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Prospects for Brazil-US Relations in the New American Administration

December 05, 2008 // 7:45am5:00pm
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Latin American Program
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A continental nation that has emerged in the international stage as a major agricultural and energy producer, and a pivotal actor in the fight against climate change, Brazil is increasingly perceived in the United States as a stabilizing force in the Western Hemisphere and a player in global affairs. As it seeks to reassert its international leadership and leave behind the unilateralist policies of the Bush era, the United States is seeking to partner with Brazil in areas where their national interests converge and offer opportunities to deepen a largely positive but superficial bilateral relationship.

In order to examine the dynamics of Brazil-US relations, the prospect for the development of a strategic partnership between the Americas two largest multiracial democracies in a changing global order, the Brazil Institute convened an all-day conference that joined nearly two dozen participants. Speakers included the Brazil's Minister of Defense, Nelson Jobim; the govenor of Mato Grosso, Blairo Maggi; the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Thomas A. Shannon; Brazil's Ambassador to the U.S., Antonio Aguiar de Patriota; the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, Clifford Sobel; Brazil's Deputy Minister of Mines and Energy, Marcio Zimmerman; the Special Adviser to the President of the Brazilian National Development Bank (BNDES), Antonio Barros de Castro; the Deputy International Adviser to Brazilian President Marcel Biato; and former ambassador and current vice chairman of Hill & Co Consulting, Thomas Pickering.

OPENING SESSIONS

Introducing the conference themes and his Brazilian counterpart, Clifford Sobel, US Ambassador to Brazil, spoke with optimism of current and future U.S.-Brazilian relations. In particular, Ambassador Sobel noted the possibility of launching a bilateral investment treaty and increased cooperation in the biofuel industry as strategic partnerships to deepen the relationship between the two countries. Similarly, Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, Brazil's Ambassador to the US, described the current dialogue between Brazil and the U.S. reflective of a moment of renewal with an expanded agenda encompassing political, economic and social issues. Identifying the developing relationship between presidents Obama and Lula as a "promising horizon," Patriota reiterated Sobel's optimism for mutually beneficial relationship that would provide great positive externalities for the region as a whole.

CREATING A STRATEGIC RELATIONSHIP

Echoing the comments of Ambassadors Patriota and Sobel, both Anthony Harrington, President and CEO, Stonebridge International and Thomas Pickering highlighted the current financial climate as an opportunity for Brazil and the U.S. to develop consensus, particularly in areas beyond commerce and defense. Citing cooperative moments since the 1930s, Pickering was optimistic in his political forecast, while Harrington pushed for more concrete accomplishments that are not U.S.-centric to demonstrate a commitment to equal partnership in the region.

Nelson Jobim, Brazil's Minister of Defense, however, critiqued the comments of both the U.S. and Brazilian ambassadors, saying that the rhetoric of a "strategic" relationship needs to be reinforced with tangible achievements. Tempering the overall atmosphere, Jobim also predicted only minor improvements in relations due to U.S. priorities in the Middle East and Brazil's focus on cultivating South-South relationships.

Echoing this position, Rubens Barbosa, President of the Superior Council of Foreign Trade, FIESP, identified qualities of ambivalence on both sides, with the U.S. directing more resources to the financial crisis and Brazilian foreign ministry more interested in developing relationships with the non-Latin American "South". He referred to this Brazilian preference in the medium-term to expand horizons outside of the continent as an "important decoupling process," encouraged by a claustrophobic outgrowing of MERCOSUR.

Blairo Maggi took a more moderate stance than his fellow panelists, urging policymakers to look toward the possibility of a more viable ethanol market where Brazilian products could supply American demands in a productive and sustainable relationship. Maggi also identified the Amazon as a region requiring improved relations, as the funding needed to protect both the natural environment and the populations that reside there cannot be totally met by the Brazilian state alone.

CHALLENGES TO BRAZIL AND US REGIONAL LEADERSHIP

Thomas Shannon pointed to the cooperation of both countries in the biofuels industry as a micro-relationship par excellence in which the U.S. and Brazil could engage not just each other, but other Latin American and African countries, as well. Shannon also noted the success of the U.S.-Brazilian joint program against racism as an exemplar of bilateral social policy, using this program to illustrate "guideposts" set into place by the outgoing Bush administration which he hopes will be continued under the Obama administration.

Marcel Biato underscored investment in education and health care as a crucial point of cooperation. Despite the schadenfreude present in the economic crisis, Biato urged policymakers to engage with politically difficult decisions that will have long-term benefits to protect the "bottom rungs" of society against the downside of globalization.

"It's not good to be on the radar screen of the U.S.," quipped Matias Spektor, Professor of International Relations, Fundação Getúlio Vargas, in reference to the stereotypical fear that U.S. attention either brings punishment or more responsibility. Spektor encouraged policymakers to reexamine past points of conflict and cooperation, noting that historical hindsight may prove a key factor in promoting healthy future relationships. Carlos Pio, Fulbright Scholar and Professor of Political Economy at the University of Brasília, remarked that poor growth predictions for next two years in the region might provoke social discontent, intra-regional disputes of security, trade, and investment and political instability at national levels. In light of these potential developments, Pio commented that a profound reshaping of the U.S.-Brazilian relationship will only occur if trade and security remain the most important issues.

 

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