Obama the Brazilian?

A little bit more on the deal to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets announced by Brazilian President Lula da Silva alongside French President Nicolas Sarkozy, only to be semi-retracted pending final assessment of the competing tenders. Jean-Dominique Merchet passes on a Les Echos article (sub. req.) that sheds light on some of the backroom wrangling that went on. And it turns out U.S. President Barack Obama really went to the mat to get the Boeing F-16 offer back in the running.

Merchet’s post, coming as it does from the French perspective, is titled, How Obama Tried to Shoot Down the Rafale. According to French sources cited by Les Echos, Obama called Lula from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation digs to give his personal guarantee that Congress would authorize technology transfers, and then called back to confirm when Congress indeed voted that authorization through.

Now, as I mentioned before, I think France makes for a much better political fit for Brazil, especially in terms of defense cooperation. The French labor under no real colonial legacy in Latin America, and the French foreign policy discourse emphasizing multilateralism and multipolarity is essentially a great-power echo of Brazil’s emerging-power mantra.

Sarkozy, too, has the advantage here, in the sense that as head of state of a great-but-second-rung power, he can flyeverywhere in the world, and often does, in order to apply somepersonal diplomacy into France’s trade interests, in a way that thepresident of the United States really can’t be expected to.

So it’s very likely the Rafale deal will go through.

But regardless of whether Obama’s intervention pays off this time, what I like here is how personally invested he was in trying to promote the U.S.-Brazil relationship. That it involves an arms sale isn’t necessarily a reason to jump for joy, but at least it demonstrates that the U.S. president is taking a personal interest, both in Brazil in particular and South America in general. And that just might make a difference next time.

America is certainly also an Asian power, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in her major address on U.S. foreign policy a few months back. So all the attention on managing the U.S.-China and U.S.-India relationships is warranted.

But before all else, America is an American power. And I suspect that over the coming 30 years, the U.S.-Brazil relationship may be just as significant a litmus test for America’s standing in the world as how we manage the great Asian rebalancing.

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