A Review of U.S.-Brazil Relations: A New Beginning? / by Mark Langevin


Mark S. Langevin, Ph.D.’s Review of 

U.S.-Brazil Relations: A New Beginning?

Written by Ricardo Sennes

Published by the Atlantic Council

June 2015


Ricardo Sennes and the Atlantic Council deserve applause for the timely publication of “U.S.-Brazil Relations: A New Beginning?” The publication is a thoughtful and well-researched recipe guide to rebooting bilateral relations.    US.-Brazil Relations: A New Beginning? is a helpful framework for evaluating a number of trade, technology and educational issues that could serve as pragmatic intersections for deepening cooperation between the governments and peoples of Brazil and the United States (see below for a summary). Sennes’ proposals should be taken seriously and evaluated in relation to the diverse matrix of interests expressed by the governments, economic actors, and citizens of both nations as well as their viability with respect to the political and institutional opportunities and challenges that shape and limit the bilateral relations between governments.

Sennes’ 10 Proposals to Strengthen the Bilateral Agenda

  1. Implement a double taxation agreement.
  2. Open negotiations to eliminate trade barriers.
  3. Collaborate on clean energy technology trade.
  4. Open negotiations to facilitate trade in services.
  5. Build a bilateral development and trade program in Information and communications technology (ICT).
  6. Develop a bilateral program focused on Internet governance.
  7. Incentivize dual-use technologies.
  8. Support scientific cooperation.
  9. Drive new investments in education.
  10. Bolster technology cooperation in higher education.

Source: Sennes, Ricardo. “U.S.-Brazil Relations: A New Beginning?” Atlantic Council. 2015:27.

My own evaluation of the approach advocated by Sennes and the Atlantic Council is positive, but there are a few missing ingredients absent from the recipe.

First and foremost is the absence of confidence building proposals that address the foundational challenges that have limited the bilateral relationship in the past and drove it to the root cellar after Snowden’s revelations of U.S. surveillance of President Dilma and other strategic actors in Brazil. Remember, even before Snowden’s revelations were disclosed to the Brazilian public by Fantástico in 2013, many Brazilian policymakers in both the Executive and Legislative branches distrusted the U.S. government and questioned U.S. government behavior around the world and in the region. Recently Eric Farnsworth reminded Washington that,

“It is the anticipation of cooperative actions and assumed mutual interest that has largely animated U.S. policy makers’ impressions of Brazil over the years, and led them to build an expectation of Brazil as a natural ally and partner in the promotion of a broader regional and global agenda. But this benign vision fails to take account of Brazil’s own aspirations to be a significant actor in its own right, rather than following the outlines of a script written in Washington.”[1]

Washington needs to release the parking brake and agree to confidence building steps that demonstrate an understanding of Brazil’s developmental goals and foreign policy priorities even if the U.S. government does not openly support them, at least for now.

There are two complementary alternatives for building greater trust between government authorities and within Brazilian society. The first alternative is adopt the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) that would allow citizens of both nations to travel to the other without the cumbersome travel visa. The VWP is the U.S. government program offered to a limited list of countries that agree and comply with its terms, including significant exchanges of information on travelers and citizens as well as access to sensitive government maintained databases. According to U.S. government officials, the Brazilian government has not agreed to make the necessary provisions to comply with these VWP requirements. There are efforts underway in the U.S. Congress to pass legislation, including the JOLT proposal favored by the U.S. Travel Association, that would ease such requirements and would facilitate Brazil’s entry into the VWP. It is unlikely that such amendments to current law will pass in the House of Representatives, nor is it likely that Brazil would agree to the terms of the VWP without a significant bilateral agreement that protects Brazilian citizens, organizations, and government officials against U.S. surveillance, such as that carried out by the National Security Agency as Snowden revealed.

Given these circumstances, the U.S. and Brazil should launch negotiations to reach agreement to regulate bilateral cooperation on cyber security and telecommunications surveillance. This would be an ambitious endeavor to be certain, but it could also build the confidence and unleash other cooperative ventures necessary for a deepening partnership on a host of trade and security issues, both bilateral and global. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta openly advocated such an approach[2] and the Brazilian government is on record for responding to the Snowden revelations with an offer to negotiate such an agreement. Such an a bilateral accord would greatly facilitate Brazil’s acceptance and compliance with the Visa Waiver Program, extending unprecedented opportunities for both countries. Such cooperation might also be necessary to advance talks on the bilateral trade agreement and deeper scientific and technological exchanges contemplated by Sennes, especially Internet governance and cooperation on sensitive dual-use technologies. Without confidence and agreement on how to exchange sensitive information (including counter-terrorism surveillance), it is unlikely that Brazil could muster the political will to move forward on these agenda items in light of the NSA surveillance programs.

Moreover, this type of agreement would qualify as a “comprehensive political agreement,” according to Sennes (2015:24), to the degree that it would necessarily need to mobilize the political will of both governments while setting a strong foundation for a bilateral partnership based on mutual trust and strategic interests. Most importantly, citizens and representative civil society organizations from both nations would applaud bilateral efforts that protect Internet freedom and regulate the ways in which these governments can cooperate on counter-terrorism efforts and law enforcement that advance national security. The governments have already engaged in modest levels of security cooperation in advance of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games of Rio de Janeiro. It is time to build off of this experience and toward a foundational bilateral treaty. Such an agreement may prove to be stepping stone toward the VWP, at least to the extent that it depends on significant exchange of sensitive information and U.S. government access to sensitive Brazilian governmental databases.

Moving ahead with the VWP and a bilateral agreement on cyber security and telecommunications surveillance may not achieve the ambitious agenda that Sennes prescribes, but such cooperation would be significant and represent “big wins where US strategic interests converge with those of Brazil (Sennes 2015:24).” If Brasilia and Washington could come to terms on such an agreement, it would also reflect a more realistic understanding of Brazil by U.S. policymakers, one that makes each country stronger and facilitates greater engagement between the citizens and organizations of each country.

In the end, as Vice-President Biden remarked in Rio de Janeiro during his visit in May of 2013,

“Ultimately, all the deepest and strongest international ties, relationships, rest upon a foundation of trust.”[3]

Building bilateral confidence may not lead to a bilateral trade deal, but it opens doors to greater cooperation on eliminating senseless trade barriers, encouraging investment and technology transfer, and higher level discussions on the issues of global governance, including collective security in the South Atlantic basin.[4] Sennes and the Atlantic Council make a critical contribution to understanding how the U.S. and Brazil might cooperate on a short list of investment, trade and technology issues. Yet, as Sennes counsels, greater bilateral cooperation is dependent on a foundational agreement that allows government officials and their constituencies to identify and pursue opportunities for expanding bilateral cooperation. While we should not hold our breath, we can make the case that greater cooperation is certainly in the interests of citizens from both the U.S. and Brazil. The Presidential meeting on June 30th will likely fall short of establishing any foundational agreement as advocated by Sennes, but it reminds all of us that citizens from both countries and their representative organizations can do more to ensure that the governments of Washington and Brasilia work with greater urgency to lay the cornerstone.


[1] Farnsworth, Eric. “America Must Take Brazil Seriously.” The National Interest. July-August, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Cote, Chris and Mark S. Langevin, Ph.D. “Does Brasilia Matter.” A BrazilWorks Briefing Paper. October 17, 2013 and available at: http://www.brazil-works.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Does-Brasilia-Matter-Oct-17.pdf

[4] See Cote, Chris and Mark S. Langevin. “The Strategic Gap: Brazilian Defense Perspectives and United States-Brazil Military Relations.” A BrazilWorks Briefing Paper. September 2014. Available at: http://brazil-works.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/The-Strategic-Gap-revised.pdf