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Postmortem Questions

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
September 25, 2013
Folha de Sao Paulo


Originally published in Portuguese on Folha de Sao Paulo:

Picture the scene back stage at the opening day of the United Nations General Assembly yesterday. As Dilma and Obama waited together to give their speeches, did Obama indicate an open mind to Dilma's call the right to privacy as a civil, human, and sovereign right? Did Dilma wish Obama well in rallying support for a Syria resolution? I doubt it. These days their differences over major issues in global governance and international security again appear pronounced.

Away from the cameras, however, who knows if they greeted one another even warmly, with a knowing sigh of relief, happy, for different reasons, to have "postponed" the State visit and dinner. Dilma doesn't have to worry about the inevitable, superficial press criticism of her ball gown. More seriously, she doesn't have to feel frustrated that the bilateral agenda, even before the NSA scandal, lacked the substantive ambition to match such a symbolic event. Obama too, known for his distaste for the social demands of the presidency, might look forward to a quiet evening with Michelle and their daughters, or tend to issues of more legacy-defining consequence.

The NSA scandal, the White House's response to it, and Dilma's decision to cancel the state visit, have revealed the weakness of the US-Brazil relationship. Other than big business, neither Dilma nor Obama have constituents clamoring for stronger ties. With notable exceptions, the body language of bureaucracies in Washington and Brasilia now risks reverting to that of another era, when mutual skepticism prevailed.

Has Brasilia again concluded that Washington is dead set against Brazil's rise? Has Washington reverted to the assumption that Brazil prefers to play the role of an alternative to American hegemony—whether on internet governance, in Latin America, or on a slew of global issues? I hope not, but perception, the cliché suggests, risks becoming reality.

A post mortem of the State visit's "postponement" requires hard truths: President Obama hasn't apologized to the American people or American companies for NSA spying. He has been slow to acknowledge the overreach and violations of privacy, and certainly has not compelled the NSA to stop its surveillance. It is hard to imagine Brazil achieving a better response than the American people have to date.

Given the legacy of state surveillance in Brazil—by a U.S.-supported military régime—did U.S. officials expect Brazilians to take pride in the NSA spying as a sign of just how important Washington regards Brazil's place in the global system?

On NSA surveillance, Washington has a serious policy difference with Brazil and a number of other major democracies. Diplomacy couldn't bridge the divide. But given Brazil's importance as a hub for transatlantic fiber optic cables, Dilma and Obama really do have something to talk about.

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

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