It has been almost exactly a year since Dilma Rousseff succeeded the popular Lula as president of Brazil. She is currently cruising high at an approval rating of 72% — higher than virtually all of her predecessors. Despite a slump in economic growth, it seems the majority of Brazilians believe that she is the right person for the job to lead Brazil into a new era of prosperity. She is also, perhaps, the right person to challenge the age-old American assumption that the U.S. is the only superpower in the Western hemisphere.
Rousseff's foreign policy is not as outright confrontational as Lula's. She does favor a more measured response to international affairs, avoiding conflict, and preferring to adopt a more wait-and-see approach, especially towards Brazil's northern neighbor. A visit by President Barack Obama in March, just three months into the Rousseff administration, helped to mend some rather frayed fences after a period of strain under Lula — who had, after all, brokered a nuclear fuel deal with Turkey and Iran.
In fact, much of Lula's foreign policy could be seen as attempting to wean the Americas off the so-called Monroe Doctrine, a policy assumption adopted by the U.S. as a means of controlling the Western hemisphere, traces of which could still be felt in the 20th century and whose effects still cast a long shadow over the hemisphere. Lula's assertive stance challenged the status quo enough to pressure the U.S. to reactivate the Fourth Fleet, a long defunct naval command to monitor South America, in 2008. Speculation quickly arose that, in response to this, the Brazilian Navy explored the option of acquiring nuclear submarines. Relations since then have been cordial but noticeably cooler than before.
Rousseff obviously had quite a lot to work around. While the economic recession had hit the U.S. especially hard, Brazil was not unscathed either. Brazil grew at a lacklustre pace, below the government prediction of 3.8%, with inflation falling but still above the central bank's target of 4.5%. Even if she wanted to, it was unlikely that Brazil would have the capacity to swagger and assert itself as a rising superpower as much as Lula did.
But with a new year comes new beginnings. It's not all that bad for Rousseff. Despite a rather restive cabinet, to the Brazilian people, it appears she can do no wrong. And perhaps now is the ideal time for Rousseff to relaunch her predecessor's assertive foreign policy.
The U.S. is gearing up for its presidential election with the incumbent Obama looking particularly vulnerable. While Obama can't afford to look weak, he also can't afford to alienate potential allies, especially ones as influential as Brazil. This rather puts him in a quandary, potentially hamstringing his options with South America. This is particularly the case given the shifting balance of power in Brazil's favor — now the 6th largest economy in the world — and the warming relationship Brazil enjoys with China.
While Obama's administration may protest all it wants, in reality, both sides will know that all the huff and puff this year will be for show. Diplomats from the State Department will, uncharacteristically for them, have to engage the Brazilians as equals - or even as peer competitors.
This gives Rousseff an enviable range of options. Secure at home, with a withdrawing superpower neighbor to the north, and burgeoning ties with partners across the world, this is arguably the year for Brazil to break — definitively and decisively — away and remind the United States that there is room enough for two superpowers in the Western hemisphere.
Photo Credit: Blog do Planalto