Kurtz: U.S.-Brazil relations show it takes two to samba


Michael Kurtz, Columnist

After a lengthy post-election spell in which domestic concerns such as immigration, gun control, psychotic former law-enforcement officials and ill-fated sea vessels dominated the news, stodgier issues of foreign policy have recently returned to the fore. Bitter Republicans have been ragging on former Senator Chuck Hagel for not sharing their normative views on Middle Eastern policy; General John Allen, formerly the top commander in Afghanistan, opted to retire; and former Senator John Kerry just made his first speech as Secretary of State.

In the coming days, loads of ink (such as it still exists) will be spilled as commentators chew over Hagel’s views on Israel, the future prospects for Afghanistan and the extent to which Kerry will continue the “pivot to Asia” that characterized Hillary Clinton’s tenure at Foggy Bottom.

These issues are all certainly worthy of conversation. However, when the world beyond our shores is discussed in this country, one hears nary a mention of Latin America — nor, more specifically, its most powerful nation, Brazil, which recently surpassed the United Kingdom to become the world’s sixth-largest economy. Should this blase attitude continue to seize the policy-makers and thought leaders of the future, the U.S. could miss out on what could be one of the most valuable and mutually beneficial international relationships of this century.

Self-interest should provide plenty of opportunities for bilateral cooperation, as Congressional Research Service reports show that Brazil could soon become one of the world’s five biggest oil and gas producers. This boost — coupled with enormous American demand (it remains the world’s biggest consumer) — means the US will likely import much more Brazilian oil in the coming decades.

The benefits of drawing more heavily on Brazilian oil supplies would include decreasing dependence on unreliable allies such as Saudi Arabia, counterbalancing China’s increasing involvement in a traditionally American sphere of influence and securing a constant source of energy while fracking and oil-sand extraction approach full technological maturity.

There is definitely room for improvement. Brazil is only our 10th biggest supplier, even though it is a stable democracy with enormous offshore oil reserves that could contain as many as 123 billion barrels, more than twice the number estimated in previous government reports.

Brazil could, in return, negotiate for improved U.S. funding for counternarcotic operations in the dangerous tri-border region it shares with Argentina and Paraguay, more counterterrorism support ahead of both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, or even a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The latter is of particular interest to Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. This prospect has given President Barack Obama pause, however, given that Rousseff’s predecessor Lula da Silva failed to back him in pressuring Cuba on human rights or levying sanctions on Iran.

The absence of a consistent, long-term Brazilian orientation on international issues that matter to the U.S. — in contrast to steadfast support from allies like Canada and Great Britain — worries policymakers in Washington. There are small signs of hope, however. The countries are considering mutual visa waivers, the 112th Congress lifted tariffs on imported ethanol and both Obama and Rousseff have done away with protectionist barriers on products such as American whiskey and Cachaca, a Brazilian liquor.

The U.S. and Brazil must work together, not only out of self-interest, but also to advance free markets and marginalize the region’s dictatorial thugs and fiery leftist provocateurs.

Michael Kurtz is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].