By Joao Augusto de Castro Neves
When Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff travels to Washington next week, she won't be looking for a free trade deal or military assistance. Her country, the "B" that begins the "BRICS," primarily wants recognition -- specifically U.S. support for a permanent seat on a revamped U.N. Security Council. But this time around, Rousseff won't even be getting a state dinner.
Washington, due mainly to bureaucratic inertia, isn't ready to give Brazil the recognition it wants. Its reluctance may actually encourage other nations to behave in ways contrary to U.S. interests.
Years of macroeconomic stability, sustainable economic growth, and a cluster of successful social policies gave rise not only to a new and thriving Brazilian middle class, but also to Brazilian multinational companies, the so-called national champions. Externally, these changes translated into greater confidence -- inside and outside official circles -- and a wider scope of international ambitions.
Brazil is beginning to display the characteristics of a regional hegemon -- it has attracted more illegal immigrants from surrounding countries, and helped Colombia's government conduct rescue missions for hostages held by the FARC. And since 2004, Brazil has been leading the U.N. stabilization mission in Haiti. But Brazil's "holy grail" remains a seat at the Security Council table. And it won't get recognition (yet) from the most important member of the Permanent Five, whose support it very much covets.
According to many foreign policy specialists in Washington, Brazil does not deserve a place in the top echelons of the U.N. because it is not a nuclear power and is unwilling to share the burden of leadership. Another line of reasoning highlights the fact that the U.S. does not endorse Brazil's bid -- as it did with India -- because South America is not a very relevant region in the U.S. strategic chessboard. The remaining argument point to the fact that a potential endorsement could hurt U.S. interests with other key allies in the region, specifically Mexico and Colombia.
Even if some of these considerations may hold elements of truth, at the end of the day they hamper the deepening of relations between the two largest democracies and economies in the Western hemisphere. Brazil could do a better job explaining to the U.S. -- and the world -- how it would behave as a permanent member of the Security Council; but the U.S. could also rethink some of its arguments against Brazil.
The fact that Brazil is not a nuclear power and that South America is not a relevant strategic hotspot should count in favor of Brazil's aspirations, not against. If the region is relatively calm, it is because of the collective effort of Brazil and Argentina to end their economic and military rivalry in the 1980s. As a matter of fact, the rapprochement also defused the nuclear component of the rivalry, something that India and Pakistan were not able to do. The U.S. decision to endorse India's bid and ignore Brazil's sends a perverse message. It awards a country that snubbed every major nonproliferation regime while punishing a country that willingly adhered to these very same regimes.
Although the repercussion of the endorsement of Brazil's bid over U.S. interests with key allies in the region is likely to be negative, its importance is widely overplayed. Even nuclear Pakistan's outright resistance did not factor in U.S. geopolitical calculus when it endorsed India's bid. In addition, for some time now, the U.S.-Latin American agenda is in fact a collage of increasingly specific bilateral relations. Any dissatisfaction, therefore, could be dealt with bilaterally without any relevant repercussion on the regional agenda.
Next week's visit by Rousseff is likely to pass without the words that Brazil wants to hear from President Barack Obama. Those words will eventually come from Obama or a future U.S. president, but their absence in the short term will keep relations between the Western Hemisphere's two most important democracies from reaching their productive potential.
Joao Augusto de Castro Neves is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Latin America practice.
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