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Double Standards

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
November 6, 2013
Folha de Sao Paulo

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Originally published in Portuguese on Folha de Sao Paulo:

Let's be honest: after eight years of George W. Bush in the White House, when regime change wars and unilateralism, torture and Guantanamo, had alienated the publics of many of Washington's long-standing allies, it was too easy to fantasize that a new cast of characters, led especially by an African-American liberal Democrat, might rapidly restore American standing.

Obama took office professing to hold in high esteem the Declaration of Independence's value of a "decent respect for the views of others." Working multilaterally, even "leading from behind," (an awful phrase), would show the world that Washington had a nuanced understanding of power and its asymmetries. Obama seemed to intuitively understand that at least in diplomacy, for the United States, less can be more.

Five years later, the ubiquity of NSA spying on America's most important partners in Europe and Latin America has exposed a dynamic that many in Washington just don't see, or choose to ignore: unless you are Anglo-Saxon, or specifically the United Kingdom, alliances contain the seeds of their own vulnerability.

There are many lessons to be drawn from the difference in reaction in Washington to Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff. The most obvious is that eurocentrism in American foreign policy is very hard to overcome in practice.

Germany's intimate and long-standing alliance with the United States is regarded by the American foreign policy establishment as one of its most important post-World War II strategic achievements. Germany rarely strays from Washington's good foreign policy graces. When it does abstain from Security Council resolutions authorizing the use of force, Washington understands the German rejection of militarism as a direct and even desirable result of Germany's 20th century history.

Likewise Washington readily grasps the logic of Angela Merkel's outrage at the NSA's violation of privacy, and of her insistence that the right to privacy is an essential feature of Germany's hard fought democracy.

Brazil, on the other hand, may well be the 6th largest economy in the world, but Washington still resents Brazil's insistence on an independent foreign policy and, until Angela spoke up, reacted with an eye-rolling impatience when Dilma articulated the very same rationale for objecting to the NSA's intrusions some weeks, even months earlier.

While Angela's grievances were legitimate and understandable, Dilma, some policy bureaucrats concluded, was driven more by electoral politics and worse, anti-Americanism.

Is it anti-American or just logical for Brazil to conclude that its rise in the global order will more likely be aided by leading on the multilateral scene than from cultivating a "strategic partnership" with the United States? Washington will need to participate, but perhaps Brazil can still have it both ways—as Dilma's foreign policy until now has suggested.

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

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