REVIEW: Article

Brazil and the United States: Renewed Momentum in a Natural Partnership

It is impossible to comprehend Brazil without understanding the dimensions of this continent-sized country, which occupies a land mass larger than that of the lower 48 of the United States. Brazil’s land border, which it shares with ten South American neighbors, is five times larger than the border between the United States and Mexico. Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world in terms of population. (For context, Indonesia is fourth.) It has abundant natural resources of every kind, including the world’s largest reserves of fresh water. It is home to two-thirds of the iconic Amazon, the globe’s largest tropical rainforest. It is the second largest economy in the Western Hemisphere and, depending on one’s calculus, the seventh or eighth largest economy in the world. The State of Sao Paulo alone has an economy larger than that of Argentina. Brazil has more cities with a population of over one million people than the United States. It is the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural goods after the United States. It derives 75 percent of its energy needs from hydro-electric sources—some of the cleanest energy platforms among large nations—and its current production of oil and gas make it among the top ten energy producers in the world. Brazil could become an even larger global producer with the development of its pre-salt oil reserves. With Embraer, Brazil has the world’s third largest aviation company after Boeing and Airbus, and in Gerdau, the top producer of long steel in the Americas. And this is just an illustrative sampling. One needs to keep in mind these basic facts about Brazil to help put surface events, including today’s headlines, in perspective.

It is also impossible to discuss the relationship between Brazil and the United States without being struck by our many and often deep similarities. There may be no two large countries in the world with so much in common, including a kind of vastness that defies easy categorization. Like the United States, Brazil is often inward-looking, the center of its own world, while at the same time open and hospitable to outsiders. Beneath and beyond the stereotypes, Brazil has a distinctive national identity and character—a racially mixed population with a historically Portuguese core. Yet anyone can conceivably become a Brazilian. As in the United States, naturalized Brazilians are seen not as outsiders but as Brazilian—hyphenated perhaps but Brazilian all the same. For example, there are more ethnic Japanese in Brazil than anywhere outside of Japan, and more ethnic Lebanese than anywhere outside the Middle East. (Brazil has accepted more Syrian refugees over the past several years than any other country in the hemisphere, and is preparing to take in more.) Brazil’s mix of races and ethnicities, to include African, Indigenous, Asian, and European among others, has a familiar feel to most Americans. We also have a largely parallel history, including of “discovery” by Europeans and of subsequent waves of immigration into a relatively uncharted “empty” continent. And we share a terrible history of slavery, whose legacy has influenced the social and cultural landscape, and continues to present serious challenges in the societies of both our countries to this day. Also significantly, we are the two largest democracies in the Western Hemisphere, with free and open media; a strong streak of self-criticism; and a deeply held conviction that we ought to be able to do better—by our own people and in the world. For these and other reasons, most Brazilians harbor a special appreciation for, and generally favorable views of, the United States as reflected in most opinion polls.

The profound similarities between Brazil and the United States, including our shared democratic values, inform the diplomatic notion that we are “natural partners.” They are the shared blood, sinew, and bones of the bilateral partnership. But nor should we paper over with high-minded platitudes our very real differences. We have our share: regarding the relative role of the state and market in the economy; the legitimacy of the use of force or other coercive measures in addressing challenges to international peace and security; and, the effectiveness of multilateral fora, particularly the United Nations, as the be-all and end-all of diplomatic efforts, among others. In dealing with our Brazilian counterparts, US diplomats also have to reckon with a sometimes puzzling (for us) insistence on Brazil’s natural sovereignty, as well as its desire to forge its own path, free from perceived excessive reliance on one or another of its partners, including the United States. It is challenging to Americans because it sometimes seems that Brazil’s symbolic defense of sovereignty, its so-called strategic balancing, trumps what we might view as the straightforwardly pragmatic pursuit of its own national interests.

Most of our differences, however, are relatively minor in the grander scheme. They are disagreements about tactics rather than ends, about the way we get there rather than where we hope to go. Larger strategic goals, we generally share: a more representative democracy, greater prosperity for more of our people, environmental sustainability, expanded social inclusion inside and outside our own countries, and a more peaceful and just world order whose institutions better reflect 21st century realities. While moments of strain between Brazil and the United States over the past years have helped fuel a perception that our bilateral relationship is somehow underperforming, that is now changing. President Rousseff’s June 30-July 2 official visit to the United States, and her meetings with President Obama in Washington, succeeded beyond all our expectations to put the relationship back on a constructive, forward-looking track. We are now poised to bring the reality of improved Brazil-US cooperation into closer alignment with its deep-seated, wide-ranging potential. If one thing is clear, it is that Brazil and the United States can do much more working together—regionally, globally, and multilaterally, across the gamut of issues—than either one of us can do on our own. 

In Washington, our two presidents identified a series of ambitious and concrete objectives to focus our strategic agenda moving forward. Critically, they agreed that Brazil and the United States would continue to lead in the fight against global climate change, including by pledging to increase the share of electricity we generate from renewable energy (other than hydro) to 20 percent by the year 2030. With inputs from our respective private sectors via the bilateral CEO Forum, President Obama and President Rousseff announced steps aimed at expanding trade and investment, creating jobs for Americans and Brazilians, and increasing the competitiveness and diversity of both our economies. They agreed to focus on a broad range of promising sectors, from energy, education, and innovation to aviation, infrastructure, and health care. More accurately, they agreed to deepen and expand our existing work in these and related areas. The United States is already the largest export market for high-value-added Brazilian manufactured goods; with investments exceeding $113 billion, the United States stands out as one of the largest sources of Foreign Direct Investment in Brazil. Just to cite two recent examples, Boeing and Embraer opened a joint biofuels research center in Sao Jose dos Campos, Sao Paulo, in January; and, in 2014, GE opened a $500 million global research and development lab in Rio that will conduct energy-related research. Our bilateral defense relationship is also now poised to move to a new, more intensive level following the passage by Brazil’s Congress of the Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) and the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA)—particularly in research and development, technology security, and the acquisition and development of defense products and services. The presidents also tasked our Joint Working Group on Consular Affairs to seek viable ways to facilitate the travel of our citizens—tourists, students, businesspeople—in both directions, to improve the flow of both commerce and people, and to ensure mutual understanding expands through a growing network of ties among our peoples. Again, this is just a sampling of a much longer list of shared objectives.

Of course, a central component of the discussion between our presidents was the way in which Brazil and the United States can and should better cooperate as global strategic partners in the region, in the wider world and in multilateral fora. We are pleased to see that Brazil recently dispatched an Ambassador to the Organization of American States, and look forward to working closely with him to expand prosperity, deepen integration, and advance human rights and security in the hemisphere. Since our presidents met, we held the fourth annual Disarmament and Nonproliferation Dialogue, underscoring our shared interests in reducing existing nuclear stockpiles and preventing new and potentially dangerous actors, including Iran, from developing a nuclear weapons capability. We also inaugurated the US-Brazil Global Human Rights Working Group, with the aim of improving our coordination in multilateral human rights entities on such issues as Syria, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, North Korea, Venezuela, and Burundi. These and other engagements have highlighted the breadth and scope of our shared interests, reinforcing the clear fact that what unites us far exceeds and transcends the issues on which we happen to disagree. We look forward to deepening and expanding these broad strategic discussions in the context of our Global Partnership Dialogue and other engagements, and to forging consensus positions with Brazil on challenges and opportunities of shared interest when­ever and wherever possible.

Let me close with a brief note about Brazil today. Brazilians know better than anyone the nature of the challenges they currently face: to address economic imbalances and put the country back on a growth trajectory, to make their political system ever more responsive to the needs of its citizens, and to confront corruption head on. Some are dismayed by what they see, and worry about the direction the current problems will take them. Others see a silver lining in the effective functioning of independent institutions, believe their country is going through an unprecedented, necessary transition, and are confident it will emerge strengthened from the process. Whatever the challenges of the current moment, I would like to emphasize that the United States holds the long view of Brazil. We believe its long-term trajectory is, inexorably, positive, and that its role as an important global actor will continue to grow in the years to come. In this context, the United States is and will remain a close friend and partner of Brazil, seeking to leverage our shared interests to the benefit of Americans, Brazilians, and our friends and partners in the hemisphere and beyond.


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United States Ambassador to Brazil