When the White House invited Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff for an October state visit, it was going to put the strengthening US-Brazil relationship on stage for the world to see. Instead, President Rousseff will stand before the United Nations General Assembly this week and let the world watch as she snubs the US, not only by declining the high honor of a state visit but also as she speaks on Internet privacy and sovereignty.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
Back in May, when Vice President Joe Biden visited Rio de Janeiro, he praised Brazil’s rising world influence and announced that the US was inviting Rousseff for what would be Washington’s only scheduled state visit in 2013.
“President Obama and I believe that the times present an incredible opportunity for a new era of relations between the United States and the Americas,” Mr. Biden said at the time. “We’ve never had so many capable partners.”
In the weeks after Biden’s speech, however, the Guardian newspaper and other outlets began publishing stories based on documents leaked by National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, making world headlines and sending the Brazil-US relationship nosediving.
A series of revelations on NSA spying on Brazil were published in local media in July, culminating in a report that indicated that President Rousseff’s personal communications were a target of the US. Domestic pressure built for Rousseff to suspend her October state visit, and after a series of meetings between officials from the two countries, Rousseff announced last week that she was indefinitely postponing her visit.
A stern government announcement called the interception of Brazilian communications “illegal” and said such a “grave fact” was an “assault” on sovereignty and “incompatible with a democratic coexistence between friendly countries.”
At the UN General Assembly, which opens tomorrow, Rousseff is expected to make a bold speech on measures to extricate the Internet from the control of the US and US companies. Those measures are reported to include the construction of subsea cables that do not pass through the US and obliging companies like Google and Facebook to store user’s data on servers in Brazilian territory.
A rare move
The postponement of the state visit may be the first of its kind, according to Alan Henrikson, a professor of diplomatic history at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
“I can’t think … of any state visit that was cancelled in this way,” Mr. Henrikson says. However, he notes that it’s “very possible” that state visits have been postponed for reasons of elections or natural disasters.
The closest analogies to Rousseff’s postponement, Henrikson says, are the 1960 cancellation of President Eisenhower’s visit to Japan due to anti-American riots there. Another example, he says, the animosity at the Paris Summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the same year when the US U2 spy plane crashed over Soviet territory shortly before what was expected to be a productive meeting.
Foreign leaders make dozens of visits to the US each year. A state visit, however, is a rare honor bestowed upon a head of state from a country that the US recognizes as a strategic partner and includes formalities such as a black-tie dinner and a military reception. In recent years, only one to two state visits have occurred annually, if any at all. Recent state visits have been with the heads of states from China, South Korea, Mexico, India, and Ghana.
Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist and human rights adviser to Amnesty International, described how, on a visit to Washington last year, he saw that Brazilian diplomats viewed securing a state visit for Rousseff as a “major goal” and were disappointed that one had not occurred in 2012. Rather than focusing on bilateral issues to be discussed during such a visit, Mr. Santoro says diplomats were intent on being “perceived by the American government as a global emerging power.”
On the other hand, the state visit was also seen as a career achievement for the US ambassador to Brazil, Thomas Shannon, who left Brazil in September after three-and-a-half years in his position.
“There’s a lot of competition [to secure a state visit], given that the US has embassies all over the world and that the president’s agenda is quite full,” says Henrikson. “It’s really a coup for an ambassador.”
Beyond the embarrassment for the US that the visit-snub has caused, the move might embolden other world leaders to sharpen their tone against the NSA spying allegations, observers say.
“The decision to cancel the state [visit is seen] as a show of strength in many countries around the world, particularly in the Global South, where suspicion of U.S. supremacy is pervasive,” Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at the São Paulo university Fundação Getúlio Vargas, wrote in his blog, “Post Western World.” Mr. Stuenkel suspects countries whose leaders have limited their criticism of the spying could follow Rousseff’s lead.
“Dilma’s decision may thus increase political pressure in Delhi, Berlin and elsewhere to show a stronger reaction to the spying revelations, at least in rhetoric.”