Does Dilma's visit even matter?
June 29, 2015
On June 30, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff travels to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Obama.
It’s been almost two years since Rousseff cancelled a state visit to the White House in the wake of the NSA revelations and their aftermath. The intervening years have been tense: Brazil led the international effort to reform surveillance practices, pitting Brasilia directly against Washington, and Rousseff awarded a major military contract to Swedish-owned Gripen over U.S.-owned Boeing.
But with the June 30 visit approaching, speculation is high as to what the countries might achieve—and how that might change the bilateral relationship.
On one hand, we have to look at the context. U.S. willingness to start fresh with Brazil is high. President Obama has demonstrated his resistance to being a lame-duck president, opting for productivity over inaction. But Rousseff faces a different reality. Brazil’s economy is slowing, the country has been wracked by an ongoing corruption scandal, popular confidence in government is low, and Brazilians are pushing for reform. In short, Rousseff is mired in political crisis at home.
On the other hand, we must ask what the two could achieve during this visit, and why it matters.
The region’s second largest economy, Brazil’s rapid growth in recent years led to its inclusion in the association of five major emerging markets: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, known as the BRICS. As the BRICS make efforts to move from a grouping “in-name-only” to an alternative to traditional multilateral fora like the United Nations and the World Bank, Brazil’s role in that group piques U.S. interest.
For Brazil, closer ties with the United States could help the country meet its commercial potential and gain greater U.S. support for an enhanced role in multilateral fora, both stated priorities of the Brazilian government. And conversely, Washington hopes to bring Brasilia in as a reliable friend and partner in its global endeavors.
So, from a pragmatic perspective, Washington and Brasilia are natural partners.
But more than ever, the two countries require a formal framework to underpin their relationship and advance these objectives—one that will stand the test of time and the turnover of administrations. So what could a more meaningful partnership look like?
There are three natural fronts for bilateral cooperation: trade; environmental issues; and international security and defense.
Trade remains a standout issue for the relationship. Revitalizing commercial ties must be central to bilateral ties. Both sides have talked extensively about trade facilitation as a first step to deeper ties—but it’s just that: an important first step. With the Pacific Alliance and Trans-Pacific Partnership defining regional trade, Brasilia is increasingly left out—but more active cooperation with Washington could reverse that trend.
The two countries share a commitment to environmental issues, too, providing another window for bilateral cooperation and regional leadership.
Last year, Washington and Beijing announced a major step in their efforts to minimize environmental degradation, establishing a Sino-American framework to work together on climate change. June’s presidential meetings could be high time for Obama and Rousseff to map out a similar bilateral structure to define their common environmental concerns, while advancing the bilateral agenda.
And though the two countries often take different perspectives on international issues, Brasilia and Washington share a commitment to making the international system and its multilateral institutions work. With that in mind, the two could expand their partnership in multilateral fora.
Brazil has long aspired to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but the U.S. government has yet to acknowledge Brazil as warranted in its aspirations. Still falling short of endorsing Security Council reform, such a decision could prove a positive step acknowledging Brazil’s interest in playing a greater role on the world stage. And it would doubtless send strong signals: that it is the United States—not Russia or China—that Brazil can count on, and that despite their differences, Washington and Brasilia are partners.
Washington’s most consequential international commitment is NATO. It’s not realistic for Brazil to be part of NATO’s formal partnership framework. But the United States could promote Brazil’s involvement as one of NATO’s “partners across the globe” (like Australia, Japan, and Korea), giving Brazil the opportunity to show its commitment to diplomatic cooperation with the United States on the world stage.
But keep in mind: neither step is likely if Washington remains unsure of Brazil’s willingness to commit to a meaningful partnership.
Each of these three is important—but none exists in a vacuum. Unless real steps are taken to develop a meaningful strategic partnership, the two countries will continue missing opportunities to form a lasting partnership that sets the tone for a prosperous hemisphere and an ever-changing world.
In reality, we’re unlikely to see much (if any) of this pan out this week, but the potential is there to set a positive and productive foundation for the bilateral relationship moving forward. So will Obama and Rousseff step up to the plate—or will this be another missed opportunity?
Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Hussein Kalout is a senior associate in the Americas Program at CSIS.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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