Revisiting: 5 Things President Obama Can do Now to Improve US-Brazil Relations

Presidents Barack Obama and Dilma Rousseff On December 5, 2010 I published a piece in Brazzil (1) highlighting five steps the Obama administration could take to improve bilateral relations with Brazil under the newly elected government of President Dilma Rousseff. I concluded,

“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.”

This fundamental proposition continues to hold. U.S. foreign policymakers from both the administration and the two parties, Democratic and Republican, need to reframe U.S. foreign policy to incorporate Brazil as a pivotal state in global affairs. The Obama administration should intensify relations with Brazil and take decisive measures to resolve key bilateral conflicts, such as those associated with immigration and commerce (including taxes).

Scaling these bilateral hurdles would allow both countries to devote greater bilateral attention to confronting larger, broader global challenges, including the economic downturn, global governance, nuclear proliferation and collective security, climate change, public health, energy security, and the need for social inclusion and protection around the world.

Despite continued bilateral turbulence (2), including the recent announcement of the U.S. Air Force (3) that it would not comply with the terms of its contract with the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer, the Obama administration has made significant progress to date on the five steps I proposed over a year ago.

President Obama has been too cautious and his administration appears too reluctant and clumsy to make further progress before the U.S. presidential elections next November. Yet to be fair; President Obama has demonstrated both an interest and ability to deepen bilateral relations with Brazil’s current government.

I repeat the five steps below in bold and comment on the evident progress made since between the Obama and Dilma governments.

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.

Upon President Dilma’s inauguration in January, 2011 both governments worked to announce and carry out a presidential summit between Presidents Obama and Dilma on March 19, 2011. President Obama and his family traveled to Brazil where the two governments coordinated meetings between the two presidents, government officials, and industry leaders, There were no blockbuster agreements signed, but the two governments did announce a series of accords and the establishment of a “strategy energy dialogue.”

The Obama and Dilma governments agreed (4) to:

– Partnership for the Development of Aviation Biofuels

– Protocol of Intentions for the Expansion of Technical Cooperation Activities in Third Countries

– Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Dimensions of Biodiversity

– MOU for the Establishment of the Brazil-U.S.A. Strategic Dialogue Program

– MOU for the Implementation of Technical Cooperation Activities in Third Countries in the Field of Decent Work

– MOU on Cooperation to Support the Organization of Major Global Sporting Events

Taken together, these modest, but constructive agreements demonstrate the willingness of each government to identify mutual interests and establish consultative mechanisms for government officials to work out the details of prospective collaboration.

2. 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.

Too often U.S. and Brazilian officials spend time navigating the sharper edges of such geopolitical issues as Iran or the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization negotiations. Too little time is spend on those bilateral issues that directly impact a growing wave of Brazilians and U.S. citizens who travel, work, and invest in both countries.

Despite the consular hurdles for citizens of both countries and the associated costs, tourism and business travel between the two countries is on the rise and will continue to grow in the future. Also, U.S. investment is growing in Brazil precisely at a time when more and more Brazilians, including upwardly mobile middle class families, are spending and investing in the U.S.

The growing density of these binational social relations, woven through families, businesses, partnerships, and civil society organizations, deserves a greater bilateral effort to save time and lower costs for those vested in the success of both countries.

In this sense, President Obama and his foreign policymakers need to refocus diplomatic initiatives on people, not just the transnational corporate interests that have shaped the bilateral agenda for far too long.

3. Publicly support the expiration and elimination of U.S. tariffs on Brazilian ethanol and orange juice exports.

Done. Brazil’s growing demand for fuel ethanol coupled with the disappointing national production of 2011 has partially resolved what both governments failed to do since former Presidents Bush and Lula signed the MOU to Advance Cooperation on Biofuels in 2007.

The U.S. Congress allowed the ethanol blender credit and countervailing tariff on Brazilian ethanol imports to expire at the end of 2011, and Brazil removed its tariff on ethanol imports in anticipation of its need to import this biofuel.

The Brazilian market conditions and consequent removal of the U.S. tariff have now created the conditions for a bilateral agreement to establish free trade in biofuels (including biodiesel). This window of opportunity (5) will not last long as Brazilian producers ramp of investments and sugarcane cultivation to meet the national demand.

Already, the State of São Paulo has slapped a tax on ethanol imports in the state, provoking an outcry from the U.S. based Renewable Fuels Association. (6) Therefore, it is imperative that the two governments, working with their respective legislative branches, agree to form a binational biofuels marketplace now while the market conditions favor trade liberalization.

Coincidently, the U.S. International Trade Commission (7) recently decided that the calculations used to establish anti-dumping duties against the major Brazilian exporters of orange juice concentrate, including Cutrale Citrus Juice and Citrosuco Paulista, were not valid and moved to revoke such punitive duties, allowing for greater trade liberalization of the world’s largest orange juice market, the U.S.

The lesson here, whether it be for ethanol, orange juice or even Brazil’s case against U.S. cotton producer subsidies (8), is that both governments need to focus on those trade disputes that should be resolved through negotiations in order to build trust and confidence between the two governments and their respective nations.

At the heart of such diplomacy, President Obama should work with Brazil to expand demand of those commodities in question in order that all producers retain a degree of opportunity in proportion to their competitive advantages in a larger marketplace. In this sense, President Obama should move toward negotiations over renewable energy trade and investment, rather than dialogue alone.

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.

The establishment of a “strategic energy dialogue” (9) during President Obama’s visit to Brazil in March of 2011 is encouraging. According to Deputy Secretary of Energy, Daniel Poneman,

“The Strategic Energy Dialogue builds on the long-history of energy cooperation between the U.S. and Brazil to advance our shared energy goals. Working together, we can help grow our economies, enhance regional and global energy security, and build a clean energy future for both of our nations.”

This bilateral dialogue is framed to advance cooperation in biofuels; renewable energy and energy efficiency; oil and natural gas; and nuclear energy and nuclear security.

Yes, during the past year there have been a multitude of meetings, exchanges, workshops, and conferences over a broad range of energy related issues. If the number of such meetings were any indication, bilateral energy cooperation would be at light speed. However, such a conclusion would miss a key fault of the Obama administration’s Brazil policy. Too many points of contact with too many government officials leads to diffused accountability and diplomatic fatigue without concrete outcomes that matter to the citizens of both nations.

Presidents Obama and Dilma should bear down on bilateral energy cooperation at their April 9th meeting, and focus on biofuels and low carbon paths to energy security for both nations and the region.

Moreover, President Obama should work with his Brazilian peer to expand power generation in South America, bringing the full leveraging potential of the U.S. government’s Export-Import Bank (10) to encourage financing of efforts to extend Brazil’s successful program, “Lights for All,” (11) to more and more people around the Americas as well as U.S. producers of generation and transmission capital goods and equipment.

5. 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 (September 2011 United Nations General Assembly).

President Obama missed a great opportunity, but he was not prepared to extend such pomp and circumstance while both governments worked on trying to make a first meeting between the two presidents as successful as possible.

Both administrations should be applauded for staging the first round of presidential diplomacy in March of 2011 and setting up consultations to deepen bilateral cooperation.  President Dilma’s planned trip to Washington on April 9th reflects both the progress and growing importance of bilateral relations.

Clearly neither of these two governments are rushing toward a premature declaration of a strategic partnership, but there is avid interest on both sides to seek out promising avenues of cooperation that promise concrete results. This approach is sensible, but without focused negotiations over those issues that matter most to people, then the domestic sources of support for partnership will likely recede.

Both President Obama’s advisors and congressional leaders from both parties seem overly reluctant to move from dialogue to negotiations over cooperative ventures. Therefore, President Obama himself needs to take the lead and advance a national foreign policy discussion with a focus on Congress.

To advance this national discussion, President Obama should convene binational civil society deliberations, possibly in the mode of the U.S.-Brazil Joint Action Plan to Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Discrimination and Promote Equality, (12) but with greater participation from a more representative spectrum of Brazilian and U.S. based civil society organizations. Such deliberations can help to build support in both countries for tackling the difficult issues that distance the two governments.

There are no assurances that the Brazilian government would ultimately find stronger relations with the U.S. of national benefit. Indeed, it was as ironic as it was uncomfortable for President Dilma’s government to hear that the U.S. “understands,” rather than supports Brazil’s interest in obtaining a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council from the voice of President Obama while he was in Brazil last year and working behind the scenes to organize the eventual and successful allied military operation in Libya. These are the pains of bilateral asymmetry that diminish Brazilian enthusiasm for partnering with the U.S.

On the other hand, it is more than embarrassing that the Obama administration allowed the U.S. Air Force to cancel its contract with the Brazilian aviation company Embraer and place bilateral military relations on the skids just weeks before the two presidents are scheduled to meet in Washington.

This event demonstrates that the U.S. government, including congressional leaders, has yet to understand that Brazil matters more than ever. To shorten the political distance between the two governments, President Obama must make Brazil a priority for U.S. foreign policy.














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 Brasília (UniCEUB). He can be reached at:


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