U.S. Foreign Policy Challenges 2011: Brazil

This week, All Things Considered has been hearing about some of the challenges that loom ahead in the coming year in U.S. foreign relations. Today, the rising role of Brazil. This weekend, the South American giant will inaugurate a new president, Dilma Roussef, the chosen successor of the wildly popular Lula da Silva. For more on the relationship between the U.S. and Brazil, NPR's Robert Siegel speaks to Larry Rohter, a reporter for the New York Times and the author of the recent book Brazil on the Rise.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This week, we've been hearing about some of the challenges that loom ahead in the coming year in U.S. foreign relations. Today, the rising role of Brazil.

This weekend, the South American giant will inaugurate a new president, Dilma Roussef, and she was the chosen successor of a man with a rare record these days, a wildly popular president at the end of his term in office: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - Lula for short.

Larry Rohter is a reporter for The New York Times, former Rio bureau chief and author of the recent book "Brazil on the Rise." He joins us from New York.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. LARRY ROHTER (Reporter, The New York Times): Good to be here.

SIEGEL: Last year, President Obama called Lula the most popular president on the planet. This week, Lula said he was disappointed in the U.S.-Brazil relationship. First, what is he disappointed about?

Mr. ROHTER: He's disappointed that his initial oversized expectations haven't been fulfilled. Most Brazilians, including Lula, thought that when Obama became president, that everything was going to change. Instead, they've discovered that Barack Obama as president of the United States acts on behalf of what he perceives to be the American national interest. And as a result, differences that were always there on issues such as trade and nuclear proliferation are more out in the open.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about the couple of issues of substance that you've mentioned there that were irritants. One of them is trade. What's the problem? What is the difference of opinion there between Brazil and the U.S.?

Mr. ROHTER: Well, partly, it has to do with definitions of, you know, what is free trade and what is not. But it's also a shifting of a balance. You know, American leverage in Brazil is declining somewhat. The U.S. is no longer Brazil's number one trading partner. China took over that role in the spring of 2009. And it's likely to remain that way.

People are always shocked when I say this, but Brazil today is the fourth-largest creditor of the United States. Everybody knows that China's number one, but Brazil has foreign reserves of $250 billion or so, and two-thirds of those are in U.S. Treasury bonds and other instruments.

So the balance is shifting, and Brazil feels that it can afford to be more outspoken about issues such as ethanol, which is to take one example in the trade area.

SIEGEL: Which Brazilians regard as a U.S. subsidy that works against them.

Mr. ROHTER: Right, yeah. I mean, they're the world leader in this, and, you know, there's a 54-cent-a-gallon tariff on ethanol imports and a 36-cent-a-gallon subsidy for American producers, both of which are, I think, pretty clearly illegal under WTO rules, and under the new president, I wouldn't be surprised to see Brazil take this to the WTO.

They've already done it on oranges and cotton and gotten rulings in their favor, and this is another one where they're likely to prevail.

SIEGEL: The other issue that you mentioned is nuclear proliferation. Brazil and Turkey were involved in trying to negotiate a deal with Iran. How would you describe the difference of opinion in Brazil with Washington there?

Mr. ROHTER: Well, it's pretty substantial. You know, Brazil does not aspire to be a nuclear power. But one of Lula's foreign policy advisors told a friend of mine that when Brazil looks at Iran, it doesn't see just Iran, it also sees Brazil.

They don't want limitations on their ability or the possibility of dominating the entire nuclear cycle.

SIEGEL: Is there an issue here of respect, that is: We're a growing, huge country in the Western Hemisphere, show us more respect?

Mr. ROHTER: Yeah, this is something that's been traditional in Brazil's - the way it looks at the world. Brazilians don't want to be seen just as the country of samba and soccer and "The Girl from Ipanema." They want recognition as a rising country with aspirations and legitimate interests that go beyond Latin America.

Recently, when I've been there, I've noticed slogans that talk about (speaking foreign language), Brazil the fifth power, in a grouping that would include, presumably, the United States, China, India and the European Union. So yeah, there's very much an issue of respect as far as Brazil is concerned.

SIEGEL: Larry Rohter, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. ROHTER: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Larry Rohter, former Rio bureau chief for The New York Times, is the author of the recent book "Brazil on the Rise.

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