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US-Brazil Relations: A New Opportunity for Cooperation

Wednesday, March 22, 2023 1:36 PM | Tim Horgan (Administrator)

The relationship between the United States and Brazil has historically been characterized by periods of cooperation and tension, with issues ranging from trade, to democracy, and human rights. In the 20th century, the United States supported the military dictatorship in Brazil, but after the fall of this regime, the United States worked with Brazil as the country transitioned to democracy. In recent years, climate change and environmental concerns have emerged as key areas of focus for both countries. With the election of President Joe Biden in the United States and the return of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, the two countries face new opportunities and challenges that will shape the future of their relationship for years to come.

The official position of the US State Department is that the United States and Brazil enjoy a strategic partnership based on shared democratic values and economic interests. The two countries have strong trade and investment ties, with Brazil being the ninth-largest trading partner of the United States, and the U.S. being the second-largest trading partner of Brazil. In 2019, the United States made an agreement to suspend Brazil’s designation as a developing country in the World Trade Organization, citing concerns about its trade practices, but also simultaneously backed Brazil for a chance to join OECD. The State Department also notes that the United States supports Brazil’s economic reform efforts and recognizes its role as a regional leader. However, recent events have strained the relationship between the two countries. The presidency of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, marked by controversial statements and policies, was met with criticism from the United States and other countries.  Additionally, the Bolsonaro administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the environment, specifically the increase in deforestation of the Amazon, were other major points of contention between Brazil and the international community.

The return of Lula da Silva to the presidency in Brazil presents a new dynamic in US-Brazil relations. Lula, who served as president from 2003 to 2010, is a popular figure in Brazil and has a track record of promoting social welfare policies and environmental protection. After Lula met with Biden in Washington, D.C., they released a Joint Statement making it known that the United States plans to work with Brazil on shared priorities such as climate change and democracy. Lula has also spoken about the need to strengthen Brazil’s democratic institutions and promote social justice, which could align with the Biden administration’s priorities.

Climate change in particular will be a topic of focus in the US-Brazil relationship in the coming years. The protection of the Amazon rainforest, which is crucial to global climate stability and biodiversity, has been a source of tension between the two countries. The Bolsonaro administration’s policies were criticized by Biden during his presidential campaign, French President Emmanuel Macron, and the NGO Greenpeace, for contributing to deforestation and environmental degradation in the Amazon. When tensions were at a high point Germany and Norway suspended funding for projects to curb deforestation in Brazil. In April 2021, President Biden hosted a virtual climate summit in which he called on countries to work together to address climate change. Breaking from his earlier hardline positions, Bolsonaro agreed during the Climate Leaders Summit to end deforestation by 2030 and committed to net-zero emissions by 2050. This was an important step for Brazil in relation to climate change prevention, but the promises made by Bolsonaro must be kept by the Lula administration.

In an article for Reuters, Natalie Unterstell, President of Talanoa Institute and also coordinator of the Brazilian Climate & Development initiative, and Karen Marie Oseland, a Climate Policy Associate at Climate Advisers, argue that the private sector will play a critical role in addressing environmental challenges in Brazil. Unterstell and Oseland note that companies such as Nestle and Unilever have made commitments to reduce deforestation in their supply chains, but that more needs to be done. They argue that the Biden administration and the Lula administration could encourage more private-sector action by providing incentives and promoting transparency. However, they note that there are also risks associated with relying on the private sector, such as the potential for companies to attempt to make token environmental gestures to hide their environmentally unsustainable practices. There is also the possibility that companies may prioritize their bottom line over environmental protection, unless there are clear consequences in the forms of fines or lawsuits.

Overall, the election of Lula da Silva presents the United States with a great opportunity to cooperate with Brazil on climate change and make meaningful contributions to the preservation of the Amazon. When the United States and Brazil are aligned in climate policy, it means that the world can expect more substantial action. Brazil plays an important role in the world as a protector of the Amazon, and must carefully balance economic interests with those of the environment. Through cooperation and active dialogue, the United States and Brazil have the unique opportunity to ensure that there will be a future that preserves the Amazon and combats factors contributing to climate change. The World Affairs Council of New Hampshire encourages active participation in discussions about the environment and the role that the United States should play in collaborating with other countries on this matter.

- Ben Duffy-Howard, WACNH Intern

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