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Cold shoulder

Kersten Knipp / gbOctober 23, 2013

The Brazilian and US economies are closely linked, but with the cancellation of a state visit by President Rousseff to Washington, due to the NSA scandal, the relationship has noticeably cooled.

A file picture dated 09 April 2012 shows US President Barack Obama (R) meeting with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, USA. Photo: EPA/KEVIN DIETSCH / POOL
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In early December, 1982, then-US president Ronald Reagan was on a state visit to Brazil. The country's leader, Joao Figueiredo, held a banquet in honor of his guest from Washington, who then proceeded to toast his host with the friendly words "Long live the Bolivian people!"

This embarrassing faux-pas, for many Brazilians, was symptomatic of the relationship they had with America. They felt that they were not taken seriously in the US capital and were just another faceless Latin American country among many.

President Reagan's slip-up was not the last occasion where Brazil felt it was not very high up on the list of US priorities. The country was not on the foreign policy radar of his successors either. George W. Bush concentrated his efforts on fighting terrorism after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and neglected ties with his southern neighbors.

Looking for partners south of the border

Brazil's former president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, used Washington's foreign policy hiatus to build a new network of alliances during his terms in office from 2003 to 2011. Instead of the traditional north-south ties, da Silva strengthened the political and economic ties to his Latin American neighbors, Africa, India and China. By 2009, China already had overtaken the US as Brazil's largest trading partner.

President Ronald Reagan gives a thumbs-up to supporters at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles as he celebrates his re-election, Nov. 6, 1984, with first lady Nancy Reagan at his side. Reagan's win over Walter Mondale, 525 to 13 in the electoral vote and 59 percent to 41 percent in popular votes, was unquestionably a landslide election. (AP Photo/File)
US President Ronald Reagan once confused Brazil with Bolivia during a state visitImage: AP

The current Obama administration in Washington initially appeared intent on regaining lost terrain. However, the charm offensive launched by Vice President Joe Biden in May of this year found an untimely and unseemly end in the wake of revelations about US spying by the National Security Agency (NSA). Then, a month ago, Brazil's current president, Dilma Rousseff, called off her planned visit to the US capital that would have begun on Wednesday (23.10.2013). She had discovered that the NSA had monitored her emails and telephone calls - a personal affront for the Brazilian president.

Support for Rousseff's cold shoulder

Political scientist, Carlos Gustavo Poggio Teixeiro, from the Catholic University of Sao Paolo (PUC-SP), thinks that Rousseff's decision to cancel her trip was not a terribly difficult one. "In order to defend its role as a regional South American power, Brazil has to keep a certain distance to the US, an option, for example, that Mexico doesn't have," he said. After all, for more than a century, US foreign policy has tended to view Latin America as its own "backyard."

President Barack Obama meets with Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff , Monday, April 9, 2012, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (Foto:Carolyn Kaster/AP/dapd)
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is trying to keep Washington at arm's lengthImage: AP

The latest opinion poll conducted by the Ibope polling group confirms that Brazilians approve of Rousseff's actions. Her popularity rose from 31 to 37 percent between July and September. Before the mass protests in June, her popularity had been at 55 percent.

However, Rousseff's cold shoulder to Washington goes deeper than just the NSA scandal. Two decisions by US President Barack Obama very dear to Brazilian hearts have only made the tensions worse: one, Obama did not do away with visa restrictions for Brazilians visiting America; and two, Obama opposed Brazil's desire for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The latter would have greatly bolstered Brazil's regional and international leadership role.

Arm's length from big brother

As a result, Brazil's is stuck in a foreign policy dilemma. On the one hand, the country depends on the US for achieving its global aims. On the other hand, as a South American regional power it needs to keep the big brother up north at arm's length to maintain its credibility. "For Brazil, it is very important to keep US influence in the region small, if it wishes to maintain its regional and international autonomy," notes Claudia Zilla from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

ARCHIV - HANDOUT - Die Regierungschefs der BRICS-Saaten, Dilma Rousseff (Präsidentin voin Brasilien, l-r), Wladimir Putin (Prasident von Russland), Manmohan Singh (Premierminister von Indien), Hu Jintao (Präsident der Volksrepublik China) und Jacob Zuma (Präsident von Südafrika), reichen sich am 18.06.2012 auf dem Treffen der fünf Regierungen in Los Cabos, Mexiko, die Hände. Die fünf Brics-Staaten formieren sich zunehmend als globale Wirtschaftsmacht. Foto: Roberto Stuckert Filho/dpa (zu dpa "Ehrgeizige Brics-Staaten fordern Europa und USA heraus" vom 25.03.2013) ++ FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES ++ +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
The BRICS countries are becoming a powerful economic blocImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Of course, the United States is well aware of this. Washington urgently needs reliable partners in South America in light of the steady political annoyances emanating from Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. "The US knows that Brazil is a relevant actor in the region and it is important to them to be on a good footing," says Zilla.

And, of course, Washington also knows that Brazil is inceasingly becoming the voice of emerging economies within the framework of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

Due to Brazil's growing international heft, the US most certainly has little interest in seeing relations deteriorate. "I don't think that the NSA scandal will have a long-term negative effect on ties between the two countries," says Poggio Teixeiro. By the same token, there is no getting around the US in the pursuit of Brazil's foreign policy ambitions, he explains, and Dilma Rousseff will hardly want to torpedo good relations with the US.