Peter Hakim: Confrontation, Cooperation or Detachment? / by Mark Langevin


President Emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue, Peter Hakim, offers up another perceptive installment on the state of United States-Brazil relations in “The Future of US-Brazil Relations: confrontation, cooperation or detachment?” published by International Affairs. Hakim’s periodic assessments of bilateral relations serve as one of the best barometers of the bilateral gravity and turbulence. This most recent installment is particularly relevant given the frosty relations in the aftermath of the Snowden spying revelations. Hakim summarizes the chilly state,

“For some time now, Brazil has pursued its international interests and aspirations by standing apart from the United States. It has regularly emphasized and sometimes trumpeted its differences with Washington, even when bedrock US interests have been at stake. In recent years, Brazil has increasingly sought to curb US presence in Latin America, particularly in South America. For its part, the US often seems to consider Brazil an interloper in world affairs, a nation that does not quite measure up to the status and power it claims. Neither country today appears ready to do much to alter a relationship that, although mostly amiable, has been marked by limited cooperation, considerable discord and a few unpleasant clashes.”

Hakim points to Brazil’s dismay at the National Security Agency’s spying program on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Petrobras as well as the earlier Brazilian diplomatic foray into the Iranian nuclear standoff in 2010 as prime examples of the clashes that have distanced the respective governments in the past four years. But Hakim’s story does not end here. He also points to the dire lack of progress in moving forward with even modest efforts to cooperate on many points of mutual interest including trade. Hakim asks,

What will it take to develop a fresh relationship that allows them to join forces to advance their interests? Can the two countries identify a few high-priority areas for collaboration? If they are not able to cooperate much, can they still maintain friendly relations and avoid harmful confrontations? Can they avoid sliding backwards if they cannot move forwards?”

More than one U.S. foreign policymaker should systematically reflect and respond to these cogent questions.

Hakim proceeds to do what he does best, summarize the state of bilateral relations through three critical dimensions: economic, regional, and global governance issues. No surprises here. Despite evident mutual interests in trade and development, these two nations continue to fall short of the predicted trade levels forecasted through gravity models. This failure to trade up to potential reflects the inability of both governments to commit to those issues and trade offs that could benefit increasing numbers of U.S. and Brazilian citizens. U.S. agricultural policies continue to vex Brazil’s comparative advantages in the production and export of agricultural commodities such as soy, sugar, corn and cotton while Brazilians remain reluctant to fully integrate into global manufacturing production chains through trade and investment accords with the U.S. and other technologically advanced countries.

Despite Brazil’s close relations with its South America neighbors, the U.S. has failed to take advantage of Brazil’s regional status to expand cooperation to meet the development and security demands and challenges that face most of the nations of the Americas. As Hakim points out, there have been both points of cooperation and conflict with respective to hemispheric issues, but on balance the two nations have failed to work together to deepen regional economic development and security initiatives with the exception of Haiti. On the global level, cooperation is minimal. Hakim explains,

“Despite Brazil’s growing international prominence, the United States views the nation principally as a regional actor, and looks mainly for its cooperation on inter-American issues. Brazil, in contrast, has consistently demonstrated little interest in building cooperation or partnership with the United States in Latin America.”

            Accordingly, Hakim concludes,

“On most fronts, relations seem to be drifting, propelled largely by inertia, without much direction or decision. Neither country has been especially strategic in its approach to the other.”

Moreover, Hakim counsels that both national governments need to anticipate conflict and disruption and work together to minimize clashes that could lead to sustained conflict. He suggests keeping the “lines of communication open” and advises “Grander ambitions involving new partnerships or strategic alliances… should be saved for another day.”

Unfortunately, Hakim’s sensible advice does not include detailed answers to the questions that he adeptly poses at the beginning of the article. The Obama administration has struck out with Brazil after so much fanfare following President Obama’s first election and subsequent visit to Brazil in 2011. Hakim is correct to suggest that both governments try to develop “fresh” ways to steer the bilateral relationship. This means substituting those formulating U.S. foreign policy toward Brazil and doubling up on efforts to “invite” a diverse spectrum of opinion and analysis about U.S.-Brazil relations and Brazilian economic and political development. President Obama and his team must be held accountable for failed “approaches” to Brazil, but it is not too late to reach out and place new voices into the policymaking mix, especially those whose experiences and expertise more closely reflect the growing density of social, organizational and small business relations developing between U.S. and Brazilian citizens.

The best way to avoid slipping backwards is to focus efforts on bilateral issues that matter. Too often bilateral relations are paralyzed by too many consulting mechanisms that focus on too narrow a range of interests. Hakim is right to suggest that the governments concentrate on a few high priority issues. However, I would add that the selection include a couple of issues that matter most to people, rather than the largest corporations who seem to dominant the bilateral agenda without ever improving the foundational conditions for deepening cooperation. Certainly immigration should be treated through bilateral discussions, but such consultations can and should be conducted at higher levels of government along with a much broader, more representative group of societal interests aimed at both bilateral and unilateral approaches to easing the movement of people across U.S. and Brazilian borders for family reunification, organizational cooperation, and small and medium enterprise commerce and investment. Recognizing and responding to the growing numbers of U.S. and Brazilian citizens traveling between two countries is critical to cementing the social and structural conditions for developing greater political understanding and cooperation between the two governments.

It is not too late for the Obama administration to lessen the excessive number of cordial, but ineffective bilateral consultative mechanisms that simply raise expectations in the absence of sufficient political will to negotiate through the mechanisms of meaningful cooperation. At this point in the bilateral relationship it would be best to thaw the frost by focusing on a small set of priorities that serve as possible points of cooperation, such as immigration or greater coordination and support for South Atlantic basin collective security, and that can muster the political will of Presidents from both of these nations.