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An American in Brazil

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
March 2, 2010
International Herald Tribune

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In her campaign for the presidency, Hillary Rodham Clinton barely uttered the word Brazil. But as secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton has recognized Brazil as the most powerful country in South America and a rising global power. Her current visit may reflect a political will to make the relationship with Brazil a strategic priority for American foreign policy.

Mrs. Clinton understands that the United States must adapt to a multipolar world, working with powers such as China, Russia and India. Yet in 2009 U.S. diplomacy with Brazil fell victim to disputes over Honduras, military bases in Colombia, domestic politics and tensions over Iran.

With such a late start, urgency seems to permeate the visit. The United States is losing ground as Latin America creates yet another regional organization that excludes it. Likewise, Brazil's attention will soon turn inward as its presidential campaign kicks in.

But showing up in Brazil might be the easiest step. The United States has little bandwidth to sustain a focus on Brazil. President Obama's domestic agenda is consumed by jobs, healthcare, infrastructure and financial solvency. Abroad, the lion's share of attention will remain on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and China.

Brazil, too, may lack the incentive to invest in the U.S. relationship as much as Mrs. Clinton may wish. Also focused largely on conditions at home, Brazil has survived the global financial crisis, built a growing middle class, reduced poverty and inequality and consolidated democracy. Corruption, crime, violence and drugs now rank highest on the electorate's agenda.

Internationally, the last seven years have catapulted Brazil onto the global stage. The United States represents only a slice of Brazil's global agenda: Brazil's emphasis on multipolarity and multilateralism assumes the decline of U.S. influence.

In any case, given its historic insistence on autonomy from great powers, Brazil can hardly be expected to subordinate its interests to those of the United States. Nonetheless, some Americans see Brazil's ethos of autonomy in foreign policy at times as a deliberate attempt to thwart U.S. diplomacy. Such misperceptions might get in the way of good intentions.

Another potential impediment: The United States still acts like an imperial power. When Hillary Clinton says "partnership," Brazilians may think she really means deference to U.S. interests. To tackle problems on the bilateral, regional and global agenda, Mrs. Clinton will have to overcome Brasilia's skepticism about Washington's commitment to a real give-and-take.

Brazil will have to give her the benefit of the doubt and clearly spell out what it wants from the United States, using the visit and its aftermath to take the measure of what the Obama administration wants from Brazil.

Bilaterally, taxes, tariffs and trade, even gender and race, will top the agenda. Haiti will emerge as a far more productive use of both countries' talents than disputes over Colombia or Honduras. The secretary will hear Brazil's understanding of the Andean region and its vision for South American integration. Perhaps she will explain the glacial pace of Washington's movement on Cuba policy. Discussions on climate change and global finance will advance.

But it is Iran that will likely get the most airtime. A hawk on that subject, Secretary Clinton insists that emerging powers join U.S. and European pressure on Iran, while the Lula government regards sanctions as a path to military force. As anathema as President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's public embrace of the Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be, Brazil's channel to an increasingly chaotic and unpredictable Tehran should not be dismissed as anti-American posturing.

Mrs. Clinton's visit will not result in the intimacy of a "special relationship," or in the uncomfortable embrace Washington often bestows upon its best friends in the region. But if she leaves with an appreciation of Brazil's exceptionalism--a quality that Brazilians fully understand in the United States--a healthy and clear-eyed mutual respect could begin to emerge.

Julia E. Sweig is senior fellow and director of Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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