Paulo Sotero - O Estado d. São Paulo, 3/19/2014

The visit made to Brasília this week by U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, marked the resumption, by American initiative, of a relationship interrupted since last year, when revelations of  NSA spying on Brazil led President Dilma Rousseff to postpone a state visit to Washington, D.C.

Alarmed by the damage caused by the episode, at a moment when bilateral relations seemed poised to gain content and quality, the leader of a major American company called Valerie Jarett, a personal friend of Barack Obama and a senior White House advisor, to ask that the president make a  gesture  to reestablish dialogue.  Aware of the concern of Brazil’s private sector regarding the paralyzed relations with the United States, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told the U.S. ambassador in Brazil, Liliana Ayalde, that he would work towards resolving the crisis. It was not an easy task.

In late January, Brazilian Foreign Minister, Luís Alberto Figueiredo, said, after meeting with U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, that the solution depended on Dilma and Obama. “It is not a conversation on my level, or at her [Susan Rice] level, that will lead to an improvement in relations,” he stated.

According to Brazilian diplomats, Figueiredo expected to hear a formal apology, which  the American president had already discarded  in a speech he made two weeks earlier responding to criticisms the NSA spying revelations stirred in the U.S. and abroad.  The Foreign Ministry’s insistence on the subject became untenable, however, in view of  the pragmatic stance taken by other governments whose leader were also spied on by the NSA.

Last month, the socialist President of France, François Hollande, who strongly protested after learning his phone had been monitored (by the NSA) , said the incident had been resolved and made state visit to Washington. In early May, chancellor Angela Merkel, of Germany, who reacted to NSA spying allegations by suspending intelligence cooperation agreements with Washington, will pay a two day visit to the American capital.  At the top of the agenda is the Russian offensive in Crimea. Germany and Europe are dependent on Russian oil and natural gas and differed from the U.S. on how to react to President Vladimir Putin’s actions. However, as was the case with the tension caused by NSA spying, these disagreements did not  rupture dialogue nor did they prevent a joint response.

The escalation of regional crises, particularly the ongoing confrontation between the government and opposition in Venezuela, reinforced Washington’s concern about the state of relations with Brazil. Heavily weighing in this case are doubts about whether Brasilia is leaving behind a tradition of pragmatic diplomacy grounded in  the pursuit of  real national interests and the advancement of the democratic values which underpinned the domestic transformation and international projection of Brazil over the past twenty years, in favor of a foreign policy guided by an ideology that generates uncertainties about Brazil’s intentions. The expectation, in the case of Venezuela, is that Brazil will act via UNASUR oriented  by its interests in the internal stability of the country and the region, as it did in Bolivia in 2008. There is also the cotton dispute , which could potentially result in Brazil adopting retaliatory measures against the United States, endorsed by the World Trade Organization.

Adding to these challenges there is now the  apathy of those in the American government who were invested in developing  stronger ties with Brazil. Jacobson’s visit is an attempt to overcome that sentiment. “It is not that people are angry,” said a former senior official close to the administration.  “They simply do not want to get involved, because the end result of dealing with Brazil is always frustration.” Frustration on both sides and two serious disagreements marked the bilateral relations during the Obama administration: In May 2010, when Lula was involved in a poorly executed attempt at rapprochement between Iran and the international community on the nuclear issue, and now, the NSA spying scandal.

Although the moment for a possible rescheduling of Dilma Rousseff’s state visit to Washington is long gone, Lew and Jacobson’s visits to Brasilia show that the interest in resuming dialogue does exist  in Washington, despite the prevailing skepticism of American bureaucracy in regards to Brazil.  The question is whether Brasilia will be willing to reengage with the U.S.during the final two years of a weakened Obama administration in ways that could lead to ties more robust and resilient to  inevitable frictions in the bilateral relanionship.  

There are reasons for cautious optimism even in matters arising from the Snowden case. The U.S. government was invited by Brazil and accepted to participate in the steering committee of an international conference on internet governance proposed by President Dilma after the Snowden fallout, at the invitation of the Brazilian government.  Washington, meanwhile, expressed satisfaction about Brazil’s decision not to grant asylum to Edward Snowden and to suggest that neighboring countries do the same.  The warm greetings Dilma exchanged with Obama at Nelson Mandela’s funeral and with vice-president Joe Biden at Michelle Bachelet’s inauguration, in addition to the expected presence of Biden at the opening ceremony of the World Cup, help defuse the tension and renew support for a rapprochement between the two societies based on continued improvement of  people to people relations, which do not depend of their  governments, and the Brazilian business sector manifest interest in more productive relations with the U.S. The hope is that this renewed commitment leads to changes in both countries that will open the way to the often proclaimed and frequently sabotaged development of a strategic partnership between the continent two largest economies and democracies.

Paulo Sotero is the Director the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. 

Read original article in Portuguese here