Magazine article Americas Quarterly

The Washington Dissensus: A Privileged Observer's Perspective on U.S.-Brazil Relations

Magazine article Americas Quarterly

The Washington Dissensus: A Privileged Observer's Perspective on U.S.-Brazil Relations

Article excerpt

The Washington Dissensus: A Privileged Observer's Perspective on U.S.-Brazil Relations Rubens Barbosa Paperback, 272 pages


Brazil is little understood or appreciated in the United States. The lack of knowledge about the world's seventh largest economy- and the second largest democracy in the Western Hemisphere-is particularly evident in Washington beyond a small circle of "Brazil hands." When the subject of Brazil comes up at all in Beltway policy circles, it is usually discussed in the context of a nonthreatening friend who shares a worldview and interests similar to the U.S., along with a persistent wish to see Brazil play an even greater role in international affairs, and as a moderating influence across the region.

But Brazil, as Rubens Barbosa makes clear in The Washington Dissensus, has a different view-both of its own role in regional and global affairs, and its relationship with the United States. Barbosa, who capped a distinguished 40-year career in Brazil's foreign service with a stint as ambassador to Washington from June 1999 to April 2004, traces the evolution of his country's diplomacy toward the U.S. from what he describes as the traditional, work-within-the-system approach of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's administration to the more strident diplomacy pursued by the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva government.

Barbosa, now retired from government and freer to speak his mind, is generally critical of the change in Brazil's foreign policy priorities. This makes his account even more compelling to U.S. policymakers who may regard Brazil with blinkered eyes. He writes, "U.S. policy toward Brazil is still based on blurred visions, myths, stereotypes, and distortions of reality."

What makes Barbosa's book especially authoritative is that he was on the inside during a pivotal period in the bilateral relationship. During his tenure, Barbosa was a key interlocutor for the governments of both Cardoso and Lula-a period that spanned the 9/11 attacks, the beginning of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Quebec City Summit of the Americas, and the cratering of negotiations for a Free Trade Area of the Americas, among other events-all of which he discusses in his book.

Moving effortlessly between discussions of policy and grand national strategy to tactics and the day-to-day role-playing of an ambassador, Barbosa reviews the tectonic political shifts occurring in each nation and how they impacted the bilateral relationship, while detailing his efforts to operate effectively as Brazil's top representative in Washington. The high point for him was clearly the period when President Bill Clinton and Cardoso's administrations overlapped, after which the "tone and content of the bilateral relationship would never be the same again," and when "fun- damental differences" were "resolved without much ado." The advent of the George W. Bush administration in 2001 and Lula's administration in 2003 recast the bilateral relationship. Despite the genuine personal relationship that the two leaders shared, Brazil's shifting foreign policy priorities, coupled with Washington's lack of regional focus and understanding, led to a hardened and divergent policy environment. As ambassador, Barbosa writes, he was unimpressed with the level of knowledge about Brazil he encountered in the capital (including among other members of the Latin American diplomatic community).

Much of the book focuses on the handful of meetings that occurred between the respective presidents. This reveals-perhaps unintentionally- Brazil's limitations in its approaches to Washington. Unlike other Latin American countries, Brazil tends to focus primarily on official diplomatic channels, thus neglecting or downplaying the many informal channels of influence and access that Washington famously provides. …

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