On March 19, U.S. President Barack Obama will kick off a five-day trip to South and Central America, visiting Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador. In his first trip to the region as president, it’s important for Obama and Brazil’s newly elected President Dilma Rousseff to strengthen the relationship between the two countries and emphasize that they are committed to each other’s success, says Matias Spektor, assistant professor at Brazil’s Center for International Relations, Fundação Getulio Vargas. While Spektor doesn’t expect any crucial trade agreements to come out of the visit, he believes that laying a foundation of trust and mutual respect should lead to more important agreements in the future, as well as allowing for crucial infrastructure investment ahead of the World Cup and the Olympics. As China’s power increases in Latin America, Spektor sees the U.S.-Brazil relationship as being especially important, noting that China’s position will "push both Brazil and the United States toward one another a bit more." He sees this relationship as crucial to dealing with issues such as climate change, financial stability, and food security.
On Saturday, President Obama kicks off his first trip to Latin America. How significant is this visit?
This is pretty relevant to Latin America because it’s the fiftieth anniversary of the Alliance for Progress, which back in the day was the most ambitious project in the United States to come up with a policy for systematic support, development, and democracy in the Americas. It’s also important because it’s the first trip by President Obama to the region. In terms of Brazil, this is seen as incredibly important because the visit comes after several years where the relationship deteriorated to some degree, partly because of clashing interests on climate change, trade, the Iranian nuclear program, and the coup in Honduras. Neither Brazil nor the United States found a framework to deal with the fact that in this twenty-first century world, Brazil is a rising power with a greater chunk of responsibility internationally. The two countries need to find a new narrative if they want the relationship to work under this new condition; this hasn’t happened yet. It might be the beginning of a sort of dialogue that we need to see.
How much of this new dialogue is dependent on Dilma Rousseff as the new leader of Brazil? Is that really driving the potential for change in the relationship?
The arrival of Rousseff in power marks a change in style. She’s been signaling that she is very willing to restore the atmosphere of positive engagement with the United States. The other element that I think is relevant has to do with U.S. foreign policy: the sense that it is important for the United States to reach out to emerging countries and try to find common ground with them even if these relationships have little history of sustained contact.
What will Obama’s priorities be in Brazil?
The two sides will sign a string of agreements on various issues ranging from space, science and technology, to trade, to visas.
The symbolism of the first meeting between an African-American U.S. president and a female president who spent part of her years in prison under a military dictatorship, is [also] incredibly powerful. If there is one thing that brings together the United States and Brazil in the twenty-first century, it’s the fact that these are two massive multi-ethnic democracies. The two presidents represent that in such a powerful way. Part of the agenda will be to make that gesture explicit.
If there is one thing that brings together the United States and Brazil in the twenty-first century, it’s the fact that these are two massive multi-ethnic democracies.
And [finally], to make the point that for the United States, a growing Brazil is good news. By the same token, [to emphasize] that for a rising Brazil, having good access to Washington is necessary.
As China’s influence grows in Latin America, how does its relationship with Brazil play into the U.S.-Brazil relationship?
China has displaced the United States as Brazil’s number one trade partner in the past few years. As Brazil emerges, it will find itself at odds with Chinese positions. In that world, it is crucial for Brazil to have easy access to the highest levels in the United States. By the same token, as the United States manages this new world where China rises so dramatically, having a country like Brazil as a partner will be ever more important in understanding and coping with China. So the position of China is pushing both Brazil and the United States toward one another a bit more. This does not mean they will bond together against China by any means. I don’t think Brazil would like to play that role nor would the United States.
When Obama visited India in 2010, he endorsed the country’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. What’s the likelihood that he will support Brazil ’s bid for a permanent seat on this visit?
When [Brazil’s] foreign minister Antonio Patriota went to Washington about three months ago to meet Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton, she used language that was really very useful. She said that the United States was willing to engage in constructive dialogue with Brazil about Security Council reform. I don’t think that anyone realistically expects Washington to come up with a statement along the lines of what Obama said in India. But there is an expectation in Brasilia--I think it is a realistic one--that the United States will show that it is willing to talk about it and start the process by which the two countries dictate the issue.
U.S.-Brazil relations to this point are more distant than[they are] between the United States and India. But perhaps one of the results that will come out of this visit is a decision on both [sides] at the highest level to get the conversation started. That would be very welcome in Brazil.
Trade has been a sticking point in the relations. Will there be any breakthroughs during this trip?
I don’t think we’re going to see a breakthrough because all of the agreements under negotiation at the moment are important but not crucial. The crucial thing is mutual access to markets. The two sides do need to negotiate at some point a set of agreements [about] protecting investment, avoiding double taxation; we’re not going to see progress on any of those scores. But again, because the relationship was declining for a while, there was no scope, no space to maneuver. We first need to get the conversation going again to restore the atmosphere, to establish a personal relationship between the two presidents and lay the ground for future progress on trade.
Brazil, as an emerging power, sees a greater role for itself in the region. How can Brazil and the United States work together to increase stability in the region, particularly in places like Haiti?
Haiti’s actually a very positive example of the potential for U.S.-Brazil cooperation. The two sides have worked together pretty effectively in Haiti. Brazil is now a large donor to Haiti and has command of the UN forces there.
Brazil and the United States need each other to cope with the daunting problems that require very deep cooperation in the twenty-first century: climate change, trade, financial stability, food security. These are all big issues where you cannot reach a deal without having the United States and Brazil at the table.
The other examples are in Africa. Brazil and the United States have been doing a lot of trilateral work in Africa whereby the two sides provide African countries with technical support, technical cooperation, international aid to help build or rebuild societies. This is the one area where the relationship in the future looks really bright. We have the largest power in the world, along with a country that for many years had a struggle with poverty and social policies to address inequality. The two of them together can send such a powerful message to countries like Haiti or those in Africa.
With Rousseff as president, is there a change in Brazil’s relationship with the United States on issues such as Iran and human rights?
Brazil has been developing a new Middle East policy for a while. For most of its life as an independent country, Brazil had no Middle East policy at all; it now has one. It’s quite active in the Middle East. It’s negotiating a free trade agreement both with Arab countries and with Israel. It would be really very useful if President Obama in this meeting said something to the effect of the utility of engaging Brazil in debate about the future of the Middle East, even if the two sides will not agree at all times.
With Brazil hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, there are a lot of opportunities for infrastructure and economic development. Will this be discussed?
This will be discussed. Obama is bringing a group of businessmen. Hence the importance of sourcing out the atmosphere of the relationship so that the two sides can move on with getting the trade relationship back on track. There’s no way we will see a wave of U.S. investment in Brazil in the context of the Olympic Games or the World Cup unless the legal framework is behind it.
What do you see as the most important thing to come out of this visit?
The most important thing to come out would be to have the two presidents say clearly and out loud that they not only appreciate the other country but that the other country’s success is in their national interest. The argument that a successful, growing, powerful Brazil is good for the United States is not obvious in Washington. Many people don’t think so. But by the same token, we find some in Brasilia think that a world that has more limits to what the United States can do is not necessarily a bad thing for Brazil. They need each other to cope with the daunting problems that require very deep cooperation in the twenty-first century: climate change, trade, financial stability, food security. These are all big issues where you cannot reach a deal without having the United States and Brazil at the table. They need to say it.
Would you have any additional recommendations for President Obama as he goes to Brazil?
This visit needs to be followed up by some action. If the signal is that "we’re willing to talk," then we need to have it on the schedule. So it doesn’t die, so it’s not Obama coming in and then out of the country.