What Does President Rousseff’s Postponement Mean for the United States?
September 17, 2013
On September 17, President Dilma Rousseff announced the indefinite postponement of her state visit to the United States, originally scheduled for October 23. Her decision came after meeting with Brazilian foreign minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, who spent the last week meeting with U.S. government officials seeking an explanation for alleged NSA espionage targeting Brazil. Although the cancellation of the visit is largely symbolic, it may set back the deeper relationship that Presidents Obama and Rousseff have been working to build.
Over the past week, President Rousseff has faced mounting pressure to cancel the state visit—pressure that has been growing since Edward Snowden first leaked documents alleging that the NSA targeted Brazil in its intelligence-gathering operations. Last week’s report in Globo, a leading Brazilian daily, accusing the agency of spying on Petrobras, Brazil’s state-run oil firm, pushed tensions to a critical mass—particularly as it came just a week after leaked documents suggested that the NSA was monitoring Dilma’s personal communications as well.
After discussing the state visit with President Obama on Monday, Dilma made her formal announcement of the visit’s postponement. So how will Dilma’s decision to indefinitely push off the visit affect U.S.-Brazil relations going forward?
Q1: What has happened?
A1: In July, Globo published documents leaked by Snowden indicating wide-scale NSA surveillance of Brazil telephone and email data. Then, two weeks ago, Globo published a second report, alleging that the U.S. agency had targeted its intelligence-gathering operations directly at President Rousseff.
The latest NSA revelation alleged spying on Petrobras through a program aimed at extracting data from private networks. In response, President Rousseff released a statement, "If the facts in the report are confirmed, then it's evident that the motive for the [...] espionage is not security or to fight terrorism, but economic and strategic interests."
Brazil has pledged to push anti-spying measures in the United Nations and the International Telecommunications Union. Meanwhile, Rousseff is working to pass legislation that will secure the country’s servers by forcing internet companies to store all data collected locally in Brazil. Both foreign and domestic internet companies would, under this law, have to maintain data centers inside Brazil that would be subject to Brazilian privacy laws.
When in Moscow for the latest G-20 summit last week, Rouseff told reporters that her trip to the United States depended on “the political conditions to be created by President Obama”—conditions that, given her postponement of the trip, Obama does not appear to have met.
Q2: What does this mean for U.S.-Brazil relations?
A2: Rousseff’s cancellation of her state visit to the United States could have diplomatic, economic and geostrategic consequences. The high-stakes nature of state visits can hardly be overstated—and, until today, it appears no world leader has cancelled a planned state visit to the United States.
The allegations of NSA espionage have already affected and may well continue to influence Brazil’s relationships with the U.S. private sector—and may also damage opportunities for creating an institutional relationship between the two governments. In the context of the push for secure servers in Brazil, U.S. technology firms operating in Brazil will face a host of new challenges. And Chicago-based Boeing’s chances of winning a US$4 billion contract to supply Brazil with 36 fighter jets may have taken a hit as well.
The cancellation of the state visit itself implies a major set-back in diplomatic relations. Over the past two years, the Obama and Rousseff administrations have worked to foster a closer relationship and strengthen bilateral economic ties. The postponement of the state visit has halted the trend in U.S.-Brazilian engagement and undermined the growing trust between the two governments—at least in the short-term. What the development means beyond that remains to be seen.
Conclusion: The postponement of the state visit cannot be viewed as a purely bilateral issue with an emerging power important to—but not typically a top priority for—the U.S. government. Rousseff’s announcement, rather, is the next in a series of recent developments that together suggest a changing place for the United States in global affairs.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to harbor NSA-leaker Edward Snowden, Moscow’s apparent leadership on resolving the chemical weapons crisis in Syria, and Rousseff’s decision to rebuke U.S. leadership through her indefinite postponement of the long-awaited state visit together signal a sea change in U.S. influence all around the world.
Ultimately, the postponement bodes ill not just for the tenor of U.S.-Brazil relations in the short term, but also for the U.S. role in the international community—a role that is, at best, seriously stressed by this summer’s developments. Rousseff’s decision echoes the message Putin’s actions had already suggested: for the first time since the end of the Cold War, our influence in the world is being seriously questioned.
The ball, it seems, is in President Obama’s court. So how will he react?
Carl Meacham is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jillian Rafferty and Michelle Sinclair, intern scholars with the CSIS Americas Program, provided research assistance.
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