The State Visit That Wasn't

Presidents Dilma Rousseff and Barack Obama at The White House in April 2012. Then The White House was harshly criticized for not making it a state visit. (Photo: The White House)

U.S.-Brazilian disagreements have blocked progress toward essential bilateral trade, tax, and investment treaties.


The “postponement” of President Rousseff’s state visit reveals a great deal about U.S.-Brazilian relations. Virtually from the start, it was clear the visit would not produce much. Important issues of mutual concern would be discussed, but no one expected real progress in resolving the two countries’ multiple disagreements or increasing their regional and international cooperation. For Brasilia, the state visit would be a high profile expression of their nation’s global stature.  For Washington, it was a way to accommodate the South American giant and keep an awkward and troubled relationship on an amiable course.

Brazilian and U.S. leaders often refer to each other as partners, even allies—and regularly call for a more robust, strategic relationship.  Yet neither government invests much in advancing the relationship. Recent U.S.-Brazilian agreements have been peripheral to the two nations’ priority concerns.  The relationship is outwardly friendly, but with limited cooperation, considerable discord, and occasional clashes. 


Even when the two nations identify shared objectives, they rarely pursue them.  The U.S. and Brazilian governments speak frequently about common economic interests. Yet they have not signed a single major economic pact in a generation—while Washington has reached trade accords with some 20 countries worldwide, 11 in Latin America.  As the world’s largest agricultural exporters, Brazil and the US would both profit immensely from diminished barriers to global farm trade--but they have never been able to collaborate on that goal.    

The opportunities for cooperation are countless.  The United States is the world’s richest and most technologically advanced economy. Brazil boasts the sixth or seventh largest market worldwide. Although China is today the country’s leading economic partner, Brazil‘s trade with the United States is flourishing. The United States is the largest buyer of Brazil’s manufactured goods and the primary source of foreign capital and new technologies. Its offshore oil could turn Brazil into a major U.S. energy supplier, overtaking Venezuela and Mexico. Brazil is the headquarters of most U.S. firms in South America.


U.S.-Brazilian disagreements, however, have blocked progress toward essential bilateral trade, tax, and investment treaties. They are also to blame for the failure of hemispheric trade negotiations, and have kept the two nations from cooperating in global talks. U.S. agriculture tariffs and subsidies limit Brazilian exports to the United States and globally. Meanwhile Brazil maintains high barriers to imports of services and manufactured projects and rejects stronger intellectual property safeguards.

A still bigger problem, however, may be the continuing mistrust in both capitals. Washington views Brazil as unwilling to give up much, while demanding too many concessions. For its part, Brazil is cautious about opening its economy. Despite Brazil’s successes, many policy officials and business leaders have doubts about the country’s ability to compete with world’s leading economies.

U.S.-Brazilian differences extend beyond economic and trade issues. The United States views Brazil largely as a regional power, and is mainly interested in its cooperation on hemispheric issues. In light of disagreements over nonproliferation, Iran, and the Arab uprisings, the United States does not consider Brazil a reliable global actor.  Washington lacks confidence in Brazil’s judgments on international affairs. At the regional level, the United States is frustrated by Brazil’s reluctance to engage critical issues outside its borders. Brazil, for instance, has done little to assist Colombia in its battle against guerrillas and drug traffickers, and has consistently ignored violations of democracy and human rights in Venezuela, Cuba and elsewhere.  Where Brazil has acted, it has often clashed with the Untied States—in Honduras and Paraguay, for instance.

For Brazil, regional collaboration mostly means working with other South American nations. U.S. political or security involvement in the region is usually unwelcome in Brazil, although collaboration occurs on occasion. Brazil welcomed U.S. help to curb cocaine smuggling from Bolivia. Since 2004, the two countries have been effective partners in Haiti.


Neither country can easily change its approach to foreign policy. Brazil has achieved its current stature and influence by acting on its own and saying no to Washington. The United States is wary of a powerful Brazil. Their reactions to the Snowden revelations are illustrative. The U.S. government considers Brazil’s response overwrought and exaggerated. Brazil, it feels, should better understand U.S. security needs, and recognize that the United States intends no harm to Brazil.  Brazilians perceive the United States as a bully that is not playing fairly. Washington’s massive surveillance is a demonstration of its willingness to employ vast economic and technological powers to gain improper advantage (and perhaps intimidate other nations). 

The two counties have long succeeded in accommodating their differences and keeping their disagreements and clashes within bounds. That ability, however, may not persist indefinitely. Two serious clashes—over Iran in 2010 and now over U.S. spying—have occurred in the past three years.

The Rousseff state visit would almost surely have helped replenish a diminishing reserve of U.S.-Brazilian goodwill. The opportunity, however, has been lost, and the reserve is more depleted than ever.  The best course for both countries now is to avoid recriminations and bring down the temperature. The United States and Brazil will need to use their remaining goodwill to amicably resolve the dispute over surveillance. Brazil’s concerns surely deserve far more careful consideration and response than they have gotten so far.  The White House and Planalto should also start working to find another date for Rouseff’s state visit.

Peter Hakim is president emeritus and senior fellow of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank on Western Hemisphere affairs. This article originally appeared in Brazilian newspaper O Estado de Sao Paolo on October 14, 2013. Republished with permission from the author. 


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