Brazil is a friend worth keeping

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stopped off in Ecuador this week to improve relations with leftist President Rafael Correa, battered by a U.S. military agreement with Ecuador’s next-door neighbor, Colombia. She supported Correa’s proposal to collect income taxes from the wealthy, who chronically underpay across Latin America, in what appears to be part of a worthy effort to nudge Ecuador out of the sphere of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Now the Obama administration should focus on Brazil, the region’s economic power and real counterweight to Chavez, to ensure that our bilateral relationship is not derailed by differences over how to address Iran’s nuclear program.

Relations between the United States and Brazil have always been complex, with many common interests in Latin America’s military and economic stability, and differences over everything from Cuba and Honduras policy to U.S. cotton subsidies and ethanol tariffs. Brazil has long struggled to balance friendship with the United States and independence from Washington, but even more now as one of the emerging so-called BRIC powers (Brazil, Russia, India and China). The Obama administration, meanwhile, is struggling with its commitment to multilateralism and the reality of these countries’ rising influence.

In the last year, disputes with Brazil have arisen over the U.S. agreement to use eight Colombian bases for military training, the coup in Honduras against President Manuel Zelaya — and U.S. support for the subsequently elected government of President Porfirio Lobo — and now over a nuclear fuel swap with Iran negotiated by Brazil and Turkey and rejected by the Obama administration in favor of economic sanctions.

Communications between Washington and Brasilia over Iran’s uranium enrichment program appear to have been poor. Given the experience of the Iraq war, Brazil sees economic sanctions as a precursor to the use of military force. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva apparently believed he had received a green light from President Obama to seek an alternative that would get the U.S. and Iran back to the negotiating table. The administration seems to have thought it adequately signaled that it would proceed with sanctions regardless. Still, although Brazil and Turkey voted against sanctions at the United Nations, once they were adopted by the rest of the Security Council, Lula made clear that his government would abide by them. And that’s the bottom line.

U.S.-Brazil relations go far beyond Iran. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and his Brazilian counterpart recently signed a military cooperation agreement. Brazil is a partner in rebuilding Haiti. And the two countries have made progress in trade negotiations. Moving forward, the Obama administration likely will have to “agree to disagree” with Brazil on some issues, as it does with Russia and China, while seeking new areas of accord. If Brazil wants to leverage its economic power on the international political stage, it will have to be a more careful, perhaps more sophisticated interlocutor. Lula should use the force of his personality and popularity in the last months of his presidency to promote friendship with the United States and deliver a healthy binational relationship to his successor.