By Britta H. Crandall
President Obama will make a historic visit to Brazil this month where he is slated to meet with his newly elected Brazilian counterpart, President Dilma Rousseff. The White House described Obama’s visit to Brazil as a chance to “advance our efforts to work as equal partners” to address the challenges facing Latin America. Brazil is becoming an equal partner indeed. Its economy is the world’s seventh largest; it is a global leader in the export of iron, soy, orange juice, and aircraft; and the 2007 discovery of an estimated eight to twelve billion barrels of light crude oil off its coast poise it to become a leading oil exporter. Further, the country has clearly made the successful transition from a military regime to a vibrant democracy. The choice of Brazil for Obama’s Latin America trip undoubtedly reflects the ascent of the South American giant. And for some, Obama’s visit potentially represents a long-overdue interest in Brazil on behalf of the U.S. government.
The United States has long been accused of adopting a policy of “benign neglect” toward Brazil. In recent decades, for example, the White House has not cooperated with Brazil at high levels as it did during World War II and has not meddled in Brazilian domestic affairs as it did in the 1960s. Many U.S. policymakers and the public alike seemingly have very little concept of U.S. policy toward Brazil. One previous State Department official even referred to Brazil as the “black hole” of U.S. foreign diplomacy given its size and significance in relation to the low degree of engagement and attention that emanate from the U.S. government. The White House, as opposed to the Palacio do Planalto in Brasilia, is commonly blamed for this lack of high-level cooperation between the two governments.
However, bilateral engagement is a two-way street. It takes two to tango, or in this case, samba. Rather than benign neglect from Washington, it is a lack of common interests that limit U.S. engagement with Brazil. Up until the 21st century, with only a few exceptions, Brazil was not strong, problematic, or threatening enough to bring its own issues to the table aside from a steady quest for increased economic aid, and it did not have the relative power to serve as an effective military or economic partner for the United States. Brazil’s foreign policy tradition emphasizing economic development and national sovereignty further limited the potential areas for engagement with Washington.
However, the erosion of the power gap between the United States and Brazil begun in earnest in the 21st century is beginning to have dramatic effects on the bilateral relationship. The less-asymmetrical relationship means that the two countries’ range of policy concerns is beginning to see increased overlap. Brazil’s role as an energy supplier will mean more engagement with the Obama administration as it embarks on a new energy policy. Brazil has become a global leader in the areas of international environmental protection and international trade. Moreover, as the United States addresses its diminished influence in Latin America, the growing importance of Brazil’s role as a moderate voice in the region will also mean ongoing engagement with Washington.
The simple yet powerful role of Brazilian interest in U.S. ties should not be overlooked. President Rousseff’s greater willingness to engage the United States opens up a world of opportunities for bilateral cooperation. President Obama’s trip, then, represents a new opportunity for the United States not because of a long overdue U.S. interest in Brazil, but because of the new openness and pragmatism of the Brazilian government, fostered by the rise of Brazil’s economic and geopolitical prowess.
Britta H. Crandall is adjunct professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies and the author of Hemispheric Giants: The Misunderstood History of U.S.-Brazilian Relations (Rowman & Littlefield 2011).