Five Things President Obama Can Do Now to Improve U.S.-Brazil Relations

US president Obama greets Rousseff in Washington The election of Dilma Rousseff as Brazil’s first woman to drape Brazil’s presidential sash offers President Obama a second chance to improve bilateral relations. Timing is everything. While it seemed that Presidents Lula and Obama hit it off wonderfully, their public gestures were not accompanied by any substantive results.

Indeed, Washington and Brasilia failed to coordinate a unified approach to the coup that interrupted democracy in Honduras in 2009. Nearly a year later, Washington’s strident reaction to the Brazil-Turkey-Iran agreement on uranium enrichment revealed just how far off course bilateral relations have sailed since Obama’s own inauguration in 2009.

The election of Rousseff reminds the Obama administration and the Washington foreign policymaking establishment that things have changed, and that U.S. foreign policy must make adjustments to Brazil’s rising stature in the world and influence over foreign affairs.

It is no longer prudent to treat Brazil as only a regional power in South America. It deserves greater attention and U.S. foreign policy success is now increasingly contingent on forging innovative, issue specific alliances with such pivotal and democratic nation-states as Brazil, India, Mexico, South Africa, and Turkey along with the rest of the G20.

President Obama should not expect the new Brazilian president to change Brazil’s course in foreign affairs. Indeed, Washington could learn a thing or two from Brazil’s unorthodox, but essentially constructive multilateralism. Rather than emphasize compellence and coercive diplomacy, Washington must shift gears to feature a set of foreign policies that advance U.S. based interests through a consent seeking multilateralism that focuses on forging consensus among democratic nations like Brazil.

For example, both countries have warned against the rising tide of currency devaluation, but have yet to hold high level, bilateral talks on how best to confront their common concern. If President Obama is serious about reversing the global “currency war,” curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and building bridges across cultures, regions, and developing nation-states, then Brazil must be treated as a pivotal global power and valuable partner.

President Obama should and can retool Washington’s outdated approach to Brazil, starting with a productive round of presidential diplomacy between Obama and Rousseff. It will not be easy, nor is there consensus within the Brazilian government about how best to relate to the U.S., but both countries cannot advance many of their prevailing national interests without more bilateral cooperation.

To get started, I recommend five steps President Obama can take now to improve bilateral relations, including:

1. Announce a date certain to travel to Brazil in the first quarter of 2011 to meet with the country’s new President, her cabinet and Brazil’s congressional leaders. President Obama should have traveled to Brazil in the first year of his administration to personally associate his own administration with Brazil’s rich democracy and President Lula’s success at growing the economy while redistributing income.

Just imagine Obama with Lula strolling through Pelourinho in Salvador da Bahia, holding a joint press conference at a quilombo to deepen the work of the U.S-Brazil Joint Action Plan to Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Discrimination and Promote Equality or JAPER, or touring a new biodiesel refinery in the Amazon!

The images would have been historic, and just maybe Obama and Lula could have figured out a way to make history together on an issue or two of global importance. Rousseff will not be as popular as Lula, at least not in her first years, but she is impressive in her own right and President Obama should not underestimate the potential of presidential diplomacy with the first woman president of Brazil.

2. Upon her inauguration, President Obama should engage President Rousseff in targeted negotiations to establish bilateral immigration, investment, and trade treaties that directly impact the lives of those Brazilians and U.S. citizens who are connected through family, business, and organizational relationships. Respecting Brazil’s diplomatic tradition of reciprocity, President Obama should seek modifications in immigration policies and rules that could expedite visa and official document processing for family members, tourists, entrepreneurs, and civil society organization representatives in order to amplify the dense social relations that weave these two countries together.

Also, President Obama should engage the new Brazilian government with a targeted trade and investment treaty that creates new opportunities for both U.S. and Brazilian businesses, especially small and medium sized firms, to develop markets and partnerships that create jobs, build skills, and expand civil society cooperation. Rather than try to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) as former U.S. President George W. Bush did, President Obama should focus on what works for U.S. citizens and Brazilians who are already connected or want to be through family, business, and civil society relationships and networks.

3. Publicly support the expiration and elimination of U.S. tariffs on Brazilian ethanol and orange juice exports. Brazil is the most efficient producer of ethanol and orange juice. President Obama should work with the incoming Rousseff administration to ease trade for these two commodities in ways that do not impact U.S. or Brazilian workers.

Growing global markets for both of these agricultural based commodities insures plenty of demand, but the U.S. tariffs only serve to elevate the prices paid by U.S. consumers. No doubt Congress will support U.S. agriculture, including corn (ethanol) and orange juice producers, but President Obama can insist that Brazilian imports and U.S. consumers not be punished by excessive tariffs. Respecting Brazil’s competitive advantages in the production of such basic commodities is key to moving ahead with a globalization that works for all, Americans and Brazilians alike.

4. Team with Brazil to launch an Americas Energy Security initiative that guarantees the increased production and consumption of renewable and low carbon energy while also guaranteeing affordable access to energy to needy families throughout the Western hemisphere. When the global economy is fully recovered, energy prices will trend upward to place greater pressures on countries that import energy and people who toil at the margins of the global economy.

Presidents Obama and Rousseff should work together, and in concert with Venezuela, to create a hemispheric wide initiative that guarantees a stable supply of affordable energy, including renewables, to the poorest nations of the Americas, including Haiti and the Central American nations.

During the presidential campaign then candidate Obama promised to launch such an initiative in tandem with a hemispheric wide approach to climate change. Given the energy expertise of incoming President Rousseff, there is no better time to work with Brazil to launch just such an initiative.

5. Incoming Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will likely address the United Nations General Assembly in September of 2011. Her address will be a rather historic moment, both for Brazil and the world. President Obama should also seize this moment and invite Rousseff and her cabinet for a summit and state dinner in the days preceding her speech.

Such an action would serve to reinforce President’s Obama’s interest in working closely with her government and would also serve to finally recognize Brazil as the world power it already is.

For Rousseff, a cabinet summit with the U.S. government and state dinner would further elevate the importance of her presence and address to the United Nations. Timing is everything, and Obama should not lose any more time with respect to U.S. relations with one of the most powerful democracies in the world today.

Mark S. Langevin, Ph.D. is Director of BrazilWorks (, Adjunct Associate Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland-University College, and Associate Researcher at the Centro Universitário de Brasilia (UniCEUB).


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