David Rothkopf

Is the U.S. ready for Brazil’s latest new beginning?

Tom Jobim, the songwriter who wrote "The Girl from Ipanema," once observed, "Brazil is not for beginners." It is an insight that was shared with me this weekend by a wise friend in Brasilia. He was not writing about the woman who decisively won Brazil’s presidential election on Sunday, Dilma Rousseff. Despite the assertions of ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Tom Jobim, the songwriter who wrote "The Girl from Ipanema," once observed, "Brazil is not for beginners." It is an insight that was shared with me this weekend by a wise friend in Brasilia.

He was not writing about the woman who decisively won Brazil’s presidential election on Sunday, Dilma Rousseff. Despite the assertions of her critics, the woman already known to Brazilians simply as Dilma is no beginner. Those critics and some of her soundly defeated opponents are fond of saying that because she had never run before for elected office she might not have the political skills to manage Brazil’s fractious Congress or even her ten party coalitions. But this overlooks the long and remarkable road that brought her from being a guerrilla combating Brazil’s military regimes of the 1960s to jail and torture, to getting her degree in economics to a path of local government leading to Lula’s cabinet to his invaluable chief of staff.

Furthermore, this kind of criticism overlooks her crafty and tenacious work behind the scenes when Lula’s administration was battered by scandal and she played such a central role in holding it together and getting it back on track that from then on many in the government considered her "Lula’s prime minister."

No, my friend was not writing about Dilma or anyone else in Brazil. He was writing about the policy community outside the country that is now going to face the challenge of shaping a relationship with the new administration. His point was that as a major, complex, rapidly changing power, Brazil has transcended and made obsolete old formulations about its nature and role. Brazil, he was suggesting, requires new thinking which in turn requires a kind of sophistication — a more nuanced understanding and creativity that was often lacking in policymakers from traditional powers, particularly the United States. His comments particularly resonated with me after a series of meetings and events in which I have participated during the past few weeks all of which focused on Brazil and Latin America.

During several such gatherings in Washington, in surroundings where you would expect to see the crème de la crème of Western Hemisphere specialists, the level of discussion was frequently frustrating. Many of the views heard were those of superannuated relics of what is certainly the weakest regional policy community in America. Most still see everything in the Americas in terms of left vs. right distinctions which are pretty much meaningless today, as former traditional leftists turned stewards of economic orthodoxies like Lula and Dilma illustrate. These veterans of America’s often rather ghastly Latin American policies are fighting Fidel and the contras in the steamy jungles of their minds. On the other hand, some of the younger analysts view Brazil as part of a kind of mystical BRICtopia where economies grow to the sky and upheaval and economic shocks are permanently things of the past. (Things are so fizzy there right now that this is as dangerous as underestimating Brazil’s growing geopolitical clout.)

And among all these analysts who I heard nattering on and on (policy palaver is a poison that destroys the brain just like that which killed Hamlet’s father — delivered to the brain via the "porches of the ears"), almost none had a well-rounded view of what it meant to have Brazil join the group of nine or so important powers that will play a central role in shaping global relations during the years ahead.

(This new G9 is the core of the too big and unwieldy G20. It is the United States, China, Japan, Germany, France, the U.K., India, Brazil, and Russia. The countries whose combined economic, political, military, demographic, regional and global strengths set them apart from all others. The EU doesn’t belong because it doesn’t really have a coherent foreign policy. The other members of the G20 are only invited to show up at the meetings because the world is too embarrassed to ask them to stay home.)

This past weekend I had the opportunity to spend some time with two of the most important leaders of the new Brazil when I attended the Latin Trade’s Bravo Business Awards in Miami. These awards, emerging as perhaps the leading forum for honoring Latin America’s top achievers from business and government, featured prizes for both Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim and the head of its development bank, BNDES, Luciano Coutinho.

Amorim has been a center of controversy often during his tenure as foreign minister — one which some speculate he may continue in a transitional role with the new Rousseff administration. (If he does not continue, his successor is highly likely to be someone closely associated with him, perhaps his deputy Antonio Patriota.) But despite the unease that some had with Brazil’s boldness during the Lula-Amorim era, there is no denying that the country’s international stature rose hugely during their tenure, especially impressive as theirs was a triumph of soft power, of political skill and economic growth… that came despite Brazil lagging all the others among the new Big 9 of international affairs in terms of military muscle. They added 37 embassies, scores of consulates, help create new institutional frameworks from the BRIC collaborations to BASIC to sectoral groups in areas like biofuels to informal alliances of emerging powers that tipped the balance on occasions such as global trade and climate talks. Lula sought to engage with the world’s poor much as he did with the poor in Brazil (20 million of whom were lifted out of poverty during his tenure in office) and so much of the relationship building was among the countries once known as the non-aligned. Some of it — with countries like Iran and Honduras — made the United States, among others, very uncomfortable. But all of it was a breakthrough for Brazil and, laying the groundwork for this inchoate era of new powers, for the world itself. These are the reasons Amorim richly deserved his Bravo Award as the region’s Innovative Leader of the Year.

Coutinho’s record has been equally striking and as a result he is considered the top contender to be Dilma’s finance minister or central bank governor. She could hardly do better than with this Cornell-trained economist who was once her professor. His development bank, BNDES, has played a vital role in Brazil’s growth. It will lend over $70 billion this year, more than the World Bank or any regional development bank. What’s more, it has operated so efficiently and prudently that it has a loan default rate of .2 percent, one 20th the average of major international lending organizations. So when Coutinho suggests, as he did in passing this weekend, that America consider following Brazil’s example (and South Korea’s and China’s) and establish a major development bank to help restore our infrastructure and growth, the idea sounds very compelling. Perhaps President Obama’s infrastructure bank idea could be the core of such an undertaking. When he imagines a future for a Brazil that might capture some of the wealth from its pre-Salt oil deposits and employ it in a major sovereign wealth fund to preserve the national patrimony, it suggests yet another way Brazil’s current soft-power might be amplified.

Joining Coutinho and Amorim at the event was Thomas Shannon, the United States’ ambassador to Brazil and almost certainly the foremost hemispheric diplomat the U.S. has produced in the past couple decades. Shannon is the exception that proves the rule in this policy area, one of the few leading practitioners (recent State Department departee Craig Kelly was another) who have really grappled with the new reality. Shannon recognizes that he is the U.S.’s first ambassador to Brazil for a new era — one in which Brazil is no longer principally seen by the United States as a regional power but is instead acknowledged as a major global actor, one in which the U.S.’s relationship with Brazil is no longer the natural axis around which the hemisphere turns and that new axes, such as that between Brazil and China, its number one trade and investment partner, may become even more important. Work on a big Brazil-EU trade deal might — combined with the United States’ limited bandwidth due to domestic and other foreign concerns — have a similar effect of reducing  U.S. influence on the other big player in the Americas. It was clear from his remarks to the Latin Trade event that Shannon envisions ways of countering such trends and of learning to understand how to deal more constructively with Brazil’s very independent foreign policies, especially the elements that will inevitably run contrary to U.S. policies.

It is also clear that his ideas dovetail with his boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s views regarding next generation U.S. diplomacy, an era of new partnerships such as that with Brazil. Interestingly however, their views are currently ahead of many of the usual suspects in the U.S. policy community (including many of their colleagues in the government) who continue to see Brazil in the context of old roles, old patterns, as secondary. As illustrated by the response to Brazil’s effort — unsuccessful, flawed, and almost immediately undercut by the United States — to broker a nuclear deal with Iran (in collaboration with Turkey, another important rising power, among the most important of the next tier of significant powers), many in the United States have yet to come to view Brazil as we do, say, countries like China, India or France… where we expect to have differences, some major, and to nonetheless continuing to work on progress where we can find it. Slamming the brakes on the Brazil relationship as we did after the Iran deal is unconstructive and that’s just what happened, with some senior officials in the U.S. government refusing to take Brazilian calls in the weeks afterward… even though, as it turns out, Brazil had been encouraged to seek out the deal by the White House itself.

In short, just as Brazil is at a transitional moment, so too should be our policies. A place to start was suggested to me by a smart observer during the Latin Trade event. Perhaps it is time, he suggested, that Brazil deserves to be broken out of the Latin policy ghetto and, just as the United States has a China policy or Russia policy or India policy, perhaps it is time we really developed an independent, sufficiently complex and flexible, forward-looking, globally oriented, not-for-or-by-beginners Brazil policy.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf
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