BRASILIA, Brazil — When Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff gives the opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, it will mark not only the first time that a woman has formally opened the world body's annual meeting but also an important gathering for her fast-growing nation.
Brazil already is a respected leader in areas such as biodiversity, energy and climate change — and is the United States' fourth largest creditor. And in Rousseff's first nine months in office, Brazil has continued its quest to increase its global clout — including ongoing efforts to land a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council — and strengthen relations with other developing countries.
But observers and foreign diplomats say that Rousseff also has struck a delicate balance, trying to strengthen relations with the United States that soured during the final two years of her predecessor's term. Some of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's policy initiatives — particularly his attempt along with Turkey to broker a nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran — opened a rift between Brasilia and Washington.
On Tuesday in New York, Rousseff had her second meeting since March with President Barack Obama, who opened a meeting of the U.N. Open Government Partnership — a pro-transparency initiative co-chaired by the two nations — by praising "my friend," the Brazilian leader.
After being elected, Rousseff gave strict instructions to Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota in one of their first meetings to "intensify" relations with the United States, according to the Brazilian Foreign Ministry.
But that does not mean moving away from longtime Brazilian positions.
In her speech Wednesday, Rousseff is expected to say a few things that Washington will not like. For one, she will reiterate Brazil's recognition of a Palestinian state and support for its membership in the U.N. Palestinian leaders have said they will ask the U.N. for membership this week, a move that the Obama administration has pledged to veto.
Rousseff has actually said little about foreign policy and made few overseas trips so far, focusing instead on a crowded domestic agenda that includes managing a fragile governing coalition. She already has fired five ministers because of corruption allegations.
But compared to her predecessor Lula's larger-than-life persona, Rousseff's foreign policy may be "low voltage" but is equally ambitious, Brazilian journalist Clovis Rossi wrote in a recent column in the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.
Lula's affability usually served him well in his relations with foreign leaders but occasionally got him in trouble for appearing too tolerant of some anti-democratic leaders. By contrast, Rousseff is a technocrat who has told her diplomats that "she wants more nuts and bolts from us" and "wants us to be more like engineers" than speechmakers, according to Foreign Ministry Press Secretary Tovar da Silva Nunes.
Before taking office, she spoke out forcefully against Iran's plans to stone to death Sakineh Ashtiani, a woman who'd been convicted of adultery. This reflected Rousseff's personal history as a victim of torture during Brazil's military dictatorship, said Maria Nazareth Farani Azevedo, Brazil's ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
Rousseff "can relate to the fact that stoning a woman to death is not accepted by Brazilian society as a whole, especially women."
In March, Brazil supported a resolution by the commission to establish a special designee to investigate human rights abuses in Iran.
Brazil also has voted in favor of a resolution by the commission to condemn human rights violations in Syria. The U.S. ambassador to Brazil, Tom Shannon, said in an interview that Brazil has been "vocal in its condemnation of Syrian government violence against civilians" and "played a central role in building consensus" for a strong Security Council statement against abuses in Syria.
"They have not gone as far as we would like, but the way they have approached these problems in seeking consensus" is a welcome development and improvement over the past government, Shannon said.
Brazil was the first South American country to recognize a Palestinian state in 2010, under Lula, prompting similar moves from Argentina and Uruguay. Former Brazilian diplomat Roberto Abdenur — a vocal critic of some of Lula's foreign policy, in particular his handling of Iran — said he supports Rousseff's position on recognizing Palestinian statehood over fierce U.S. and Israeli objections.
Abdenur said he shares Israel's security concerns but sees a need for a fresh start in the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Today, he said, "Israel has much more influence over the U.S. than the U.S. has over Israel."
Yet throughout, Brazil seems to maintain good relations with Israel. A free-trade agreement between the Mercosur bloc — Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay — and Israel remains in force. And this month the Brazilian airplane company Embraer signed a joint venture with Israel's Elbit Systems to produce unmanned drones.
Da Silva Nunes of the Foreign Ministry said that Brazil was "committed to Israel's security" and that Palestinian membership at the U.N. will help jump-start peace talks.
Brazil is likely to disagree with the United States and Europe elsewhere, as well. As a rotating member of the Security Council, Brazil abstained from the March resolution authorizing military action in Libya. More than 70 other countries recognized the Libyan opposition as the country's legitimate government before Brazil did.
Brazilian officials say that their foreign policy continues to be guided by a philosophy based primarily on non-intervention. But observers here say that another view has long prevailed in Brazil: that the U.N. and other international systems of assessing human rights violations remains flawed, and that violations by U.S. allies aren't met with the same condemnations as those of other countries.
(Sreeharsha is a McClatchy special correspondent. Lesley Clark contributed from the United Nations.)
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