These days it seems Brazil can do little wrong in Washington. But what happened the last time the South American giant was in vogue in U.S. policy circles?
This is the subject of Matias Spektor’s Kissinger e o Brasil (Kissinger and Brazil), a fascinating and insightful book by the Argentine-born professor of international relations at Rio de Janeiro’s Getúlio Vargas Foundation. The book traces the short life of an earlier, unfulfilled U.S.-Brazil alliance that reached its high point in February 1976—when U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, greeted like a celebrity, traveled to Brasilia to sign a historic accord committing the Western Hemisphere’s two biggest powers to regular, high-level foreign policy consultations.
The accord capped years of intense diplomacy by Kissinger, who identified Brazil as one of a half-dozen “key” regional powers that could help the United States retain superpower status in the aftermath of its humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam. Kissinger’s aim of “delegating authority didn’t signify abandoning mechanisms of hegemonic control, but an attempt to adapt and reaffirm American power in the Third World using new mechanisms and a new diplomatic vocabulary,” Spektor writes. But the period of intense bilateral diplomacy came to an abrupt halt just one year later when incoming President Jimmy Carter cast a harsher light on human rights abuses by Brazil’s military dictatorship.
Spektor first studied this period for his doctoral thesis at Oxford University, drawing on archival research and interviews with policymakers in both countries, including one in 2006 with Kissinger. He details the degree to which the proponent of American realpolitik and his Brazilian counterpart, Foreign Minister Antonio Azeredo da Silveira, jointly worked to strengthen bilateral ties. The strategizing extended to soccer: Kissinger, an avid fan, asked Silveira to persuade Pelé to play for the now-defunct New York Cosmos.
Underlying the rapprochement then, as now, was Brazil’s economic ascendance. But Spektor argues that the so-called Brazilian economic “miracle” of double-digit economic growth during the 1970s was not as important to the U.S. as the strident anti-communism of the generals who overthrew Brazilian President João Goulart in 1964.
Spektor’s case was strengthened by a Central Intelligence Agency memorandum declassified in August 2009 (shortly after publication of his book) that recounts a 1971 discussion between Presidents Emilio Medici and Richard Nixon on ways to destabilize leftist regimes in Cuba and Chile. The memo is a sharp reminder of the two countries’ startling degree of cooperation—even on larger ideological battles.
Spektor then goes on to detail how the alliance fell short of both sides’ expectations. To Kissinger’s disappointment, Brazil never signed on as an ally against the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which was beginning to flex its powers as an oil cartel. The generals also resisted U.S. pressure to contain nuclear armament. It was not until 1998 that Brazil signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Likewise, even while treating Brazil as a regional and global power, the U.S. proved insensitive to Brazil’s hopes for progress on narrower, bilateral issues, such as lowering tariffs for exports. Spektor nevertheless writes that Brazil’s focus on winning trade concessions from the White House, instead of striking a broader trade agreement, was as parochial as it was misplaced. Unlike industry groups in smaller Central American countries, Brazil never educated its companies on how to lobby the U.S. Congress, the body where trade policy is usually hammered out.
By the end of the 1970s, the partnership unraveled and relations reverted to their normal course of mutual mistrust and estrangement. But even before then, major frictions were emerging. Spektor highlights two telling episodes: Brazil’s first-in-the-world recognition of Angola’s independence from Portugal—a decision reached despite U.S. objections over the possible establishment of a Marxist regime. The divergence reflected the partnership’s limited scope and peripheral importance to the U.S., since Spektor concludes that Brazil’s anti-communist government would have reversed course had it previously known the U.S. position.
The U.S. also took issue with Brazil’s decision to seek a nuclear alliance with West Germany, since it feared Brazilian development of a nuclear weapon. The discovery years later of a clandestine bomb-building program may have justified the extra caution. In any case, Kissinger worked secretly with West Germany to derail the nuclear partnership. “When Silveira found out, he was livid: a deal between Washington and Bonn had run over Brasilia,” writes Spektor.
To Spektor’s credit, he resists the temptation of extrapolating too much from what he calls the “shipwrecked experiment” to apply it to contemporary policymakers. Still, it’s hard not to draw some parallels, and even some lessons, with the lovefest and tensions of today.
As in the 1970s, natural wariness persists today even in the face of renewed optimism at the highest level about closer ties. Indeed, while Nixon’s insight that “Brazil is the key to the future” is now accepted as truer than ever, the U.S.-Brazil bilateral agenda remains short on substance. Personal rapport helps, and former U.S. President George W. Bush laid much of the groundwork, developing an unexpected relationship with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and initiating a series of initiatives with the Brazilian government. But for President Barack Obama’s fast-forming friendship with President Lula to lead to lasting cooperation, institutional forces must leverage progress so that it can be sustained when disagreements emerge.
The burden is on the U.S. to find ways to reinvigorate and deepen ties. Barriers on Brazil’s agricultural and ethanol exports have reinforced ideological elements of Brazil’s Southern Hemisphere-focused foreign policy—a strategy that helped China displace the U.S. as Brazil’s largest trading partner last year. Brazil wants and should play a bigger global role on everything from energy and the environment to the Middle East. But heated words over Brazil’s welcome of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in late 2009 and fallout over the U.S. decision to recognize the November 2009 Honduran elections point to the risk of clashing visions.
Harnessing that enormous potential for collaboration—both geostrategic and economic—requires careful statecraft that even as skilled of a statesman as Kissinger might find a little daunting. Making the task easier, we have Spektor’s insight to shine some light on the path forward.