The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Dilma Rousseff Comes to Washington
Published on April 12, 2012

Earlier this week, Dilma Rousseff made the same trip that several thousand Brazilians have become addicted to: a trip to the United States. Unlike Rousseff, most of those Brazilians are on a historically unique shopping spree. Even with the U.S. dollar growing a bit more expensive in the last few weeks, for ordinary Brazilian citizens it is still cheaper to pay for an airline ticket to Miami, stay in a hotel and buy baby clothes, men shoes and women cosmetics—not to mention electronics or durable consumer goods—than it is to acquire these same items at home. The numbers of Brazilians having a good time in the United States is impressive to the point that the U.S. government has begun facilitating the visa issuing procedures—news which has been celebrated by the crowds waiting to be interviewed by overworked U.S. consular officials in São Paulo, Rio and elsewhere in Brazil.

But while it is pretty clear what Brazilians are looking for in the United States (in addition to the abovementioned consumer goods, many Brazilians are putting millions of dollars in investments in real estate and equities), it’s not anywhere near as clear what the Brazilian government wanted from this trip. To be sure, officials in Brasilia briefing the press before the Rousseff’s trip were happy to stress the point that both countries are working hard on educational programs, technology transfer projects and grants for Brazilian students at American institutions. And, of course, both administrations are looking for joint investments and partnership possibilities in the energy sector (something the private sector has been doing on its own for a long time now—much to their own risk, as Chevron might tell us).

Young and veteran diplomats in Brazil can’t help but hide a satisfied smile when they look at the timeline of presidential visits between Washington and Brasilia. First Obama came to Brazil in March 2011. Now Rousseff has reciprocated—after having visited China, Germany, South Africa and India. It used to be the other way round: A Brazilian president would pay first a visit to Washington, and only then would the American President reciprocate. “It shows the end of what we call a vassalage”, says a retired Brazilian diplomat, who was very critical of the Brazilian foreign policy under Lula (who acted in keeping with that vassalage, by the way). A practical, business-like people (Americans, for instance) would say: “Nice symbolism, but so what?”

That symbolism might lack immediate meaning in terms of practical goals, but it does help us understand how Brazilian policymakers think. For a country like Brazil, which historically has been a prisoner of the feeling that it has not been well understood, heard and respected in international affairs, the notion of dealing with the United States (and other big powers) on an equal footing is a factor not to be ignored.

Regardless of whether Rousseff’s diagnostics of the impact of the international economic crisis on Brazil are wrong or right (I think they are wrong), she has given free lessons on how to deal with it to everyone, starting with Angela Merkel, followed by Barack Obama. The lesson starts basically with the claim that rich countries are flooding the world with liquidity, causing a currency war (to Rousseff, a poorly disguised protectionist measure) to the disadvantage of emerging countries.

For a while, the fact that China became Brazil’s most important trade partner was celebrated in the corridors of power in Brasillia—even when China was busy swallowing part of Brazil’s share in several different American markets. China’s autocratic decision making process and infinitely powerful state sector appeal strongly to Rousseff’s not very sophisticated mind. (She is still parked in the black-and-white scheme of “neoliberals” vs. “interventionists.”) Only very recently, the same officials in Brasilia began to be worried: about the devastating effect on Brazilian industry of cheap Chinese imports; about the “wisdom” of a strategy that brought Brazil into a semi-colonial relationship with the Chinese (Brazil is now totally dependent on selling commodities to them); and about figures showing a Brazil having a trade deficit with the United States.

Does any of these worries mean that Brazil has a plan to turn things around and explore new avenues with the most important country in this hemisphere? The answer is no. Why not? Unfortunately, the explanation begins with the failure on the part of the government to do its homework, as evidenced by the humorous exchange between Brazilian officials and FIFA about the delay in building the necessary (and promised) infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup 2014 in Brazil (FIFA officials said “the Brazilians should get a kick in the a**.”). Not a single ground braking reform worth the name was undertaken in the past ten years, whether educational, political, economic or fiscal. Not only Brazilian politicians, but also a large sector of Brazilian society—beginning with its vaunted entrepreneurial elites—are in a state of splendid complacency, taking for granted that Brazil’s international role will enlarge itself forever, in a kind of “natural” development. Meanwhile, the state apparatus in all three levels of government (federal, state and municipal) is being corrupted on a scale never seen before—but that’s another story.

Compared to the other BRICs, Brazil has a very different strategic position, for very simple reasons. Russia, China and India are nuclear powers. They are in the center of American preoccupations for many decades. And, judging by the “pivot” away from the intractable Middle East toward Asia recently announced by the Obama Administration, they will grow even more important to the United States in the future. Brazil, on the other hand, is distant from any major international conflict (whether ethnical, political, geopolitical, religious or even commercial); this is a blessing (we are not sending soldiers anywhere on a regular basis to kill and be killed) and simultaneously a curse (we have troubles grasping the depth and scope of great conflicts). Other than stating obvious principles of international relations—like the right to self determination, respect to human rights, international borders, national sovereignty, and on and on—Brazil’s position in recent international crises, such as Iran’s nuclear program, intervention in Libya, massacres in Syria, shows a remarkable indecisiveness between principles and realpolitik—a dilemma well known to major powers, but decidedly unresolved in Brazil.

It should almost go without saying, but Brazil will first have to define for itself what it wants. In broad terms, it has been too “defensive” lately, as well as more addicted to performing rhetorical feats than achieving practical goals. In terms of the near future, apparently all minds are focused on the pre–salt discoveries, which promise to turn Brazil in a major energy exporter in a matter of a single generation. No country that has relied mainly on commodities exports has ever become a major power, but, again, that’s a different story. When not only the Obama Administration but also European leaders (and the Germans in particular) are preparing their countries for a switch to a “green economy”—which means primordially investing in new technologies and innovation—we Brazilians still tend to consider vast fossil energy reserves to be a winning lottery ticket.

In a sense, it is. It will turn us into a rich country in a very short period of time. It will attract even more foreign capital, willing to exploit not only the spread between our interest rates and the prevailing rates abroad. It will make us important. The U.S. dollar will continue to be cheap for holders of Brazilian currency. And we will continue to regard the United States as a big, friendly shopping center.

William Waack is the anchorman of Jornal da Globo, on Brazil’s TV Globo.