Obama in Brazil: Another ‘present at the creation 2.0’ opportunity

President Obama will head to Latin America next week. If the government doesn’t shut down, that is. He’s taking the wife and kids. He might as well. At least there will be someone he can talk to about the trip who — barring some calamity — will be more interested than the mainstream U.S. media that will almost certainly remain focused as it is on shop-lifters in Venice Beach and coke-fueled manic-depressives in Malibu.

That’s not to say Latin America is not important. It’s just that Americans are having a serious band-width problem at the moment and even the most vital hemispheric questions are having trouble gaining resonance. It’s also not to say that the trip is unimportant. It’ll certainly have symbolic value and be meaningful to neglected neighbors in terms of a wide variety of comparatively minor issues. (Of course, the United States regularly cycles from paying too much attention to paying too little attention to the region and back again with Latin Americans typically unhappy about either posture.)

As far as this trip goes however (and it will go pretty far — from El Salvador to Brazil to the far end of the hemisphere in Chile), there is one potentially geopolitically significant question that has emerged: will the President support the candidacy of Brazil to be a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council?

Admittedly, this too is largely a symbolic issue. Even with the most vigorous U.S. support imaginable, efforts to gain Brazil the permanent seat on the Security Council it clearly deserves face a long, winding, obstacle-filled road before being realized. But Obama intentionally or otherwise raised expectations in Brazil when he made support for India’s candidacy for a permanent seat a centerpiece of his mission there late last year. There are four countries that are regularly mentioned for such an upgrade in their status-referred to as the G-4, they are India, Brazil, Germany and Japan. The U.S. has long ago publicly supported Japan’s candidacy. The India statement now has Brazilians thinking their time has come.

Indeed, more than one senior Brazilian has said to me that they feel that if the President does not explicitly express support for Brazil’s candidacy for a permanent Security Council seat, the trip will be a failure. Some have gone further. During recent high-level Brazil-U.S. meetings, the message was delivered by the visiting Brazilians that should such support not be forthcoming, some in the Brazilian government might be inclined to re-examine how vigorously Brazil supports other U.S. objectives like strengthening the effectiveness of the NPT.

Strangely, this issue of the Security Council seat vs. gains on proliferation policy has become a trade-off in the minds of some. Obviously, if the U.S. can make gains on this front, it’s all to the good. But, the reason Brazil belongs on the Security Council is because the organization’s structure currently reflects the geopolitics of the world in 1945 and its effectiveness and legitimacy will be in doubt until new and deserving members like the G4 gain the status the original five permanent members have. Brazil should not have to jump through hoops on this. Given its economic size, its growth, its prospects, its resources, its physical size, the size of its population, its dominant status on the South American continent and its long-term leadership status among nations worldwide, it has already made an irrefutable case it belongs.

Further, of course, given that the Brazilians know as well as the U.S. does that the ultimate realization of any such move is unlikely to come until the Sasha Obama administration, it is little skin off the nose of the United States to make the statement of support now. Despite that, there are those in or near the U.S. government who are creating unnecessary obstacles to the President adding a simple statement of support, a la the India statement, to his remarks. Some are still smarting because of the Brazilian-Turkish ill-fated end-run on the Iran nuclear issue. Some are just old-fashioned Latinists trained to be distrustful of Brazil and inclined to promote some notion of “equity” among Latin countries that would be considered laughable in any other part of the world. (Can you imagine a furor over whether the Philippines would get its knickers in a twist if the U.S. treated China as though it had special status?)

The United States also should be cautious about trying to nuance the statement of support too carefully. Brazilians will lay the exact wording side-by-side with the India remarks to ensure they are equivalent-as they should be. This is no place to be cute and there is no percentage in it for the President. One of his enduring legacies can and should helping to make this the moment the international system is renovated to reflect current and future realities. With his support of the G20, his prioritization of U.S. relations with each of the BRICs, his support for restructuring within the international financial institutions and the thrust of Secretary Clinton’s strong efforts in each of these areas, he can make this into a Present at the Creation 2.0 moment, the first major rethinking of our international institutional structure since it was established in the days after World War II. The Brazil visit can and should be an important building block in that process both in terms of progress on the U.N. Security Council issue and, more importantly still, in terms of strengthening his good relationship with Brazil’s new President Dilma Rousseff to reflect a more balanced, trusting partnership between the hemisphere’s two most important countries.

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