The U.S. and Brazil: Why the Two Hemispheric Giants Should Take Each Other More Seriously

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Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

President Barack Obama and Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff speak after a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House April 9, 2012 in Washington, DC.

After I and a number of colleagues wrote last month about possible U.S.-Brazil friction on the eve of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s visit to America, a Brazilian diplomat I respect contacted me about what he felt were some misconceptions in my article. The first was the idea that the Obama Administration might have dissed Rousseff by not designating her trip to Washington a full “state visit” with all the pomp it includes. In truth, he said, Rousseff had requested a visit at the same diplomatic level of Obama’s visit to Brazil last year — and contrary to what we in the media understood in 2011, he said, Obama’s was not a full state visit under the Brazilian definition.

The second problem, the diplomat told me, was the notion that the U.S. has been irked with Brazil over its U.N. Security Council votes on issues like Syria. Back in October, the Obama Administration had voiced consternation over the “noninterventionist” abstentions cast by Brazil, India and South Africa on a resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar Assad’s violence against his citizens. Aside from that instance, the diplomat insisted, “Brazil has never hesitated to condemn human-rights violations in Syria,” and he cited a recent vote to censure Assad as well as Brazil’s declarations at the U.N. Human Rights Council calling on Syrian officials “to abide by humanitarian law.”

(READ: The State Visit That Isn’t: Is the U.S. Dissing Brazil’s Dilma on the Eve of Her Trip?)

Duly noted. But even so, the fact remains that the U.S. and Brazil, the north-south giants of the Americas, still have their own misconceptions about each other to deal with — and it’s questionable whether they’ve done enough to deal with them this week. Obama and Rousseff did have a cordial, two-hour sit-down in the Oval Office on April 9, and the two countries’ robust trade relations — as well as their common commercial mistrust of China — were surely at the top of the agenda. Rousseff then headed to Massachusetts, where she planned to visit Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to establish educational exchanges. But most hemispheric analysts I’ve talked to note that the White House visit felt less than relaxed. And a big reason, they say, is that Obama and the U.S. still don’t seem to get that Brazil is a more important global power than they’re willing to admit, and that Rousseff and Brazil still don’t seem to get that Brazil is a less important global power than they’re willing to admit.

Brazil is now the world’s sixth largest economy and, of the world’s emerging markets, only China (the world’s No. 2) is bigger. Brazil has also made it clear that it sees its role, in the hemisphere and beyond, as a voice for developing nations and a healthy counterweight to U.S. superpower when necessary. None of that should come as a shock to Washington. Yet the U.S. still clings to a sort of Monroe Doctrine–era belief that Brazil and Latin America “should share our values in lockstep,” says Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in New York City. Even Obama, who took office pledging a more 21st century approach to Latin America, “fills his messages to the region with bromides like ‘partnership’ and ‘good neighbors’ and ‘alliance for progress’ and all the 1930s and 1960s jargon that Latin America finds kind of demeaning today,” Sabatini notes.

The fact is, says Sabatini: “Brazil today is less America’s partner than America’s rival,” as the other emerging BRIC nations — Russia, India and China — see themselves. So if Brazil charts an independent course on issues like the Middle East, or if it complains, as Rousseff did at the White House this week, about what it calls too much cheap currency flowing out of the U.S. and Europe, Washington shouldn’t react as if Brasília has somehow stepped out of line — a line no one in Latin America acknowledges anymore. With a more updated approach — something Obama might mull over this weekend at the Summit of Americas in Cartagena, Colombia – the U.S. might find it gets better “partnership” from Brazil in return.

(READ: Brazil’s Rousseff Goes to Washington)

By the same token, Brazil needs to recognize that there are reasons of realpolitik why the U.S. seems to dole out more respect to China, Russia and India. If those countries were just developing nations — and not also America’s major creditor, as China is; the owner of the Cold War’s other stockpile of nuclear arms, as Russia is; and a key ally in one of the world’s most volatile geopolitical hot spots, as India is — they might be bristling at the same condescending Yankee treatment Brazil so often feels. “Brazil is doing well,” says Sabatini, “but fairly or not, it’s simply not as geostrategically important to the U.S. as the others are.”

That’s perhaps also because Brazil is not quite as developed as it often sells itself today — as a new “social inclusion index” of 11 hemispheric countries to be published later this month by Americas Quarterly (AQ), which Sabatini edits, seems to indicate. No one disputes how impressively Brazil and its hybrid capitalism-cum-socialism policies have narrowed the nation’s once enormous gap between rich and poor. But the AQ gauge underscores some uncomfortable realities: while Brazil ranks No. 3 in the index (a compilation of variables ranging from percentage of GDP spent on social programs to civil-society participation), it trails well behind No. 1 Chile and No. 2 Uruguay by some 20 points. Perhaps most unsettling is Brazil’s education performance: in one measure of secondary-school enrollment, it finishes ninth out of 11.

That, says Sabatini, “raises questions about the ability of the 40 million Brazilians added to the middle class to stay there. It raises questions about the sustainability of the Brazilian miracle,” whose economic growth dropped from 7.5% in 2010 to 2.7% last year. And, if you’re the Obama Administration, it might raise questions about how seriously you’re supposed to take Brazil at this stage.

Which is why arguably the most important part of Rousseff’s trip to the U.S. this week has little to do with the nuances of state visits or Washington’s dismay over Security Council abstentions. It’s about her laudable efforts to more fully realize Brazil’s development by making the country, through partnerships with institutions like Harvard and MIT, a more serious high-tech counterpart to Asia’s tigers. That is, to make it a more serious global power.

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