It has become a cliché of American diplomacy: The United States welcomes the rise of new powers and wants them to continue rising—especially when those new powers are democracies. President Obama has repeated this pledge in India, in South Africa, in Brazil. “The American people,” he said in Rio de Janeiro, “don’t just recognize Brazil’s success—we root for Brazil’s success.”
Unfortunately, the people on the receiving end of those assurances aren’t always convinced.
Last week’s “postponement” of a state visit to Washington by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is just the latest reminder: suspicions of American intentions run deep, no matter how insistently we try to dispel them. For anyone on the alert for neo-imperial plots, Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA surveillance activities in Brazil confirmed every fear of Yankees being up to no good. While Rousseff herself may have hoped to salvage the visit, the reaction at home would have made going forward an act of audacious political folly, whatever the strategic arguments for or against.
On the face of it, the two vibrant continental-sized republics of Brazil and the United States have much in common: a legacy of immigration, racial diversity, agricultural prowess, a popular culture venerated around the world. But the cancellation and disappointment feel all too familiar. Every American administration identifies Brazil as an obvious candidate for improved relations before a rockier reality sets in.
As document after salacious document created a stir this month, Washington insisted that Brazilians had nothing to fear from NSA activity. Yet most Brazilians had a hard time seeing how eavesdropping on the conversations of presidential advisers or hacking into supercomputers at Petrobras, the state oil company, had helped “not only to protect our nation but protect other people in the world, including Brazilians,” as John Kerry asserted in Brasilia.
Neither a subsequent meeting between the Brazilian foreign minister and National Security Adviser Susan Rice nor a pair of conversations between the two presidents was enough to sooth Brazilian indignation. “I want to know everything they have regarding Brazil,” Dilma said. “The word ‘everything’ is very comprehensive. It means all. Every bit. In English, ‘everything.’” The White House expressed “understanding” and “regret” over Brazil’s concerns. But there was no chance that Obama would order a major change to the way the U.S. intelligence community does business just to keep the visit on the schedule.
For many in Washington, the “know everything” condition was preposterous and presumptuous. Skeptics took it as confirmation of their view that Brazil is more interested in grandstanding than in playing a serious global role. In Brazil, meanwhile, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva held up the NSA revelations as proof that “the rich countries are not ready to accept the rise of emerging countries” and accused the United States of “committing a crime against democracy.” Members of Dilma’s party saw in it echoes of Brazil’s dictatorship, which jailed and tortured dissidents (including Dilma herself) and at times enjoyed U.S. backing. Most unsettling of all may have been the snooping into Petrobras: Outlandish fears of foreign plots to steal the country’s resources—oil, minerals, trees in the Amazon—have a remarkably strong hold in Brazil.
None of this changes the fact that for all the friction, Brazil and the United States have a lot to gain from a good relationship—in terms of economic growth, in terms of cultural and educational exchange, in terms of regional and global politics. For Washington, Brazil’s middle class represents an important new market, its oil and biofuels stable sources of energy, its formula of democratic development in a diverse society a model we want to see replicated.
Yet when it comes to capturing that potential, old suspicions prevail. Brazil’s desire for U.S. support for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council runs into doubts about Brasilia’s reliability. The United States’ interest in Brazilian markets runs into wariness of foreign competition. The departing American ambassador, Tom Shannon, is one of Washington’s most highly regarded diplomats and has labored valiantly to build mutual trust through a flurry of lower-profile programs; yet he spent much of his first year in Brasilia under the shadow of Manning and WikiLeaks and leaves under the shadow of Snowden and Fantástico.
It may be true that the short-term costs of the cancellation are higher for Brazil than they are for the United States. Still, the persistence of these old suspicions, in Brazil and elsewhere, has unsettling long-term implications. We root for the “emerging democratic powers” because we hope they will become our partners in a post-American world that retains the best characteristics of American-led liberal order.
If not Brazil, if not India, if not South Africa, who will join us in working to sustain it?