Brazil’s newly-elected President Jair Bolsonaro upcoming visit to Washington, D.C., could mark a significant step forward in relations between the Western Hemisphere’s two largest democracies. In February, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo’s trip to Washington previewed a broad reorientation of his country’s foreign policy that could bring Brasilia into much closer alignment with the United States in Latin America and the rest of the world.
This growing U.S.-Brazil partnership disproves the canard that President Trump is an alliance-phobic isolationist and presents considerable opportunities for America.
If successful, establishing a strategic partnership with Brazil will not be a one-off development. It is animated by a cogent U.S. policy to deal with evolving regional and global challenges by building new relationships founded upon shared values, similar threat assessments and common security goals.
Brazil is at a turning point following the 13-year rule of the discredited Partido Trabajadores (PT —Worker’s Party). Brazil’s former PT President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva is serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption and money laundering. During the past two years of the PT’s tenure, the GDP shrunk by 3.5 percent, resulting in the worst economic recession since 1931.
In October 2018, Bolsonaro won Brazilian presidential elections in a runoff with 55 percent of the vote, campaigning on a platform of anti-corruption, law and order, and economic growth. Bolsonaro made clear that he liked President Trump and wanted to build a close relationship with the United States. Like Trump, he emphasized sovereignty and national interests. Bolsonaro’s selection of Araujo, who is known for his pro-American views, as foreign minister has provided an important opening for the Trump administration.
Bolsonaro has called for rebuilding Brazil’s infrastructure and growing its economy using private rather than government funds. He also hopes to increase foreign investment, particularly from the United States. Rejecting BRICS, a largely anti-Western group of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa that Beijing and Moscow portray as an institution central to a new post-American world order, Bolsonaro wants to integrate Brazil into Western economic institutions. Membership in the Western-oriented Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a major priority.
Bolsonaro describes the United States as a key economic partner. His top goals include securing a bilateral investment treaty, a comprehensive trade agreement lowering tariff and non-trade barriers, and a treaty eliminating double taxation. The Bolsonaro government also supports a visa-waiver program to ease business and promote tourism.
Brazil’s $2.1 trillion economy, dominant in Latin America and nearly double the size of Mexico’s, holds promise as a closer U.S. economic partner. Moreover, while China is a leading trade partner for Brazil, Bolsonaro plans to modify his country’s trade policy toward Beijing — not as a favor to the United States, but because of genuine concern about Beijing’s predatory economic behavior. As Brazilian officials put it to me, “Brazil is open for business, but closed for influence.”
Brazil seeks an affiliation with NATO, which has only one Latin American partner, Colombia, and is willing to sign a bilateral technology safeguards agreement with the United States. The government also shares the Trump administration’s urgency to resolve the Venezuelan crisis and is aligned with U.S. positions on Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, Iran and Syria. Brazil has also declared its support for the U.S. strategy in the Middle East. In contrast to Brazil’s low voting support for the United States at the United Nations — 23 percent — Brazil likely will join the United States on key U.N. votes.
Brazil’s dramatic foreign policy shift did not happen by accident. Rather, it reflects the Trump administration’s concerted effort to build relationships. The conceptual foundation for the administration’s alliance-building effort was laid out in Trump’s December 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS), which focused on Russian and Chinese efforts “to erode American security and prosperity” and re-affirmed “the invaluable advantages that our strong relationships with allies and partners deliver.”
Following the NSS’ release, the administration embarked on a diplomatic initiative focused on the Western Hemisphere, historically, a low priority for most US Administrations. In November 2018, National Security Adviser John Bolton delivered his “Troika of Tyranny” speech — identifying Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua as malignant actors and calling for a regional effort to oppose them—which Bolsonaro embraced.
On Jan. 1, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended Brazil’s presidential inauguration and discussed the “transformative opportunity” for both countries to collaborate on a wide range of foreign policy matters and work together against authoritarian regimes.
The Trump administration is forging a key strategic partnership with Brazil in support of common economic and security goals. It will pay major dividends in furthering both Brazilian and American national interests.
Paula J. Dobriansky is a former undersecretary of state for global affairs and a senior fellow in Harvard University’s Future of Diplomacy Project.