It certainly would be easy to criticize Barack Obama's administration for Brazil's unprecedented cancellation of a state visit by President Dilma Rousseff over reports that the United States spied on her government and Brazil's state-run oil company, Petrobras. Especially since the administration made its political bones disparaging George W. Bush's foreign policy and promising to "restore" America's image in the world after the turbulent post-9/11 years.
In truth, let it be said, Rousseff's decision has less to do with what the administration did right or wrong and more to do with Brazil's own internal struggle to define what kind of country it wants to be on the world stage. The administration isn't totally faultless (see below), but years of solid political leadership and economic growth have brought Latin America's largest country to the precipice of a momentous decision: Does it want to be seen as simply a leader by acclamation of the developing world, to be seen and heard politely in international forums, but with little ultimate consequence? Or does it aspire for a meaningful seat at the big table, able to project power and exert influence to actually affect the course of international events?
It depends on the day of the week. If it were to be the latter, it seems the appropriate response to the NSA spying allegations would have been: "We are certainly not naive enough to think that governments do not conduct espionage on one another. We want to assure the Brazilian people that we make every attempt to ensure the security of our communications both inside and outside the government." And in doing so, be done with the issue and move on.
Instead, Rousseff opted to be shocked that there was gambling going on in Rick's Café -- that countries spy on one another as a matter of course. Presumably, her intention was to make a statement on behalf of countries lacking the capacity to do the same (which certainly doesn't include Brazil) that such activity is an affront to sovereignty and unacceptable in a flatter world. (Good luck with that.)
Certainly, there is no shortage of modern, forward-thinking Brazilian leaders who are keen to embrace the challenges of globalization and are willing to do the heavy lifting required to make Brazil a consequential global player. Unfortunately, you will not find many at the powerful Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is still dominated by those with a circa 1970s Third World "us-versus-them" mindset. With the United States in particular, they still see relations as a zero-sum game: Whatever is bad for the United States is good for them and vice versa.
With a commitment to freedom and democratic values, extraordinary natural resources, and a huge population, Brazil is a country that the world should welcome as a productive and positive contributor to global stability. But for now, the Brazilian political establishment is still working on that transition, and it will be done on their own terms and at their own pace.
Still, one aspect of this disappointing turn of events is that Rousseff's snub might have been prevented if Obama had spent more time cultivating a closer relationship with her. He has certainly said the right things at the appropriate times, but there has been precious little serious follow-up. Obviously, in Rousseff's calculation, it came down to, "What do I have to lose?" Absent any meaningful cost to her government, she can afford to think small (i.e., domestic politics) in turning down a state visit to Washington.
What is more likely is that if there had actually been any stakes involved for her -- such as ongoing high-level engagement (other than the occasional POTUS salutation), meaningful bilateral economic cooperation, or other initiatives that demonstrate the very positive benefits of a robust bilateral relationship -- then Rousseff could have made a very different calculation. For now, however, the opportunity is lost and those in Brazil suspicious of the United States are ascendant, meaning that U.S.-Brazil relations won't soon recover.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.