There are so many failures of the Trump Presidency that it’s hard to catalog them. There are dozens of allies he’s alienated with unnecessary trade wars, military retreats and monetary demands. He’s thrown trillions of taxpayer dollars at Wall Street in an effort to falsely inflate the Dow Jones. He’s empowered our enemies and encouraged the worst natures of our more ethically questionable partners. With casual assaults on human rights and human dignity he has damaged the reputation of the United States throughout the world. He’s been a cartoon version of the worst Republican stereotypes, living down to the exaggerations and canards leveled at the party by political enemies and encouraging other leaders to abandon principle and join him in the slime.
Amidst all of this, I believe his most telling failure may be Brazil.
In 2018, Brazil’s voters faced three choices: a center-left politician who had been jailed on crimes related to corruption, a Marxist, and a nationalist. They chose the nationalist. They elected, for the first time since shifting from military rule to democracy, a leader who was not an adherent to traditionally leftist economic theory and who viewed the United States positively.
The two nations have had solid relationships in the past. Immediately following the coup in the 1960s, Brazil was viewed as a firm ally; after Ford took office, tariffs were enacted against Brazil, and those tariffs rose under Carter. By the time Reagan took office our interactions with the country had cooled. Clinton and Obama both had periods of geniality with Brazil’s leadership, but at those times Brazil was tacking left and was also seeking to expand their partnerships with Russia and China. Even those questionable relationships were frayed when the Obama administration was revealed to have been engaged in a detailed spying campaign against Brazil’s Marxist president Dilma Rousseff. The election of Jair Bolsonaro marked a rare opportunity for the United States.
Brazil is not simply another country in South America. It is one of the largest nations in the world by land mass and it has farmland which renders it a major supplier of agricultural products throughout the world. Its large coastline and proximity to the United States make it a potentially useful military ally and a potentially dangerous country to have allied with our adversaries.
The election of a pro-American nationalist was a prime opportunity. While nationalism has significant drawbacks, if balanced by a populace devoted to ethical behavior many of its worst traits can be mitigated; this has been demonstrated in some Asian countries. Bolsonaro’s pro-U.S. stance, however, was useful.
Had we a leader who believed in things like free markets, the rule of law, human rights and standing against evil, Bolsonaro’s oppressive and corrupt tendencies would likely have irregularly arisen but the prospect of a firm relationship and the success which free market policies had over the course of 2019 would have encouraged Bolsonaro toward a traditional American right-wing stance.
Opportunities would have existed for a trade bloc to be formed between the United States and Brazil, independent of whether we joined the CPTPP. Such an arrangement would have been a boon for both American and Brazilian farmers, giving them a significant percentage of the world market on many commodities and thus allowing them to exert more control over costs and prices.
An alliance between the two nations would have also stalled or reversed most efforts by foreign powers to exert influence into South America. With such a bulwark against encroachment, the United States and Europe would be free to focus on current efforts by malefactors to subjugate African and Southeast Asian nations.
The strong personal ties forged between the corrupt nationalist Trump and the nationalist Bolsonaro are overwhelmingly likely to have influenced Bolsonaro’s reliance on hydroxychloroquine and his general rejection of covid-19 as akin to the flu. If we’d had a responsible plan and rational response to the pandemic, Bolsonaro would have been encouraged to follow suit. Instead he joined us in our dismissal of the disease, with the result of Brazil having tens of thousands dead due to the novel coronavirus.
Trump has succeeded in forging firm personal ties with Brazil’s leader, reportedly to the extent that the pair engaged in efforts to install their sons as diplomats to the others’ countries. Their ties are likely to continue to be strong and personally lucrative after each has stepped down from office. The results for the United States and Brazil will be less positive. In addition to the thousands of unnecessarily dead Brazilians, we will likely see Bolsonaro ousted in favor of a traditionally left-wing politician, with some time before any pro-US leaders are again seated in the leadership of South America’s largest nation. A great chance will have been missed, even as Xi and Putin are successfully expanding their influences across the globe.