The Bolsonaro-Trump Relationship: Costs for Brazilian Values and Interests

By Laís Forti Thomaz and Tullo Vigevani*

Bolsonaro and Trump

Jair Bolsonaro (L) shakes hands with Donald Trump (R) at the White House in 2019/ Palácio do Planalto/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

New priorities in Brazil-U.S. bilateral relations since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019 have shifted the country away from its longstanding diplomatic values. In his eagerness to demonstrate a strong capacity to reach international deals, Bolsonaro has made concessions in talks that haven’t produced concrete benefits for Brazil.

  • Talks on a proposed merger of Boeing and Embraer ended when the U.S. company walked away from the table. Negotiations with the United States on the use of U.S. technology in space launches from the Alcântara Launch Center have been inconclusive – even after reaching the Alcântara Technological Safeguards Agreement (AST) and the Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation Agreement (RDT&E). Brazil granted a visa waiver to U.S. travelers without any reciprocity for Brazilian citizens visiting the United States. Even the government’s interest in joining the OECD has been controversial: its candidacy required Brazil to abandon its developing-country status at the WTO, and the Trump Administration then gave priority for OECD accession to Argentina.
  • In trade, for years Brazil has been one of the few countries in the world that has maintained a steady deficit with the United States. The expansion of quotas on ethanol and wheat from Brazil in favor of the U.S. (without opening the market for Brazilian agricultural commodities like sugar) and steel and aluminum tariffs are examples of unbalanced trade issues. The Brazil-U.S. Commission on Economic and Trade Relations has been negotiating various rules, but tariffs are not on the table. USTR Robert Lighthizer has stated, moreover, that the Administration doesn’t have “any plans right now for an FTA with Brazil.” A new “mini” trade deal supported by the Brazil-U.S. Business Council and the American Chamber of Commerce in Brazil may be forthcoming, but there is no evidence that it will better distribute the benefits of trade between the two countries.
  • When Trump mentions countries with the worst performance in combating COVID-19, he highlights Brazil and supports measures to prevent Brazilians from entering the United States.

The Bolsonaro Administration does not appear troubled by these failures, despite Brazil’s unilateral concessions, because they parallel the President’s worldview. Bolsonaro’s philosophical approach to foreign affairs is not far from the idea of the Monroe Doctrine and the realist theories that prevailed during the Cold War, but this time against China. The inclusion of Brazil as a major non-NATO ally can be seen in this logic. His team considers a close relationship with the Trump Administration as essential to Brazil in order to achieve its economic, strategic, and political objectives.

  • Bolsonaro and his advisors may also believe their responsibility is diluted by the fact that most of the recent agreements emerge from negotiations that started in previous Administrations, especially during Michel Temer’s 28 months in office preceding Bolsonaro’s inauguration in 2019. But the way that Bolsonaro concluded these agreements reversed key elements of traditional Brazilian diplomacy. Among them are the prominence of the advocacy of multilateralism, opposition to any kind of unilateralism, and respect for international law and sovereignty. Former Brazilian foreign ministers serving presidents of all major political parties since 1990 have issued a statement regretting this shift away from Brazilian allegiance to international institutions.

As with his embrace of chloroquine as a COVID‑19 treatment, Bolsonaro seems to believe that Trump’s solutions to bi-national problems are in Brazil’s interest. The resulting alignment with Washington borders on subservience – harming Brazil’s other strategic partnerships and strong foreign policy principles. Brazil is drifting away from Latin America, especially Argentina, as well as from the BRICS countries. The government is also neglecting Mercosur, despite the collective’s recent agreement with the European Union. Some European countries, concerned about Brazilian government policies on the environment and Amazon rainforest preservation, have been questioning Bolsonaro’s attitudes and cooling on the deal. While the Brazilian Constitution gives priority to peaceful relations with all countries, members of the Bolsonaro cabinet have suggested supporting a possible invasion of Venezuela.

  • The lack of concrete benefits for Brazil from the U.S. relationship does not appear likely to drive a reassessment of Bolsonaro’s approach. Similarly, the government’s Trump-like confrontations with a large part of the international community, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN), show no sign of diminishing despite their high costs. Brazil and the United States have been strategic partners – as Presidents Lula da Silva and George W. Bush reaffirmed in 2005 when establishing a new strategic dialogue – yet the two countries’ current presidents have disrupted the terms of this relationship in ways that will take years, if not decades, to mend.

July 13, 2020

*Laís F. Thomaz is Professor at the Federal University of Goiás (UFG). Tullo Vigevani is Professor at the State University of São Paulo (Unesp) and researcher of the Center of Contemporary Culture Studies (CEDEC). Both are researchers at the National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies on the United States (INCT-INEU).

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