The Reckoning

Part 3: Five Countries We Need: Brazil

brics leaders

One of these BRICS is better than the others …. Brazilian President Dilma Roussef (L to R), Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Chinese President Hu Jintao and South African President Jacob Zuma at the G20 summit in Mexico last June.

Photograph by Roberto Stuckert Filho/AFP/GettyImages

When it comes to the great giant of the north, Brazil prefers to stay off the radar.

“Being the source of American attention raises expectations in Washington that Brazil will work as a ‘responsible stakeholder’ according to some arbitrary criteria of what ‘responsible’ means, or it turns Brazil into a target of U.S. pressure when interests don’t coincide,” Matias Spektor, at Rio de Janiero’s Center for International Relations, recently wrote about his country. “As a result, there is a consensus among Brazilians that a policy of ‘ducking’ – hiding your head underwater when the hegemonic eagle is around – has served them well.”

If so, the ducking came to an abrupt end in May 2010, when Brazil and Turkey announced they had concluded a deal on Iran’s nuclear weapons program that they believed would prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon while forestalling threatened U.S. or Israeli preemptive military action.

After a press conference with a smiling Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinjad, Brazil’s president at the time, Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva, learned that the U.S. was furious with the deal.  A week prior, he had received a letter from President Obama explaining the U.S. position, and why Washington was unwilling to take Iran’s word on the complex question of uranium enrichment. “Throughout this process, instead of building confidence Iran has undermined confidence in the way it has approached this opportunity. That is why I question whether Iran is prepared to engage Brazil in good faith, and why I cautioned you during our meeting. To begin a constructive diplomatic process, Iran has to convey to the IAEA a constructive commitment to engagement through official channels — something it has failed to do.”

For Obama, this was tough talk, and U.S. officials rejected the Brazilian-Turkish initiative. Lulu, exasperated, said on Brazilian television afterward: “Why doesn’t Obama call Ahmadinejad?” Mr. da Silva asked, “Or Sarkozy, or Angela Merkel or Gordon Brown?” naming the French, German and British leaders also involved in the Iran nuclear talks. “People aren’t talking.”

Brazil’s decision to step onto the international stage, following the Turkish lead, caught Washington by surprise. In fact, Brazil has for years been quietly evolving into something quite apart from the vast, bikini-clad, rainforest clearing, developing nation of yesteryear. Apparently this caught the State Department by surprise. And so, in true Washington style, we’ve held a grudge ever since.

Old-style geographical or raw material tallies of Brazil’s importance are outstripped by economic figures now, but they still remain impressive. Brazil is the fifth largest country by landmass, controlling 18 percent of the world’s fresh water in the Amazon basin, and its rainforest produces 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. It will be a Top 10 producer of oil by 2020, will move up in GDP from eighth to fifth largest and jump even further up the income chart in terms of per capita wealth. But geopolitically, it had always been a quiet giant, which is why Lula’s Iran initiative struck an American nerve.

“[T]he unease is palpable,” writes Celso Amorim, Lula’s foreign minister at the time – both have since retired. The Iran deal, he said, “caused some discomfort in Washington, DC. The agreement obliged the U.S. government to explain, not always convincingly, its reasons for refusing an agreement that met all the points in President Obama’s letter to President Lula less than three weeks before.”
Brazil, in fact, began wresting control of the region’s economic and diplomatic agenda well before the Obama administration took office. Emboldened by its achievement of financial stability after decades of boom-to-bust cycles, and finding itself suddenly on the world stage in climate change talks due to the Amazon’s huge importance to the planet’s environmental health, a country which had been a reliably pro-American voice in world affairs began – politely – to let Washington know its priorities were not always in lockstep with Latin American views.

Iran aside, however, Brazil’s ability to remain on good terms with often diametrically opposed players echoes Turkey’s “no problems” approach to its own neighborhood. Problems, of course, abound – but like Turkey, Brazil appears intent on playing the regional voice of reason, whether the issue involved is global, like Iran’s proliferation, or regional, like Syria’s civil war or the ideological tension between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Colombia’s former President Alvaro Uribe.

Brazil intervened diplomatically in 2008 to head off a possible was between Colombia and Venezuela over alleged support by Chavez for left-wing guerrilla movements inside Colombia. Lula, always sensitive to the appeal of Chavez’s left-wing populism for Brazil’s poor, tolerated the Venezuelan’s bluster and angered Colombia by publicly criticizing a deal that would have allowed U.S. troops to be based in the country. In the end, Brazil got what it wanted – cooler heads in its neighborhood, a new, less bellicose leader in Colombia who dropped the plan for a U.S. military base, and the gradual but steady discrediting of Chavez, as his policies faltered, leaving Venezuela as the latest failed state where oil riches retard and corrupt the political system. (Congratulations to Venezuela, by the way, for reelecting him: not since the U.S. reelected George W. Bush in 2004 has democracy so failed to separate wheat and chaff.  Does incompetence mean nothing? ).

But back to our story: The U.S. has made a miserable hash of what should be the easiest adjustment of our post-hegemonistic era: working closely with Brazil.

Those who gush about the “superpower of South America” are certainly prone to overstatement: Brazil continues to have problems with cronyism, poverty and (like China, India and other highly touted EM powers). But unlike any of those countries, its rise has threatened no one, not even Chavez (it merely showed him up), and not Argentina, which has been the regional rival for a century until the two nations buried their differences in the 1980s.

Why, then, would Barack Obama have visited both India and Brazil in 2011 and publicly endorse India’s bid for permanent UN Security Council status, but snub Brazil? This is the lowest of low hanging fruit – the diplomatic equivalent of kissing a baby.

The State Department’s excuse is mealy mouthed and can be summed up as something like this: South America isn’t strategic enough for a UN Security Council permanent seat (unless, of course, you’re South American). Good old Yanqui ingenuity shining through.

The real reason, I suspect, was to avoid offending Mexico, which squirms whenever the Portuguese speaking Brazilians don the mantel of regional leadership.

Too bad.  I like Mexico, and see it as a potential growth superstar if internal chaos can be brought under control. To be sure, the US should be on good terms with both of them, but Mexico isn’t building nuclear submarines, ordering an aircraft carrier or threatening, anytime soon, to overtake France as the world’s 5th largest economy (my bet on that: 2014). Mexico is a respectable and rising 14.

Or, consider this: In the 21st century, we need Mexico to succeed. But we need Brazil for us to succeed.

Next up: Nigeria