A Strategic Moment for the U.S.-Brazil Relationship

The upcoming October 2 presidential election in Brazil is not taking place in an international vacuum. To paraphrase an old adage that is never quite true: Brazil is not just a “land of the future”. Seismic shifts happening around the world make its current importance clear.

Brazil is emerging as a key player in global food and energy supply chains, climate change, multilateral and regional organizations, and cooperation with China in the western hemisphere. Brazil could certainly be more of a US partner in solving these problems. However, bilateral relations have rarely been particularly strategic for either country. Making this even stronger in the context of the changing international landscape is the challenge.

The future of bilateral relations depends not only on how Washington deals with Brazil, but also on a successful democratic outcome of the upcoming elections and the priorities of the next Brazilian government. The controversial campaign is certainly causing concern internationally and within Brazil whether incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro will accept an outcome in which his main rival, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is declared the winner. But as the door opens to a more dynamic relationship – regardless of who wins – both countries will have a rare opportunity to work together at a critical moment for the hemisphere and the world.

A more influential global force

Meanwhile, global opportunities are opening up for Brazil. Take the world economy for example. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened the urgency of diversifying and increasing medium-term availability of energy and food supplies. Brazil is a key and strategic player, both as a major energy producer and as an agricultural powerhouse. The country’s oil and gas production is now among the ten largest in the world. Brazil is also among the world’s top exporters of soybeans, corn, meat, sugar and coffee, and has a modern agricultural sector capable of expanding production to meet global demand.

As tensions with China mount and supply chain relationships are redefined, large but unallied economies such as India and Brazil have also become key players in the emerging trade and investment frameworks in their regions and beyond. India is increasingly influential and central to US efforts to strengthen the broader Indo-Pacific economy by diversifying supply chains and promoting open trade, digital innovation and clean energy.

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The landscape in Latin America and the Caribbean is similar. The US presented an economic agenda at the Summit of the Americas in June 2022 that emphasized innovation, combating climate change, nearshoring supply chain opportunities and economic growth. Strategic progress in the region is inconceivable without Brazil.

Brazil, like India, can also be more of a partner in multilateral organizations at a time when China is challenging within these institutions and there is less consensus on the rules of the game for the global economy. Historically, Brazil has been a strong believer and actor in international institutions.

Additionally, Brazil’s voice and actions may carry greater weight as regional trading blocs increasingly become a factor in the global economy. The trade association Mercosur, of which Brazil is a member, is resuming talks with the European Union over a long-stalled trade deal. As Brazil emerges as China’s key trading and investment partner in the region, US concerns about the hemisphere’s growing ties to Beijing are likely to be fully allayed only with Brazil at the table.

Brazil, like India, continues to emphasize a largely non-aligned view of international relations. It should have come as no surprise that neither country took a firm stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; or that both are active in the BRICS organization, which groups them with China, Russia and South Africa.

But nobody seriously in Brasília suggests following the Chinese development model. After all, Brazil has also initiated the accession process

to the OECD. The social transformation that began in Brazil after the return of democracy requires further reforms and faster growth.

Finally, Brazil remains central to the global fight against climate change. Concern about increasing deforestation in the Amazon is rightly widespread. The killings of journalist Dom Phillips and environmental advocate Bruno Araujo Pereira this year tragically highlighted the challenge. However, as the international community responds to the unprecedented effects of global warming, it is vital to re-engage Brazil as a key partner in a more constructive and strategic dialogue than the current one.

tension at home

The opportunities for the world to engage with Brazil are significant – but exploiting them depends to a large extent on Brazilian politicians respecting the choices the country’s voters are making in the upcoming elections.

Political tensions are likely to increase in the coming weeks, but it would be wrong to think that there are no guard rails in Brazil’s democracy. Its legal and electoral systems are stronger than they are given credit for, and there is no sign that the Brazilian military as an institution is trying to intervene on behalf of any candidate. US Secretary of Defense Austin visited Brasília in July to convey to his counterparts the importance of transparent electoral processes. Other senior US officials have paid visits in recent months and delivered the same message, including Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, in August.

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Moreover, many of the sharp differences seen in Brazil’s presidential election are not reflected in the national congressional or state elections, also taking place on October 2nd. Since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985, the country has now more than 150 million eligible voters, favoring a largely centrist mix of parties focused on transactional politics. The mix of candidates for October’s general and gubernatorial elections is unlikely to change this pattern.

Washington has expressed great confidence in Brazil’s electoral system as a model for Latin America – and everyone hopes it will prevail. While the international community would certainly react against any attempt to undermine the outcome, it should also be prepared to welcome another successful democratic electoral process.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during the 15th Conference of US Defense Ministers (CDMA) in Brasilia July 26, 2022. Photo by Mateus Bonomi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

A wide range of places to collaborate

In the latter case, despite the ups and downs of the past decade, there is an opportunity to reshape US-Brazil relations to reflect both new global realities and strengthened bilateral ties. To do this, Brazil would also need to be recognized as a global player with its own priorities that do not always correspond to those of the United States. There will inevitably be tensions with whoever wins the election – but that’s not stopping the US and Brazil from finding common ground.

The level of high-level dialogue and working relations maintained by the two countries is indeed remarkable. There is a trade dialogue between the US and Brazil; an energy forum; a working group on critical minerals; there is the US-Brazil CEO Forum and the Defense Industry Dialogue.

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Some channels work better than others, but the institutional framework is deep – to which some important recent agreements can be added. In 2021, Brazil became the first Latin American country and one of just a dozen worldwide to sign the Artemis Accords, which promote the peaceful and transparent uses of outer space. This followed a long-awaited Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA), approved in 2019, allowing US space launches from Brazil’s Alcântara Space Center.

Bilateral cooperation in the areas of pandemic control and medical research is long-standing and forward-looking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been operating in Brazil for almost twenty years, where the National Institutes of Health (NIH) also has its largest Latin American research portfolio. The collaboration can be traced back decades to the early stages of the HIV/AIDS and Zika pandemics and has more recently continued during the COVID-19 pandemic.

US-Brazilian cooperation on environmental protection is also continuing – although it falls far short of its potential. Interpersonal bonds are stronger than is often assumed, with Brazilians being among the top ten streams of visitors to the United States. Brazil remains an important trading partner for the United States. Although China is now more important for trade with Brazil, the share of high-quality exports destined for the US is crucial – while US investment in the country is still higher than China’s. Brazil remains a key participant in international peacekeeping and is now a key non-NATO ally, creating a new platform for greater strategic engagement between the two countries.

Looking ahead, there is nothing wrong with the US-Brazil relationship remaining heavily economic. But issues of energy, climate change, food production, the digital revolution, pandemic response, and Chinese investment and trade practices have become deeply geopolitical in today’s uncertain world. Addressing them will require working with a broader set of partners than those contained in the United States’ traditional alliances.

The Biden administration is currently engaged in several bilateral dialogues with India and cooperation under the Quad talks. It’s time to approach Brazil with the same strategic mindset and seriousness.

McKinley is a former US Ambassador to Brazil (2017-18).
Berg is director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

tags: Brazil

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