Elite Perceptions of the US

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They have more in common than the differences often underscored when political tensions are high


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  • Inconsistent foreign policy
  • Perceived arrogance
  • Histories

It comes as no surprise that Brazil has strong cultural and political bonds with the United States as they are the two largest - and arguably most relevant - political players in the region, as well as sharing a post-colonial identity. America’s flourishing and vibrant democracy inspired Brazil when it broke with its own monarchical past, with the newly-founded republic adopting the official name of ‘United States of Brazil’ and its new constitution envisioning a federal political system very much akin to the American one.

As early as 1889, many Brazilian officials believed that following in the footsteps of the regional superpower would lead Brazil to itself become a power. Moreover, the fact that every other continental republic south of the Río Grande had a Spanish colonial background gave them a strong sense of exceptionalism. Within a few years, bilateral relations were so strong they were called ‘an unwritten alliance’. This prosperous relationship lasted for at least half a century.

But this is only part of the story. Most of the ties nowadays are not related to a shared historical narrative or political structure. With the rise of America as the Western power in the wake of the Cold War, two major transformations took place. Culturally, Brazil became progressively ‘Americanized’, and found itself dragged into the superpower conflict and pressed to align with the US despite no economic or political benefit of doing so. The Cold War quickly took its toll on Brazilian politics and economy.

Following Brazil’s abrupt political left turn in the early 1960s, the Kennedy-Johnson administration in the United States was well aware that a left-wing government with political autonomy could threaten America’s interests. It began supporting and sponsoring opposition politicians, intellectuals and think-tanks, on the grounds that President João Goulart was leading Brazil into becoming ‘a second Cuba’. When the Brazilian military seized control in 1964 - allegedly to safeguard order and stability - the coup would not have been possible without US financial and logistical aid. Democracy would only be restored 21 years later, leaving long-lasting scars in Brazilian society.

It is no exaggeration to claim that Brazil has suffered each and every time it took an independent path from the United States. This is by no means an absolution of our own domestic problems, such as corruption, social inequality, poor economic policies, authoritarianism, political instability, and the like. But the road would not have been as winding if external pressures had not been so harsh.

Resentment against the United States only grew bigger, especially among the generation who witnessed how a lack of harmony in Brazil-US relations exposed Brazilian vulnerabilities and were often an obstacle to development.

…the US is not usually regarded as a true ‘enemy’ of Brazilians, and cooperation and cordiality are much more commonplace than friction and open disagreements

As a politically-engaged citizen for the last two decades and the son of a generation who struggled for democracy, I tend to buy the narrative that depicts the United States as a self-interested country, often oblivious to the social, economic or political problems of its neighbours and partners. This narrative places Brazil as a victim of great power politics on its path to development and stability. As a trained political scientist, I know when and in what conditions I should take this story with a grain of salt.

On the other hand, as a child of globalization, I have lived in an American world, listened to American music, watched American TV shows and movies, and read American scholarly works. Very much like most middle and upper-class adults, I have the US as a standard when it comes to education, popular culture, and consumer behaviour. In spite of problems such as racism and police misconduct (which have resurfaced lately), I would rather bring up my children in the United States than in Brazil. And getting an academic position in the United States is still something that I fondly aspire to, not because the job market is better than in Brazil, but because America prioritizes higher education and research prospects.

Such an ambiguous perception of the United States has followed me ever since high school. As a teenager, I used to love the romantic ideology of revolutionary Russia but wanted to go on an exchange program in the US. As an undergraduate student of International Relations during the heyday of the ‘war on terror’, I was trained to look at the world from a realist, down-to-earth perspective, leaving leftist ideologies aside and learning to appreciate economic liberalism.

However, I was critical of the Bush administration and an imperialist side of America that the Iraqi and Afghan campaigns brought to the fore. As a foreign policy specialist who have observed and analysed presidents Lula da Silva’s and Obama’s administrations, I understand the limits and virtues of both countries’ global strategies, and I also acknowledge that at many times these strategies have been mutually excluding.

In different ways, this ambiguity is present in most Brazilians, as well as among the political establishment. Yet, anti-Americanism in Brazil does not seem to be absolute, for the US is not usually regarded as a true ‘enemy’ of Brazilians, and cooperation and cordiality are much more commonplace than friction and open disagreements.

For example, from 1924 to 2009 the US was our most important trade partner and, although China has now replaced it in that, America remains the main destination of business and manufactured goods. Every Brazilian president in the last 35 years paid an official visit to the United States.

In addition, Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has always tried to strike a balance between Brazil’s power aspirations and its partnership with the United States. After all, as Western countries with a sense of shared identity, they seem to have more in common than the differences that are often underscored when political tensions are high.