The Non-State Visit: What's Next for U.S.-Brazil Relations?
By Carl MeachamOct 22, 2013
On October 23, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was scheduled to visit the White House in what would have been the first state visit of a Brazilian head of state in almost 20 years. But on September 27, Rousseff indefinitely postponed the trip in response to mounting domestic discontent over alleged NSA spying on the Brazilian government.
Since the allegations first came to light in July, Rousseff has taken center stage in demanding answers from the United States—even using her position as opening speaker of the UN General Assembly to blast U.S. surveillance as a violation of international law and human rights. And domestically, she has pushed legislation to secure her country’s servers to prevent such information gathering moving forward.
Immediately following her postponement of the state visit, the approval ratings of Rousseff’s government began to increase, after months of popular disapproval following months of domestic political turmoil.
But the spying allegations and Rousseff’s response to them have come at a difficult moment for U.S.-Brazil relations. Just as the two countries began to come together and forge a closer partnership, the developments over the past four months have driven a wedge between the two powers. Given the mutual value of a “strategic partnership,” what can the governments do to get their relationship back on track?
Q1: What do Snowden’s NSA accusations have to do with U.S.-Brazil relations?
A1: Since July, American journalist Glenn Greenwald has been publishing highly classified documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden—documents that indicate, among other things, large-scale NSA surveillance in Brazil. According to reports, NSA programs targeted the telecommunications of Brazilian citizens, intercepted Rousseff’s private communications, and hacked the computer network of Petrobras, Brazil’s state-run oil firm.
Just last week, Greenwald spoke to the Comissão Parlamentar de Inquérito (CPI), the group of senators Rousseff assembled to investigate the espionage accusations. During the session, Greenwald insinuated that Brazil’s best bet for learning the full extent of NSA surveillance operations would be to grant Snowden political asylum.
Currently the CPI is pursuing permission from the Russian government to set up teleconferencing sessions with Snowden, who is currently residing in Russia under a temporary asylum grant. And though Greenwald has flatly refused to hand over documents sent to him by Snowden, CPI members are pushing for the legal authority to seize the documents in Greenwald’s possession should they fail to establish a direct line of communication with Snowden himself.
In the meantime, the Rousseff administration has made the investigation a top priority, demonstrating that Brazil cannot move forward in its relations with the United States until the issue is cleared.
Q2: How have these surveillance developments affected the bilateral relationship?
A2: The most obvious result of the spying allegations was, of course, the postponement of the state visit. But the effects to do not end there.
Before the fallout over Snowden’s revelations, it seemed likely that Chicago-based Boeing would win a US$4 billion deal to supply Brazil with 36 fourth-generation FX-2 fighter jets, intended to replace the Brazilian Air Force’s aging fleet.
In September, however, Rousseff announced that she would defer the FX-2 decision until 2015, after the presidential elections.
To be sure, the mounting tensions between the United States and Brazil—tensions only worsened by the proliferation of NSA allegations—largely motivated that decision. And, as a result, the other contenders for the contract—primarily Dassault, Saab, and even Russia’s Sukhoi—may well benefit from the delay. Just last week, Russian military officials visited Brazil, sparking speculation that Sukhoi was pulling ahead in the FX-2 competition.
Closing the FX-2 deal could build the foundations for an institutional interdependence between the United States and Brazil—much as the Mérida Initiative, a joint U.S. Department of Defense and Mexican government cooperative security agreement, did for the United States and Mexico.
Boeing losing the deal, however, would be yet another setback for U.S.-Brazil relations. With no other institutional framework in place, it seems unlikely that, in this political climate, the two would explore other options (such as, for example, a free trade agreement or bilateral tax treaty) that might bring their bilateral relationship onto firmer ground.
Conclusion: In the short term, Rousseff’s decision to indefinitely postpone the state visit and excoriate U.S. espionage on the international and domestic stages may appear wise. Her snub of the United States appears to have reinvigorated her support base within Brazil—and may have earned her respect as a resilient regional leader—all of which she desperately needs after the months of civil discontent. Her reelection prospects were further threatened by the recent Marina Silva–Eduardo Campos alliance of the Sustainability Network and Socialist Party earlier this month, whose political staying power presents an unprecedentedly unified left to challenge Rousseff in the impending electoral cycle—likely dashing her earlier hopes of sweeping electoral victory.
The long term, however, is more complicated. Rousseff must proceed cautiously, aware that setting too strong an anti-U.S. precedent now will likely prove a stopping block to salvaging the bilateral relationship down the line. More NSA accusations could come to light as Brazil approaches its FX-2 decision, forcing Rousseff to forgo Boeing’s offer in favor of another company, pushing the United States still further away.
In short, Brazil must be wary—and try, to the extent possible, to position its firm stance on the NSA allegations in the broader context of regional and global relations. A failure to do so would only risk undermining its growing position on the world stage—a position that, more likely than not, would benefit from a strong relationship with the United States.
Even in the face of the NSA controversy and the postponed state visit, the U.S. government has demonstrated its commitment to maintaining its relationship with Brazil. But with the FX-2 decision pending and the future of the bilateral relationship in the balance, the ball is firmly in Brazil’s court. Will Rousseff let the opportunity fly by?
Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Michelle Sinclair, staff assistant with the Americas Program, provided research assistance.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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