps to fill some of that vacuum have created new common interests between the two most populous democracies in the hemisphere.  If the US had been plotting against Hugo Chavez, for example, Brazil would have felt obligated to show Venezuela some love (however much the Brazilians disapproved of Chavez’s economic and political program).  But with the shadow of Uncle Sam in retreat, Brazil has been free to handle the Bolivarean left in its own way, and the result has been better for both Brazil and the United States than anything Washington could have done.

President Lula killed the Bolivarean revolution with kindness; he choked it with butter.  Lula’s Brazil stuck up for Venezuela at international gatherings and danced with it at parties.  But all the while, Lula’s Brazil was destroying the political logic of the Bolivareans by demonstrating that a pluralistic democracy integrated into the global market can do more for the poor than incompetent populist blowhards.  Chavez talked; Lula delivered, giving Brazilians (and especially the poor) rising living standards while enhancing rather than reducing their civil liberties.  Thanks to Lula, Chavez looks more like a survival from a bygone era than like the cutting edge of Latin America’s future.

Foreigners, and perhaps especially people in the US, often think of Brazilians as emotional and hotheaded.  We’ve never gotten over the impression that Carmen Miranda made in the 1940s and 1950s when the Portuguese born ‘Brazilian’ entertainer was said to be highest paid woman in the United States.  Land of the samba, land of Carnival, land of Rio.



It is all true; Brazil is every bit of that and more — but there is another side to the country and the people.  Brazilians have built the largest and best performing economy south of the US border in the hemisphere; the state of Saõ Paulo alone has a GDP larger than any Spanish-speaking South American economy.  Their agribusiness in particular is world class.  Brazilians have an immense capacity for hard and focused work.  The evangelical revival sweeping across Brazil is creating a new Bible belt.

Politically, Brazilians have tended to be moderate almost to a fault.  They achieved their independence bloodlessly when the son of the King of Portugal declined to return to the home country after Napoleon’s defeat allowed the exiled royals to go back to Lisbon.  “I remain,” he said, and became the Emperor of Brazil.  That empire ended bloodlessly 60 years later when his son peacefully abdicated and sailed away to Europe; Brazil’s history since then had its share of upheavals but lacks the drama and the extremism found in some other places.  The military dictatorship was less harsh than regimes in neighbouring Chile and Argentina; the return to democracy was gradual and bloodless.

Former president Lula was elected on his fourth try — only after he convinced voters that despite his left wing rhetoric and trade union past he was actually a reasonable man who would stick to the successful economic programs of his predecessor.

Lula’s Brazilian model of a Latin American left that is pragmatic and results-focused could not be more different from the self-destructive radicalism of a Chavez or a Castro.  “Lulaism” is the best possible antidote to Chavezismo and the consolidation of an economically progressive and socially moderate Brazil that provides an anchor of stability and can help the entire continent move forward.  While Lula’s grandstanding on a handful of international issues (most notably his regrettable embrace of Iranian president Ahmadinejad and his statement that the global economic crisis was caused by people with blond hair and blue eyes) raised some eyebrows in Washington, the steady course of the country under his leadership testified to a much more sophisticated understanding of Brazil’s interests.

Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, was tortured by a US backed military dictatorship as a young woman; thankfully the experience made her more pro-human rights than anti-American.  One of her early acts as president was to put Brazil behind the push for a UN report on the state of human rights in Iran.

Brazil is an old nation but a young power; it is likely to make some sudden and startling moves as it tests its new abilities and pushes the envelope.  But as far as I can see, the major strategic interests of the US and Brazil are so closely aligned that cooperation between the two countries will be one of the building blocks of the new century.  Brazil’s growing influence will tend to make its neighbourhood and the world richer, more free, and more stable.  It brings the experiences, sometimes painful, of a developing country to the high table of world powers; its instinct for “order and progress” (the slogan appears on its flag) dovetails very closely with what the United States wants to see in the world.

A post-racial United States and a post-Third World Brazil can get a lot done together as long as both countries think the relationship true and work to keep it on track.  Things are by no means perfect — in Brazil itself and in the US-Brazil relationship; I’ll be posting about some the pitfalls as well.

But if you want reasons to be optimistic about where the human race, the western hemisphere and American foreign policy are going — watch Brazil.

This post originally appeared at The American Interest.