Why Does U.S.-Brazil Defense Cooperation Matter?

Recent violence in France—and Lebanon and Iraq—was for many a reminder of the importance of cooperation in combatting our common enemies and facing new collective challenges in terms of security. The rising power of Da'esh and other groups that would bring violence to bear on us and our allies, along with an array of new transnational threats, necessitates coordination among friends on military matters and beyond—even when those friends are generally beyond the fray. And given our long and deep partnership, Brazil is a potential partner for the United States in defense matters.

Generally, Brazil is known for its use of soft power. As the country emerges on the world stage, its role in the development of military and defense capabilities will grow in kind. Despite a more secure regional environment and without the presence of existential threats, the country has developed considerable capacities in strategic areas such as aeronautics (with a globally competitive industrial sector), space (one of few countries capable of launching satellites), nuclear (development of a nuclear-propelled submarine, respecting its constitutional commitment to the peaceful use of this technology), and polar research (with a traditional presence in Antarctica).

Brazil is also recognized for its participation in peacekeeping operations under the mandate of the United Nations, presently leading the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and participating in the Maritime Task Force of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). And with its continental coast, the country is positioned to play an important role in the security of the South Atlantic.

During Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s visit to Washington last summer, President Obama praised Brazil for its growing place as a regional and global player. Obama touted Brazil as an indispensable partner in U.S. efforts to promote peace and security around the world.

Now more than ever, it’s important for the global community to work together against terrorist threats and also to counter a spectrum of challenges and threats in areas spanning environmental disasters, piracy, and cybersecurity, among others.

So where does bilateral defense cooperation fit in all this? Where do Brazilian and U.S. interests converge? What could a closer defense partnership look like moving forward?

Q1: Where do the United States and Brazil currently stand in terms of defense cooperation?

A1: During the run-up to her visit to Washington last June, utmost priority was given by Brazil’s executive and legislative branches to ensure the ratification of two defense pacts with the United States: the Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) and the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), signed by both governments in 2010. This renewed institutional framework would consolidate and move forward an existing agenda of political and military dialogue between the two countries.

The DCA encourages collaboration in areas such as research and development, logistics support, technology security, and the acquisition of defense products and services. The GSOMIA facilitates the sharing of classified defense and military information, which is fundamental from an operational and commercial point of view. Presidents Rousseff and Obama also launched the Defense Cooperation Dialogue in 2012 at the ministerial level, with the purpose of expanding the scope of the military partnership between the countries.

At this year’s meeting, both governments expressed their endorsement of the launch of a bilateral Defense Industry Dialogue, which will allow the private sectors in the two countries to strengthen their collaboration and work to identify possible projects to be developed jointly.

Aside from providing an important legal and institutional framework for deeper defense cooperation at both governmental and industrial levels, these initiatives are key for reinforcing confidence and building trust between the two countries.

The ratification of the earlier agreements and the continued development of new areas for collaboration, such as science, technology, and innovation, are important steps toward the development of productive and mature defense cooperation. The effective implementation of the agreements will demand continued efforts from both sides.

Q2: Why would closer defense cooperation with the United States be good for Brazil?

A2: As Brazil’s role in global issues grows, the country will likely have to diversify its international profile regarding peacekeeping and security, in particular. Already a leader in environmental issues and an active participant in multilateral peacekeeping efforts, Brazil’s role in defense and military concerns will likely grow.

Greater cooperation with the United States could prove vital to attaining Brazil’s goals of modernizing its armed forces and consolidating its industrial defense base.

As the world’s greatest military force by far, the United States can prove supportive of much of the technology needed to fulfill Brazil’s military needs and collaborate with the country’s implementation of long-term strategic projects in defense. And from a geopolitical standpoint, having Washington as a closer ally on defense matters is fundamental for Brasilia’s interest in taking on a more prominent role in global affairs.

It is true that the discrepancy between the two nation’s military objectives may pose challenges to the establishment of deeper defense cooperation. While the United States wants to maintain its global military preeminence, Brazil’s focus is on building partnerships with countries willing to transfer advanced technology that enables it to build a strong and autonomous defense industry—as in the recent cases with France, Sweden, and South Africa.

In that sense, U.S. restrictions on the sales of strategic components in the past—especially of space and nuclear technology—has made Brazil understand the limitations on developing a more collaborative defense partnership with the United States and instead seek different partners for its strategic programs. For example, Brazil is currently pursuing a joint project with France to develop a nuclear-powered submarine.

But modifications in U.S. export-control rules for defense equipment last year might change this situation: after Brazil recently called off a deal with Ukraine to build a satellite launching center at Alcântara base, the doors might finally be open for a U.S.-Brazilian space partnership. To this end, the time might be ripe for both countries to revisit negotiations with a view to concluding a Technological Safeguard Agreement.

Q3: Why would closer defense cooperation with Brazil be good for the United States?

A3: From a U.S. perspective, aside from the evident commercial value that a closer defense partnership with Brazil entails, the benefits of greater collaboration hinge mainly on geopolitical and strategic considerations.

In spite of being a rather stable region, Latin America’s proximity to the United States makes it of particular interest and relevance to Washington. And with this in mind, closer military cooperation with Brazil could prove important for intelligence gathering. Both countries could build on the security cooperation that was developed in the lead-up the 2014 FIFA World Cup and is being implemented for the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games, to take place in Rio de Janeiro next August, for instance.

On the global stage, in the absence of a UN mandate, Brazil is unlikely to contribute forces to U.S.-led military excursions. The country’s commitment to a peaceful resolution of conflicts and abidance to a rules-based international system and the UN collective security framework will remain the bedrock of its international operations.

But as Brazilian diplomats are eager to point out, the country’s ability to act as a mediator in international conflicts shouldn’t be underestimated. Brazil has played a pivotal role in a number of scenarios, such as guarantor in the Peru-Ecuador agreement and the reconstruction of conflict-torn East Timor.

Brazil is participating in peacekeeping operations in Lebanon and Africa and has also led MINUSTAH since 2004. In the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated the country in 2010, Brazilian and U.S. military forces worked side by side to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to the Haitian people.

This was the largest joint military operation between the two countries since World War II, and its successful outcome showed the great potential of an enhanced U.S.-Brazil defense partnership.

So, even if Brazil’s conciliatory approach in foreign policy hasn’t always been in line with U.S. tactics in the international arena, the country’s soft power might very well be a complement to Washington’s efforts in the future, especially in those involving humanitarian issues.

Valuing the partnership with Brazil would send a signal that countries with an independent, international profile can earn U.S. support and can be significant in achieving certain shared objectives.

In so doing, it would also show that in working with the United States, the options are not limited to either automatic alignment or confrontation. This is especially important for Brazil, whose foreign policy is defined by its commitment to peaceful settlement of disputes.

Conclusions: The opportunities for bilateral cooperation on defense are many and, based on their traditional military relations and the present political momentum, the countries are moving in the right direction.

Still, the United States and Brazil have a way to go. Though both governments expressed their interest in developing a joint military project during Dilma’s visit last summer, nothing specific has been announced to date. Brasilia is determined to increase bilateral collaboration. The persistence of U.S. reluctance to share defense technology and information, especially in the space and nuclear areas, may remain an obstacle to cooperation.

Nevertheless, there now seems to be clear interest from both governments to increase bilateral relations. If they can get past outdated assumptions and act on the shared will to implement a meaningful defense cooperation framework, the two countries will have the opportunity to cement a meaningful partnership, to the benefit of the whole hemisphere, while serving their individual interests.

Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Barbara Figueiredo, intern scholar with the Americas Program, provided research assistance.

Critical Questions 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).

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Carl Meacham