Elite Perceptions of the US

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While official perception has been negative, there is not strong anti-American feeling in public opinion


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When we speak about perceptions of the United States within Brazil, a clear distinction has to be made between public opinion and the government perceptions.

Brazil and the US have a long history of mistrust and difficulties since the mid-19th century, but the official view in relation to the United States over the last twelve years with a Brazilian government ruled by the Workers Party (PT) has been generally negative - mainly for ideological reasons but more recently as a consequence of the leaks about NSA monitoring presidential and state-owned companies.

This negative perception has also been aggravated by conflict over free trade, and the US attack on Iraq and its consequences for the world. The view of the world that the PT brought included the belief that the US was in decline.

But while official perception has been negative, there is not a strong anti-American feeling in public opinion. The average Brazilian admires the American way of life and the values of US society. As with many countries in Europe - and even in the US - not many people are aware of what is going on in politics and in the US economy. But businessmen, politicians and scholars do. The general perception is positive among the business community and the large majority of scholars, although left-wing politicians and scholars of course have concerns about US foreign and economic-trade policies.

Neither the South America region nor Brazil itself ranks among the United States’ main global interests. Brazil is not on Washington’s radar. The dominant perception is that South America is a low priority in US foreign policy which, in the case of Brazil, is good because it allows us a greater presence and influence in the region. This benign neglect also opens space for China to have a growing role in terms of trade and investment.

The US government does not have adequate knowledge about the region’s recent developments, perhaps because Brazil posed no threat politically, militarily, financially, economically or diplomatically, and because Brazil is not viewed in the US as politically relevant or important to the economy. Processing of information is inadequate because the governmental organizations that directly work with Brazil (the Department of State, the Treasury, Departments of Trade and Defense, the USTR) lack staff qualified or knowledgeable enough to help shape policy.

The dominant perception is that South America is a low priority in US foreign policy which, in the case of Brazil, is good because it allows us a greater presence and influence in the region

The Department of State’s bureau for Western hemisphere affairs was staffed only recently with a few specialists on Brazil, and few staff members spoke Portuguese. The Treasury, the organ with the best knowledge and most accurate analysis of the real political, economic and financial situation in Latin America, was rather cut off from the rest of the US government. This meant that, despite always viewing Brazil rather negatively, the Department of Trade and its representational organ (USTR) were, by necessity, holding the most frequent dialogues with Brazil.

Despite presidential rhetoric about Latin America as a priority, the White House, National Security Council and Economic Council, were too engaged with American problems elsewhere in the world to draft new foreign policy. And those responsible for Latin America did not have the political weight to make a positive impact and had to work with inadequate contributions and suggestions from other, less qualified sources.

Some so-called Brazilianists and experts in Latin America suffered the same deficiencies. They thought they understood Brazil, but they held true to the same equivocal perceptions of old. In the American Congress, ignorance about Brazil was even worse, given the overall lack of general knowledge about what went on elsewhere in the world. Brazil simply did not inhabit this important source of power in Washington.

The information in the hands of the American businesspeople was largely positive and accurate, but had no official channel of communication through which to inform governmental decision-making.

Therefore, over the last thirty or forty years, in the absence of a coherent policy, a clear definition of priorities and a positive agenda, a certain ill-will towards Brazil has taken root and permeated the middle tier of US government departmental staff—exactly where there is the least change over time.

This ill-will has stemmed not only from decades-long trade disputes, but also from the perception nurtured by the local bureaucrats that Brazil behaved differently to the rest of the region. By adopting public attitudes and positions that diverged from or clashed with those defended by the US, whilst putting its own interests first, Brazil set itself apart from its regional neighbours.

The Brazil-US relationship is centred mostly on economics and trade. The United States carries influence all over the world in politics, economics, finance, trade and defence, and Brazil is no exception. Although US financial and trade policy has only indirect influence on the Brazilian economy, the increase of interest rates in the US will still have a direct impact.