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By John Lyons, Wall Street Journal
SAO PAULO, Brazil (Dow Jones)–U.S. President Barack Obama is set to meet with Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff in Washington on Monday amid optimism for closer ties with South America’s rising economic power.
The issues in play reflect Brazil’s growing economic reach. Brazil’s biggest trade partner these days is China, not the U.S., and U.S. officials want Brazil as an ally in nudging China to let its currency rise. Brazil’s bigger economic presence in regional neighbors such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Cuba could allow Brazil to act as a moderating force in a region that has become more anti-U.S. in recent years.
Mostly, U.S. interests in Brazil are fueled by a growing consensus that the commodity-rich nation has put its history of periodic economic meltdowns behind it and will play a bigger role in world affairs as its economy grows. Brazil passed the U.K. as the world’s sixth-largest economy recently and is seeking a bigger voice in global forums such as the United Nations and the G-20 grouping of big economies.
Indeed, Rousseff’s U.S. trip comes a year after Obama traveled to Brasilia to meet her, a diplomatic overture that, observers say, underscored the Obama administration’s desire to hit the reset button on relations that became strained under Rousseff’s predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
(This story and related background material will be available on The Wall Street Journal website, WSJ.com.)
Under da Silva, U.S. officials complained, Brazil’s attempts to flex growing economic weight on the global stage often created headaches for U.S. diplomats seeking to resolve regional and global issues. Brazil refused to recognize U.S.-backed elections to resolve a Honduran coup; Brazil opposed U.S.-backed sanctions to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Though Rousseff is da Silva’s protege and hails from his left-wing Workers Party, she introduced a more pragmatic foreign-policy agenda tuned to providing direct economic benefits to Brazil, rather than carving out a protagonist role for the nation in the Middle East and elsewhere. The result, observers say, may be fewer distractions as the countries tackle increasingly important economic issues.
Rousseff’s “priority is the domestic economy,” said Tovar Nunes, a senior Brazilian diplomat who acts as a foreign-policy spokesman, in a recent interview.
At their White House meeting, the leaders are expected to discuss a range of issues, from global economics to regional security and the environment.
The U.S. is likely to seek Brazil’s support on regional issues ahead of a summit of hemispheric leaders later this month in Colombia. Some analysts say Brazil will urge Obama to add star power to a major U.N. environmental conference planned for Rio de Janeiro this year. Obama hasn’t yet committed to attend.
All the same, the potential for tense moments remains. Rousseff is expected to criticize an expansive U.S. monetary policy that many in the emerging economies blame for creating imbalances such as overvalued currencies and asset bubbles. Rousseff made a similar complaint to Germany’s Angela Merkel last month. Europe, like the U.S., has interest rates near zero to spur growth.
Not much is expected to be accomplished on long-standing bilateral trade issues. Brazil wants to sell more of its beef, orange juice, steel and sugar to the U.S., but those politically sensitive industries are mostly protected by U.S. policies that are unlikely to budge. The U.S. wants more access to Brazil’s growing economy for manufactured goods, but Brazilian factory owners are already complaining of foreign competition and clamoring for more protections.
One chance for goodwill: The U.S. let its tariffs on ethanol, an important Brazilian industry, expire last year.
But other economic issues have become tricky. Vast new Brazilian oil finds mean the country may become an important source of regional crude as production in Mexico and Venezuela declines. But criminal charges and some $22 billion in lawsuits against Chevron Corp. following a deep-water oil leak last year raise questions about Brazil as an operating environment for U.S. firms.
Meantime, Boeing Co. is competing with manufacturers in France and Sweden for a contract to sell some $30 billion in fighter jets to the Brazilian military. A recent U.S. decision to cancel an order of Brazilian-made military training planes is a strike against the American effort in deeply nationalistic Brazil.
Rousseff’s economic focus may foster deeper ties in unexpected ways. Consider one program, called Science Without Borders, which provides scholarships for thousands of Brazilians a year at top U.S. graduate schools. The immediate goal is to make Brazil more productive. But such exchange programs also pay diplomatic dividends as top-educated Brazilians forge bonds in the U.S.
On Tuesday, Rousseff travels to Boston, where she will visit Massachusetts Institute of Technology and meet with Brazilian scholarship students already studying at Harvard University.
More than any single agreement, Rousseff may be seeking something that was a scarce commodity for the volatile nation in past decades: Respect. The country’s leaders have sought to be treated as a partner with the U.S. to be consulted on important regional issues since U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower visited Brazil in 1960. Brazil has sought a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council essentially since the council came into existence.
Such demands used to draw mostly laughs. But that has begun to change amid Brazil’s economic growth. Obama is speeding up Brazilian travel-visa applications, in part because Brazilians are starting to outspend Europeans in key U.S. tourist destinations such as New York and Florida.
Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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