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International Relations

An alliance without progress

Research shows the difficulties of US-Brazil relations

Adao Nascimento/AE Kissinger visiting Brazil: doing everything to attract diplomatsAdao Nascimento/AE

A recent speech by President Lula caused a lot of controversy. Lula said: “I called and said, ‘Bush, here’s the problem: we spent 26 years without experiencing any growth. Now that we’re growing, you guys come and get in the way! Fix your crisis!'” Despite the casual tone, these words reveal some of the many complexities of relations between Brazil and the USA. Are we really that close to the “big brother,” as people used to say during the Cold War days? Is the USA really trying to get in Brazil’s way, or does the USA view us with indifference? “The two countries are an odd couple when it comes to their bilateral relations. In Brasilia, there is still huge resistance to considering any program of cooperation with Washington. In the opinion of most Brazilians, the Bush Administration has an imperialist project that will ultimately limit the autonomy of those countries that express alternative values and interests,” says Matias Spektor, professor of international relations at the CPDOC Higher School of Social Sciences and coordinator of the MBA program in international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation.

“Brasilia and Washington don’t share a common view on the strategic value of the bilateral axis. As a result, the respective leaders do not have a roadmap to guide the relationship. Brazil still clings to the view that the USA is always an obstacle and never an opportunity. And so we have reached the twenty-first century without a satisfactory formula for doing business with the world’s mightiest power,” he states. Why is it that the two biggest countries in the Western Hemisphere are unable to establish high-level cooperation in the long term? the researcher wonders. Spektor is certain about one thing: he disagrees with the “thesis of emerging rivalry” (the view that Brazil, by becoming an industrialized nation, has turned into a threat to the North), which guides several of the responses to the dilemma of the diplomatic “couple.” The researcher found another path when he was working on his doctoral thesis, Equivocal engagement: Kissinger, Silveira and the politics of US-Brazil relations (1969-1983), presented at England’s Oxford University last year. “The relations between the two nations were guided by bargains rather than by a serious relationship and the project was motivated by political ambitions and subject to objectives that varied throughout the bilateral interaction,” he states. “The crucial point was the asymmetry between the two countries: if the USA was a core element in the grand strategy of Brazil, we only appeared in passing in the great narrative of American international relations in that period.”

AFP FILES Nixon and Kissinger: administration interested in BrazilAFP FILES

The narrative that Spektor is referring to begins with the appointment of Henry Kissinger as national security advisor to the Nixon Administration in 1969 and ends in 1983, when Brazilian diplomat Azeredo da Silveira, then the Brazilian ambassador to Washington, left his diplomatic post. The narrative also covers the five years during which Silveira was the Foreign Relations Minister in the Geisel administration The focus on these two people is no coincidence, because, in the author’s opinion, the “weak” point of the two countries’ attempts to create a closer relationship was that this attempt was almost totally dependent on the personal efforts of the two men. When they left center stage, during the Carter/Reagan and Figueiredo administration, bilateral relations stagnated. “It is true that things are better now than they were in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when the two countries moved from hostility to mutual apathy. The fine-tuning process that began in the 1990’s is still on course today, but it seems isn’t advancing any further.”

In 1971, Nixon stated that “Brazil is the key to the future.” One of the first American presidents to “believe” this, he was in fact following the new concept of the White House’s global vision preached by Kissinger, who advocated the idea that the United States should have special relations with  key regional  powers. “He was worried about the potential development of a rupture in the post-colonial world and was trying to find a formula to deal with this issue, a formula which should not be based only on coercion. Hence the concept of ‘devolution,’ viewed as  benign hegemony: devolving power and responsibility to a group of influential regional countries, a transfer from a United States strongly engaged on the periphery to a world in which stability could not be maintained by direct American intervention.” Countries such as Brazil, Iran, Turkey, South Africa, and Indonesia, among others, were acknowledged as potential partners, capable of carrying this new hegemonic model forward in the name of America. Hence, as Spektor points out, the unusual interest of the Nixon administration in Brazil, to the point of the USA having developed a new policy for this Latin American country. Still, this was problematic as well, as most American diplomats disagreed that Brazil was important. The choice, says the researcher, was also linked to America’s growing concern about its declining influence in Latin America and the possible consequences of this at the time of the Cold War. According to this new view of the White House, this decline was not explained merely by rivalry with the Soviet Union, but above all by the rise of nationalism and economic activism in countries such as Brazil, and by the influence that Europe and Japan began to have on the region, to the detriment of American interests.

Kissinger believed that gaining the support of these countries was a way of legitimizing United States hegemony and this meant making concessions, using the language of “equality” and “respect”; in short, opening up a direct channel between Washington and these peripheral nations to, in exchange, consolidate US position in the world. “Hence the attention paid to Brazil,” says Spektor. It was immaterial that these countries, including Brazil, lacked democratic governments. “To Nixon and Kissinger, these regimes were better allies, because they believed that democracies were subject to public opinion changes. However, it was not only the anti-Communism of these key countries that caused US diplomacy to become interested in them, but mainly their ability to offer the United States a degree of stability and predictability in the daily conduct of bilateral relations.” Nevertheless, in this case, the tone was different. “When the two countries started coming closer together, the predominant idea among Brazilians was that it would be possible for Brazil to gain more global power and influence through this relationship while also re-affirming its autonomy: we expected to gain a lot in exchange for very little.”

ARQUIVO AGENCIA ESTADO Azeredo da Silveira: partner of the USA, but advocate of the nation ARQUIVO AGENCIA ESTADO

According to the researcher, the fact that this commitment to the USA allowed the generals to maintain control at home without alienating nationalistic public opinion supported Brazil’s diplomatic calculations. “In this sense, this connection, for the Brazilians, was a tool to build a conservative nationalistic policy with the support of this supposedly ‘special’ relationship between Brazil and the USA.” This view was reinforced by the fact that the United States was having difficulty converting power into influence in Latin America, which led administrations to pay attention to Brazil because of its geography, resources, industrial development, anti-Communist attitude, etc. As for the Brazilian government, the economic growth gave rise to new international ambitions, leading to renewed interest in the American attempt at closeness. “In Brasília, the United States started to be seen as instrumental rather than detrimental to national development and to the objective of a larger global role.” The start was not very promising, however. The Medici Government accepted US openness with the intention of legitimizing the strengthening of internal controls. When General Medici visited the White House, he was more interested in having his picture taken with Nixon than in discussing global policy.”

Although the level of communication between the countries had improved, the arrival of Geisel and Silveira, in 1974, highlighted the consolidation of an activist Brazilian international policy, which added new complexities to the bilateral project. “Geisel saw improvements in relations between the two countries as a chance to open a path for Brazilian activism around the world,” says Spektor. Nonetheless, it was a historical moment: “Never before had this pair attempted to coordinate their respective foreign policies so closely and never before had the respective diplomats been so focused on aligning their steps.” However, everything was centralized by Kissinger and Silveira; in other words, the close relationship happened in spite of the two countries’ diplomatic bureaucracy, and not because of it. “And personal relationships are seldom enough to transform the relations between nations.” To make matters worse, Azeredo, aligned with Geisel (who had turned down various invitations to visit the United States), “was obsessed with national sovereignty and autonomy.” He believed, points out Spektor, that defending national interests included Brazil’s entry into the select club of the world’s influential Nations. “Brazil, in his opinion, deserved special status for what it was and not for what it could become for the USA. In the Brazilians’ opinion, the commitment was also related to control of domestic policy: a relationship with the United States was acceptable for nationalism, the engine behind the slow and negotiated transition that Geisel sought.”

The outcome was years of protocol, meetings, agendas, correspondence, difficult negotiations, without a consensus ever being reached on how to establish this bilateral relationship. Kissinger’s efforts to make the relationship work cannot be denied; he accepted many of the Brazilians’ demands and dealt with diplomatic faux-pas, which included, on the part of Brazil, the expansion of a bilateral agenda that was way beyond the established limits, to encompass  such complicated issues for the USA as revolutionary Cuba and Portugal and independent Angola; nuclear proliferation (the purchase of German nuclear technology, in spite of pressure from the US to stop the agreement between the two countries); the situation in the Middle East; human rights; and other factors. “Brazil resisted any discussion on South American issues, rejected any commitment concerning the struggle against Communism and emphasized a prestigious status in international relations.” The author says that Kissinger, for the most part, accepted these new guidelines. Brazil began to venture into areas that no other Latin American country had dared to approach, other than Cuba. “As a CIA report predicted: ‘There is a feeling that Brazil <has arrived>, which will make it differ more and more from the USA on more and more issues’.” This did not help Kissinger’s already precarious situation much; he was already being castigated by American bureaucracy, which did not agree with his efforts to grant Brazil privileged status.

AFP PHOTO/SAUL LOEB Kissinger: personal interest did not guarantee bilateral agreementAFP PHOTO/SAUL LOEB

The increased rejection by US public opinion and the US Congress of alliances with dictatorial regimes, the researcher says, extinguished the hope that any partnering between the two nations might actually materialize. The new president, Jimmy Carter (who took office in 1977), spoke harsh words during his presidential campaign against any commitment to Brazil, and even more so in relation to granting Brazil any kind of diplomatic privilege. Issues such as nuclear power and human rights created tension in the incipient bilateral connection, and took the relationship between Brazil and the USA to its lowest level. “The Brazilians felt left out by the form and substance of Carter’s foreign policy, transforming the institutions of commitment into a shield to resist American pressure. It was not until the last two years of the Carter administration that an attempt was made to re-establish the Brasília-Washington contact.” Reagan’s arrival as the President put a lid on this attempt, as the new president’s priorities shifted from South America to Central America, where Brazil had little to say or do.

“Decades have gone by since this ill-fated project, but many of the problems that still afflict the Brazil -USA connection are analogous,” says Spektor. Despite the Bush administration’s praise of Brazil, “the gap between the official manifestations and the reality of bilateral relations is still very wide and full of difficulties.” In Spektor’s opinion, one can currently glimpse a timid revival of “devolutionism” in the United States. But Brazil still clings to the activist spirit from the times of the Geisel-Silveira pair, a spirit praised by the current government. “It’s a shame, because the notion of autonomy, with its emphasis on domestic development more than on the production of the international order, is still the same as it was 30 years ago. In spite of Brazil’s ambition to be granted special status, the argument that the nation has something unique to contribute to international society has never been clearly unraveled.”