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Will Dilma Get Support for Brazil’s UNSC Bid During Washington Visit?

With Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, in the US for a state visit, the FT among others produced a ‘state of the relationship’ piece that captures some of the dynamics between the two largest (by population) democracies in the western hemisphere. Overall, things are decent but not deep.

In the plus column is trade. The US is now one of the biggest markets for Embraer, an airplane manufacturer that is a stalwart of Brazilian heavy industry, and Brazil is an increasingly important market for US multinationals.

But tensions remain. The US faults Brazil’s ‘independent’ approach to foreign policy as unprincipled; Brazil is often reluctant to support US-led efforts to sanction various offending governments around the world. Brazil on the other hand thinks the US doesn’t pay it enough respect; the Number Two hemispheric power wants a broader global role.

It all comes down to the Security Council. Back in the League of Nations days, Brazil sat on the League equivalent of the Security Council, and it wants its seat back — a permanent seat, with a veto. The US response has been vague and, from a Brazilian point of view, frustrating. Mealy-mouthed phrases come natural to US diplomats on this subject, something like, “The United States recognizes Brazil’s interest in a seat on the Security Council and pledges to work with Brazil to promote reform in the United Nations.”

Translation for those whose dipspeak is rusty: “We know you want a seat and we aren’t going to do anything about it.”

Recent years have if anything bolstered America’s sense Brazil should not get a Security Council seat anytime soon. Lula da Silva, Rousseff’s predecessor, envisioned Brazil as an independent force in international affairs and angered the US in 2010 when he tried to broker a (failed) independent civilian nuclear swap deal with Iran. For Lula, Brazil’s foreign policy was predicated on South-leaning but diversified relations. In a memorable New Yorker article last fall, Lula used the analogy of the pragmatic street peddler to describe Brazil’s approach to the international order:

Our idea was to diversify our relations as much as possible; we wanted to conduct business with many countries. I had the idea of a street seller, a peddler. In Brazil we call them Turks. They carry goods in a bag and carpets and cloths under their arms… I had the image of my mother buying goods at the door. I thought that Brazil had certain limitations next to the U.S., which has more technology than Brazil and competes with our agricultural sector. So what did we have to do? Look for partners who were similar to Brazil. The street peddler is not going to sell his products on the most sophisticated avenue or in the richest neighborhood of New York.  He is going to go to the poorest neighborhood, just as he does in Brazil. So we go to Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. This year, if everything goes well, we will get to three hundred billion in exports.

A nice thought and, from a Brazilian point of view, pragmatic. But it suggests to DC diplomats that Brazil on the Security Council would be a loose cannon and on both human rights like Syria and security problems like Iran it might be equally likely to block as to advance US plans.

One option for the US would be to upgrade its “nice words, no deeds” approach to Brazil’s quest for a Security Council seat. Since none of the five permanent members of the Security Council really want to dilute their power by bringing new members into the club, we can promote countries like Japan, India and Brazil for membership with some confidence that the consensus needed for change will not quite emerge any time soon.

Brazil is an important and on the whole constructive power in the region. Lula may have annoyed Washington with some of his international showboating, but he annoyed Hugo Chavez much more by blocking Chavez’ attempts to portray his movement as the best and only hope for Latin America’s poor. The United States needs to work on developing a common agenda with Brazil; no relationship matters more for the peace and security of the hemisphere we share.

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