Since the beginning of the 20th century, great political, economic and military asymmetries conditioned Brazil’s relations with the United States and its foreign policy strategies. Occasionally, Brazil adopted a more assertive posture aiming for better results in negotiations with the U.S. At other times, approximation initiatives and even “automatic alignment” predominated. “What is good for the United States is good for Brazil,” the famous phrase uttered at the beginning of the military dictatorship in Brazil by Juracy Magalhães, the Brazilian politician and ambassador in Washington, serves as a general representation of this approach.
Over the past 20 years, Brazilian foreign policy has shifted along the political spectrum and adopted divergent orientations. Between 2003 and 2016, it carried out a project of reaching autonomy in relation to the United States by intensifying its political, commercial and technical cooperation actions in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. It also worked on building new international coalitions with other countries in the Global South, such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the Group of 20 and the IBAS (India, Brazil and South Africa), as well as the creation of spaces for establishing regional agreements such as the Union of South American Nations and mobilization in favor of the reform of multilateral organizations.
However, by the time Michel Temer took over the presidency in 2016, Brazil abandoned an “active and haughty” foreign policy and distanced itself from its regional surroundings, once more becoming closer to the United States. During Jair Bolsonaro’s government, not only there was an intensification of subservience in relations indicated by the growing alignment on matters of security and defense, but also by the departure from traditional principles of Brazilian foreign policy, such as non-interference in internal affairs of other nations and the maintenance of dialogue with our neighbors, as observed in the Venezuelan case.
These different strategies for Brazil’s international insertion were on the radar of traditional social spaces for debate, formulation and dissemination of U.S. foreign policy, the think tanks. Think tanks are organizations whose objective is to influence the formulation of public policies and produce specific recommendations for public and private sectors in the U.S. Home to former presidents, congressional representatives, businesspersons, lobbyists, scholars and agents of main international organizations. Think tanks, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, the Wilson Center or the Heritage Foundation, present important elements for us to understand how American decision-makers think about Brazil’s role in the 21st century and what we can expect from the United States regarding our actions.
First, the cycle of greater Brazilian regional and international prominence observed in the first 15 years of the 21st century forced this segment of the American elite to elaborate conceptions about our external insertion more systematically. This is considered unusual, even though it concerns the bilateral relations between the two main economies on the continent. In the production presented in reports, books, events, newspaper articles and testimony in the U.S. Congressional Foreign Affairs Committees, there was fundamental concern about taking the preponderance of the United States for granted. There was an interest in, for example, framing Brazil in terms of its democracy or its commitment to norms and proposals regarding traditional organizations, seen as symmetrically egalitarian and beneficial to all its members. In this sense, even in those activities in which Brazil was identified as a “responsible” actor, especially in actions in Latin America, Africa and through IBAS, we can observe a “permission” under tutelage to Brazil to promote, for example, regional integration or establish technical cooperation ties with African countries.
However, there is a critical demarcation regarding Brazil’s international performance regarding agendas concerning international security issues, commonly called “first-level,” or involving actors considered as challenges or threats to the formulation of U.S. policy, such as Russia, China and Iran. To a large extent, these are the ideas related to Brazil’s performance regarding China and Russia in the context of the BRICS, for example. As well as the creation of mechanisms for dialogue and negotiation on nuclear issues with Iran as an alternative to the P5+1 format (2010 Tehran Declaration), or when abstaining or voting against U.S. interests in the United Nations Security Council in cases involving developments in Libya and Syria in 2011. In general, the discussion relative to Brazil’s performance used adjectives such as “reckless” and “narcissistic,” in critical references to positions that clashed with U.S. interests.
When observing what is said about the Bolsonaro government, we can observe that the adopted posture of alignment was not met. Positive perceptions of Bolsonaro and his external agenda are limited to the small portion of think tanks closest to Donald Trump’s administration, in particular the Heritage Foundation, and they limit themselves to highlighting Bolsonaro’s ability to put specific policies into practice. This segment of the American elite saw the Brazilian alignment with pragmatism and opportunism. Without any effort, it was possible to advance the neo-liberal economic agenda, count on Brazilian support to promote regime change in Venezuela and contain China’s influence in Latin America, clearly for the benefit of American interests.
However, even among conservatives, the material is as critical as it is consensual regarding, for example, the capacity of the Brazilian government to uphold democratic principles and values and human rights. That marks out significant differences between the statements in support of the Brazilian government emanating from the White House during the Trump administration and the appreciation of broader segments of the political milieu and public opinion in the United States. It is also worth noting that, unlike past decade records, the current production does not assign a leading role or international leadership to Brazil.
There is no surprise regarding that fact. It is not to be expected from the United States, even in the 21st century, to accept the performance of other countries outside the classic assumptions of subservience placed by the Monroe Doctrine, later reinforced in the global environment by the structure outlined at the end of World War II. It becomes clear that many U.S. goals and aspirations do not represent our interests and needs.
Rebuilding our foreign policy will be crucial to overcoming the accumulation of economic, social and environmental problems that Brazil will inherit from its current administration. However, there may be an opposite reaction. In that sense, in addition to preparing properly, it is important to rethink the bilateral relationship and our foreign policy based on demands and solutions that result from dialogue between social segments of Brazilian and U.S. societies, including not only diplomats, politicians and businesspersons, but also representatives of social movements, traditional peoples and communities, class entities and scholars. It will also be essential to counteract U.S. pressure by strengthening regional integration and maintaining a pragmatic relationship with other nations, such as China, Russia, India and the European countries. That will contribute so that economic and social development can occur in line with Brazil’s potential and aspirations on a more balanced basis amidst external constraints and asymmetries.
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