Dilma and Obama in search of the ‘lost chemistry’

PRESIDENT DILMA Rousseff may still find what she calls “political conditions” to keep her plans of visiting the US in October.

But keeping the chemistry alive will be harder after the National Security Agency (NSA) was accused of intercepting her own communications with staff, and perhaps breaking into the network of Brazil’s flagship state-owned oil giant, Petrobras.

The reports aired on Brazilian TV Globo were based on material leaked by Edward Snowden to the Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald. You can read about them here and here.

Last week at the G20 summit in St Petersburg, President Barack Obama offered an apology of sorts by acknowledging that the US perhaps shouldn’t be sticking its nose so deep into its allies’ communications:

“What is true is that, you know, we are bigger. We have greater capabilities. The difference between our capabilities and other countries’ probably tracks the difference in military capabilities between countries”, Obama said.

“And because technology is changing so rapidly, because these capabilities are growing, it is important for us to step back and review what it is that we’re doing. Just because we can get information doesn’t necessarily always mean that we should. There may be costs and benefits to doing certain things, and we’ve got to weigh those.”

Is that enough?

But that will not satisfy the Brazilian government, and re-infusing enthusiasm in relations that were already “good but shallow” – to borrow an expression from Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington think-tank – will be challenging.

Even if the visit takes place, questions about whether the US-Brazil relation is really “strategic”, as any state reception intends to portray, will persist.

“Friends, enemies or troublemakers?”, the NSA asked of the Brazilian government in a slideshow, according to Globo and Greenwald.

It is debatable whether the question is accurate to describe Brazil’s intentions even during the height of tensions with the US, when President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and the Turkish PM Recep Erdogan struck a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme.

American officials reacted angrily, yet the negotiations had taken place with Washington’s blessing, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was among the first to know about the deal, information she received first hand from Brazil’s then Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.

Just as two objects cannot occupy the same place at one time, there is no vacuum of power in international relations either. Only under this prism would Brazil’s geopolitical rising threaten American hegemony.

In practice, Brazil’s ascension has seen partnerships with the US in many ways: agricultural projects in third countries, for example, as well as military cooperation in UN peacekeeping missions.

As for Dilma Rousseff, ever since she was elected she has been trying to mend relations with the big northern brother. Last year, when many commentators criticised the White House for not offering her a state visit in April, she made no public fuss about it.

The latest embarrassment she finds herself in cools off a positive agenda where government and private sector would seek to co-operate in areas such as education, energy, and military aviation.

Initiatives that would entail information sharing, such as Brazil’s inclusion in the Global Entry programme, have also been considerably weakened.

In a statement, she said that – if confirmed – the reports will show that the rationale for US spying has nothing to do with security but with economic and strategic interests.

“There is no doubt that Petrobras is no threat to any country’s security. It is, on the other hand, one of the world’s biggest oil assets, one that belongs to the Brazilian people.”

That is not to say that the whole US-Brazil agenda is at a standstill, waiting for the so-called “political conditions” that Brazil is trying to assess.

But even if they exist, enthusiasm for them is unlikely to be the same.

Photo: Dilma and Obama meet in New York in Sept 2011 (Roberto Stuckert Filho/ Brazilian Presidency)

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