- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Looking at the U.S. election campaign from Brazil, it lacks the "glitter" of previous elections, says Matias Spektor, an expert on American affairs. "Most of the people in Brazil don’t have a clear sense of what is at stake in the current election," Spektor says. "That partly is to do with the fact that Brazil, like the United States, is very inward looking. It’s a very big country, so it tends to focus on things internal rather than things external." Spektor says that President Obama’s visit to Brazil last March was well received, and he expects that Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff’s visit to Washington in April will contribute to an improved atmosphere. The two countries have differed over Libya and on other issues, but they have come closer together more recently on seeking a solution in Syria.
In the United States, these days, the battle to choose a Republican Party opponent to President Obama in next November’s elections is a major news story. Does that story get much attention in Brazil? If not, what stories attract interest?
People are concerned most of all about the economy. The American election campaign has had a rather low priority so far because the current campaign doesn’t have any of the glitter that we saw in previous U.S. elections, be it [Vice President Al] Gore versus [George W,] Bush in 2000, or [Senator John] Kerry versus President Bush in 2004, or Obama versus [Senator John] McCain in 2008. I think most of the people in Brazil don’t have a clear sense of what is at stake in the current election. That partly is to do with the fact that Brazil, like the United States, is very inward looking. It’s a very big country, so it tends to focus on things internal rather than things external.
President Obama visited Brazil last March. Did the visit get a lot of attention in Brazil?
It did, because President Obama came with a very sound message to the Brazilian people. The message was that the United States increasingly saw Brazil not just as a regional power but as a country with global ambitions, and that the United States recognized Brazil as a growing player in the world, not just in the Americas. We of course have to put that visit in context. President Obama came in the aftermath of a series of conflicts between Brazil and the United States. One was over the ouster of the Honduran president in June 2009, which Washington eventually accepted well before Brazil did. There have also been disputes over trade and over Iran.
What happened during Obama’s visit?
The fact that he came to Brazil and was very upbeat in his tone, and his body language was quite deferential to President Dilma Rousseff [who was sworn in as president in January 2011], I think restored a spirit of dialogue, which had ebbed and flowed before but wasn’t really there in the latter part of the administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. At the moment, Brazil is preparing for President Rousseff’s reciprocal visit to Washington in early April. I think it’s going to be a trip that focuses more on atmospherics than on actual deliverables. I don’t think we’re going to see any major announcements, but the fact that the two countries can get to talk to each other makes a big difference.
Let’s come back again to the American election campaigns. None of the Republican candidates are well known in Brazil, is that right?
That is correct.
I think it’s harder to clarify in the eyes of many Brazilians what it is that the current election means– what is it at stake? And what things might look like depending on who wins?
In the last election, you had the situation of a woman candidate who was fairly well known, Hillary Clinton, running against Obama, who was the first African-American running, so that caused a lot of attention then.
Absolutely. It caused a lot of attention as well because it was very clear that the stakes were very high. We were coming out of eight years of the Bush administration, which was really paradoxical for Brazil. Most Brazilians did not identify with President George Bush; they did not see eye to eye with the kind of global order he had in mind, and yet during the Bush years, Brazil and the United States really got on very well. It was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who first acknowledged that Brazil was an emerging power that needed reckoning with in a major way.
So the transition either to Obama or to Hillary Clinton was bound to draw the attention of Brazilians because they could see that would have an impact on their lives, whereas now I think it’s harder to clarify in the eyes of many Brazilians what it is that the current election means--what is it at stake? And what might things look like, depending on who wins?
As we say, the main issue now in the Republican campaign, which is really the only party campaigning seriously right now, is economic and domestic priorities, not so much foreign issues.
The fact that the Republican Party is focusing on the economy per se is not a bad thing for Brazil. The Brazilian economy is highly interdependent with the American economy. U.S. exports to Brazil have doubled in size in recent years. Brazil is the fourth-largest creditor of the United States, so the recovery of the American economy has a direct impact on Brazil.
That said, we are now here in Brazil also having very heated debates as to how to manage the economy. The dominant argument is that the policies of the United States and Europe with regard to the economic recovery are not going to work. Brazilians think you need an active stake in the economy, promoting the economy, facilitating consumption; this has been the Brazilian experience in the past five years.
The reason why the global financial crisis has not hit Brazil as badly as it has other countries is because the domestic market is very heated, and government contributes to that very directly, so most Brazilians have an understanding of where the global economic management should be going that is very different from what you get from the standard U.S.-E.U. discussion.
In other words, Brazilians feel the government should be putting more money into the economy, not trying to cut back.
Exactly. The argument is you need a strong domestic consumption market, especially among the poor, who are those who need more consumption. They are a wonderful engine to get the economy going again, and again, that’s been the experience in Brazil with enormous success. In the past ten years, Brazil has lifted some 13 million people off the poverty line, and the entrance of those 13 million into the consumption market has transformed the economy and has kept the economy alive even if the global economic landscape turned sour around 2008, and it remains to a large extent sour to this day.
How big an unemployment problem is there in Brazil?
Unemployment has gone down very dramatically. It’s below 5 percent at the moment. This model, if you want to call it that, has been extremely appealing to most Brazilians. It’s certainly been an electoral success for the administration. President Rouseff has an approval rate averaging 70-odd percent, so from that perspective, the current policies of the Greek government or the French government or the German government are an anathema to the sort of solutions Brazil has found for itself in the context of the 2008 financial crisis.
Brazil was an at-large member of the Security Council through last year. There’s been a certain amount of controversy over the fact that Brazil has abstained on the Libyan resolution that authorized NATO intervention in Libya, and it has not supported strong action against Syria.
Brazil did abstain on the Libya vote, Security Council Resolution 1973. But on Syria, it’s actually been quite active on that front. It’s voted for the condemnation of the human rights violations, and of all the BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India, and China] countries, it’s been by far the most vocal against the Syrian regime, but it did abstain on the Libya resolution, along with the BRICs and with Germany. Brazil agreed with the argument that the resolution was exceedingly lax and that it would pave the way for regime change, which, in the end, it did.
There are two very different understandings in Washington and in Brasilia. In Washington, most people think that Resolution 1973 was an astounding success. This was an intervention sanctioned by the Security Council; it was fast, it was relatively cheap, it produced immediate effects, and it brought down a dictator. But from a Brazilian perspective, Resolution 1973 is really quite threatening because it shows that the rules of the game are too easily bent to serve the interests of the most powerful nations, and many people in Brazil think you cannot build an international order that is stable on the back of that kind of behavior.
That led Brazil to put forward a set of propositions that it calls "Responsibility While Protecting," which is seen as a complement to the Responsibility to Protect. It’s in its very early stages, but Brazil’s been trying to make some noise on this front, trying to say that yes, Responsibility to Protect is here to stay. Resolution 1973 is the first resolution ever to be put forward on the back of the Responsibility to Protect concept. Now we need to regulate those that do the protection. We need to ensure that there are rules that are clear to complicate the selective use of international law.
What is Brazil’s position now on Syria? It voted for the General Assembly Human Rights Resolution, but is it against forcing President Assad to step down?
Brazil has been following the Arab League quite closely. It’s made it clear that it would like to see a regional solution emerge before the issue gets referred anywhere else. Brazil is in fact sending a special envoy to Damascus in the next few weeks to push on that front. I think what’s important to highlight there is that, contrary to what we’ve seen on the part of Russia and China, Brazil has indeed been quite vocal against the Syrian regime. It’s made several condemnations; the President has spoken about it quite openly, and indeed, I think this is one of the areas where there is room for dialogue when she goes to the White House on April 9.