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A Friend the U.S. Can't Afford to Lose

April 01, 2001|Peter Hakim | Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue

WASHINGTON — After his meeting with Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, President George W. Bush should realize that the United States cannot achieve its most important Western Hemisphere objectives without Brazilian cooperation. Brazil's international stature and influence have grown as its democracy, restored in 1985 after 20 years of military rule, has matured--and its economy, the world's eighth largest, has gained footing after years of sky-high inflation and lackluster performance.

Under Cardoso's leadership, Brazil has become far more assertive in regional and world affairs. His foreign-policy ambitions were evident last year, when Brasilia convened the first ever South American summit, which included 12 of the region's presidents. With Mexico also expanding its regional role, Washington will need to consult, cooperate and compromise more to make headway on its hemispheric agenda.

On occasions when they are allies on an issue, the United States has welcomed Brazil's newly active stance. The two countries have worked together to resolve the Ecuador-Peru border dispute and to sustain civilian rule in Paraguay. Strains invariably emerge, however, when the two governments take opposing sides, as they did in responding to former President Alberto Fujimori's rigging of elections in Peru a year ago. Disagreements over Colombia policy and hemispheric trade are currently testing U.S.-Brazilian ties.

With 34 Western Hemisphere heads of state scheduled to meet in Quebec City in less than a month, the main focus of the Cardoso-Bush discussion was inter-American free-trade negotiations. If the United States and Brazil can find common ground, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is a done deal. As long as they remain at odds, however, such an area will be a pipe dream, leaving other Latin American nations without the access they want to the U.S. market.

To date, Brazil has given higher priority to other trade-policy goals, including the Mercosul commercial arrangement with its neighbors, and it has publicly disagreed with key U.S. positions. Although cordial and friendly, the presidents' meeting produced no breakthroughs. The United States has for some time sought to accelerate the free-trade-area negotiations, but Brazil has always balked. Until the White House obtains fast-track negotiating authority from Congress, however, it will lack credibility and leverage on the timing of a final agreement. Brazil also faces presidential elections next year, and does not want the FTAA, which commands little support, to be an issue then.

There were other matters left unresolved as well. Brazil wants the United States to reduce agricultural subsidies and ease antidumping practices, which act as costly nontariff barriers to Brazil's exports. But U.S. labor, industry and farm groups will continue to keep these items off the negotiating table. For its part, Brazil adamantly opposes including labor or environmental issues in trade talks, but U.S. congressional politics may demand otherwise. The two presidents should recognize that they face similar political pressures and constraints in pursuing their trade objectives. Policy choices must take account of powerful interest groups and broader public opinion, much which does not favor free trade in either country.

Bush should pay close attention to what Cardoso has to say about the dangers that Argentina's stalled economy and troubled politics pose for Brazil and for the rest of Latin America, as well as for prospects for hemispheric economic integration. Washington should be prepared to consider emergency support for Argentina, if and when it is required.

Brazil disapproves of current U.S. policy in Colombia, particularly its heavy emphasis on military assistance to fight drugs. Yet, Cardoso also recognizes the depth of Colombia's problems and its need for outside support. As the largest and most powerful nation bordering Colombia, Brazil could be a valuable U.S. ally in the search for peace and reconciliation.

That will happen only if Washington starts consistently to consult with Brasilia and hear its concerns that U.S. assistance may escalate the violence in Colombia and cause the wars to spill over into Brazil and other neighboring countries.

Beyond Colombia, there is much to be gained from a U.S.-Brazilian dialogue on how the nations of the Americas can effectively respond to situations in which democracy or peace are at risk. They might, for instance, agree that the Organization of American States be called on regularly to mediate potentially violent and destabilizing national conflicts, as it has done recently in Peru and Haiti.

First elected in 1994 and reelected four years later, President Cardoso is now Latin America's longest-serving democratic leader. He is the only Latin American president who participated in the past two Western Hemispheric summits. Although his public approval ratings in Brazil have faltered, he is one of Latin America's most highly regarded leaders in memory, exceptionally knowledgeable and thoughtful about the region and its problems.

One important lesson the two presidents should carry away from their exchange is that, when Brazil and the United States see eye to eye on an important issue--whether free trade, safeguarding democracy or making the Summit of the Americas an effective forum for hemispheric decision-making--the chances are good that agreement can be reached with every other nation of the region. When they clash, regional cooperation is usually stymied. For U.S. policy in this hemisphere, Brazil is an indispensable--if sometimes querulous--nation.

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