Vice President Joe Biden will visit Brazil, Colombia, and Trinidad and Tobago next week. Don't assume this American vice president is merely ceremonial: he has a significant domestic portfolio including immigration, guns, and the budget. Nor is his visit one of those bloated good will trips meant to dole out patronage or shore up support for some American foreign venture. Rather, it seems the Obama administration has decided to try and seize a huge, and to date largely missed opportunity related to jobs, energy, and prosperity in Latin America.
Why the sudden awakening? Immigration reform, the President's top legislative priority this year, and a political must for both parties, has alerted the White House to the potential foreign policy benefit in Latin America, and not just Mexico, of solving a major domestic problem. In fact, the White House and the American public's disposition to deal with once untouchable domestic politics around immigration, guns, energy, marijuana legalization, and maybe even Cuba, open the door for potential convergence with Latin America. And provide a chance to get beyond the usual ideological battles that too often sap diplomatic energy and patience.
Biden arrives in Brazil five months before President Rousseff's state visit to the United States and ten years since President Bush and President Lula convened their cabinets for a joint ministerial meeting, their recognition of the strategic potential for the two democracies and their economies. Since then, dozens, if not hundreds, of ministerial and sub-ministerial meetings have followed. And we have stitched together dozens of inter-governmental dialogues, initiatives, defense, business, scientific, and educational exchanges. Yet there is still something missing between the two powers—call it a lack of ambition.
So let me resurrect two big ideas that Vice Presidents Biden and Temer and Presidents Obama and Rousseff might finally embrace.
The first idea is harder for Brasilia. Brazil and the United States both need middle class jobs, economic growth, and a China strategy. The benefits to both countries of economic cooperation, beyond investment and double taxation treaties, are clear: it is time to trade (more) freely and I don't mean waiting for Roberto Acevedo and the WTO to make that happen. Perhaps it's politically incorrect to think this big, but Brazil has enough social protections in place to become more open.
The second idea is harder for Washington. The time has come—next week or in October—to drop the verbal caveats and unequivocally support Brazil (as India) for a seat on a reformed UN Security Council. Brazil is peaceful, non-nuclear, democratic, experienced in peacekeeping, and voices the rather widely held view that military answers to security threats—see Syria, Iran, Iraq—need not become the reflexive universal default.
Both ideas require upending the conventional wisdom of their respective bureaucratic and political classes, but both stand to radically unlock a seemingly perennial,yet unrealized potential. Perhaps Biden's visit next week will set the stage.