Be it under Biden or Trump, the US keeps pushing its own interests in Brazil, to the detriment of its most loyal allies.
Written by Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts.
A potential new global player in 2010, Brazil lost much of its soft power and is increasingly isolated internationally. Since Jair Bolsonaro’s inauguration, Brasilia-Washington relations have been characterised by Brazilian unilateral concessions and goodwill gestures towards the US – usually without getting anything in return. A simple example was Bolsonaro’s 2019 move to exempt US citizens from needing to apply for a Brazilian visa while Brazilians are still required to do so to travel to the United States.
Another example is the 2019 Brazil-US technological safeguards agreement on the Alcântara Space Center – a strategically placed Brazilian Space Agency’ launching facility. Among other things, it gave access to some areas of the base to American personnel only. Moreover, it limited Brazil to launching rockets that are made with US-developed technology. The money thus earned by the Brazilian government cannot be invested into Brazilian rockets. Finally, the deal imposes a number of limitations on resources as well as personnel from non-MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) countries, thus excluding China.
Examples abound and such a pattern has been described by experts as the adoption, by Brasilia, of positions of automatic alignment with Washington.
Brazilian interests have not been well served thusly: in September 2020, Brazil renovated a tariff-free quota to American ethanol. In return, Brasilia expected the US to favor Brazilian sugar exports – to no avail. The same month Brazil supported the election of an American candidate for the Inter-American Development Bank, Mauricio Claver-Carone. Brazil had its own candidate for this position, Rodrigo Xavier, suggested by Paulo Guedes, Bolsonaro’s own Minister of Economy, but it turns out Bolsonaro ended up favoring Trump’s pick.
Much is talked about how current US President Joe Biden has not talked with Bolsonaro to this day – not even over the telephone. This would be an indication of Biden being “tough” on Bolsonaro (infamous for his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic and Amazon deforestation, among other things). However, The Brazilian president did not get much from Trump either.
Regardless of the rhetoric and of the absence of direct phone calls, since January, Biden has discreetly engaged in intense diplomacy with Bolsonaro on the topic of deforestation and also on barring Chinese company Huawei from taking part in building Brazil’s 5G network. In this, Biden has followed the steps of his predecessor’s trade war with China. Getting a lot of pressure from Congress, Bolsonaro seems to have backed up banning Huawei from the upcoming auctions on the condition however, that the Brazilian government uses a separated network due to security concerns. This is a prompt response to a warning from US national security adviser Jake Sullivan who in August told Bolsonaro not to use Huawei equipment.
Pragmatism not being a strong feature of Bolsonaro’s government, the fact that in April he adopted a rather conciliatory tone with Biden and offered an olive branch, so to speak, at the virtual climate summit hosted by Washington, goes to show his unconditional pro-American alignment. It did not work well with Trump and should not be any different with Biden. The US after all has a long history of betraying its devoted allies. Ukraine, for example, is yet another example of an American ally about to face “abandonment”.
What drives the Brazilian president though? It has something to do with certain ideas about the “West”.
One should keep in mind that, even though Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington (1927–2008) does not include Brazil within the Western Civilization (in his famous and much quoted work “The Clash of Civilizations”), a huge part of the Brazilian elite and intelligentsia, at least since the 19th century, traditionally has considered their country part of such civilization – or at least has aspired for such “membership” as if this was a matter of quantitative “progress” or a teleological Westernization, so to speak. But this has always been tempered with some ambivalence. Darcy Ribeiro (1922-1997), eminent Brazilian anthropologist, on the other hand, viewed the societies of Latin America as “New Peoples” and thought of a Latin American civilization.
Bolsonaro’s government could thus be described as radically Westernalist. Its ideologues saw Trump’s administration as a kind of policy window to push a deeper US-Brazil partnership based on ideological premises focused on a supposed American special role pertaining to the Western civilization.
The very concept of the West is of course abstract and far from static. Its definition may be based on certain cultural-value aspects (that can be traced to the History of Western Europe) or sometimes on matters of policy and political systems pertaining to democracy, free trade, human rights, and so on. Be it as it may, the truth is that traditionally, Brazil had been careful so as to not align itself too closely with any bloc, following its diplomatic tradition of multilateralism and diversification of partners. This tradition acted as a kind of pragmatic counterweight in all previous pro-American governments.
This has changed since the appointment of Ernesto Araujo as Minister of Foreign Affairs, in 2019. Araujo resigned from his office on 29 March 2021, after strong pressure from several Brazilian senators over his anti-Chinese stance, which alarmed many. China after all has been Brazil’s steady partner since 2009, when Beijing became its main trade partner and when the first BRICS leaders’ summit took place. Since then, Chinese-Brazilian bilateral trade flows have reached $ 100 billion.
Araujo was then succeeded by Carlos Alberto França, who is still the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, and who is described as having a more pragmatic persuasion. França has reversed some of his predecessor’s more radical positions and has sought to improve relations with China and so on, but one can only go so far, given the fact that the uncompromisingly pro-American tendency comes from above, from the President himself.
To sum it up, Bolsonaro’s foreign policy derives not merely from ideological premises, but from profound civilizational premises and a certain Weltanschauung. And such views and practices have suited the US well while have proven themselves to be harmful to the best interests of Brazil.
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