Spy wars, NSA edition: Rousseff cold-shoulders Obama

By J Brooks Spector 19 September 2013

American President Barack Obama has not had a particularly easy time of it recently in foreign affairs. (Well in truth he hasn’t had it all that much better domestically either.) First, the complexities of the Syrian civil war and then the consequences of the sarin gas attack and a possible punishment strike absorbed a good chunk of the president’s time in recent weeks. Then there was the abortive bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Obama cancelled, as well as that G20 meeting that ended up with some wrangling over Syria on its agenda as well. And, of course, lurking in the background for much of this has been the saga of former contractor (now temporary Russian resident) Edward Snowden’s revelations of the National Security Agency’s wide-ranging surveillance programme to monitor global electronic communications, as part of their efforts to track down potential terror threats. Somewhere, somehow, that surveillance program was bound to spell trouble for the President’s international agenda. And now one shoe has fallen: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has opted out of a state visit to the United States. J. BROOKS SPECTOR tries to bring some sense into the debate.

Rousseff’s visit to Washington would have included one of those lavish state dinners on 23 October, the highest protocol level of welcome the US can offer a visiting dignitary, and it would have recognized Brazil’s increasingly important place in world affairs, including its upcoming hosting of the Soccer World Cup and the summer Olympics, as well as all the more traditional markers of international impact, prominence and economic heft. But President Rousseff decided to “postpone” her travels to Washington as a highly visible protest of American surveillance of electronic communications that included those of the Brazilian President’s office, as well as those of Brazil’s state oil company, Petrobras.

With this cancellation, it is almost certain there will not be another one of these prestige events in this year’s White House calendar. Obama has held six state dinners so far: for India in 2009, Mexico in 2010, China, Germany and South Korea in 2011 and Britain last year.

Some analysts have been quick to indicate such a rebuke of Obama by a foreign leader inevitably gives rise to questions about Obama’s current global standing. The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ director of Americas programme, Carl Meacham, for example, argued, “The real issue becomes, how does this affect American influence in the world? Is American influence knocked down a few notches as a result of this?” Meacham termed Rousseff’s decision as the kind of snub that is “almost unheard of” between countries with friendly relations. Of course, Obama’s international standing has taken an even larger knock as a result of some erratic policies in dealing with the Syrian civil war.

Trying to put their best smiley face on the decision, however, the White House described the postponement as a mutual decision finalized during a Monday evening telephone conversation between the two leaders. Presidential spokesperson Jay Carney spun it thus: “They both look forward to that visit, which will celebrate our broad relationship. We’re certainly acknowledging the concerns that these disclosures have generated in Brazil and other countries.”

In fact, the Snowden revelations have come up repeatedly during Obama’s own trips during the (Northern Hemisphere) summer and there was some serious irritation about the surveillance on the part of a number of European leaders about these programmes. But Rousseff was apparently incensed the US had intercepted her own communications with her staff. Moreover, some of the documents leaked by Snowden also indicated the NSA hacked into the computer network of Brazil’s state oil company, Petrobras, as well as harvested a multitude of emails and telephone calls flowing through Brazil’s hub for trans-Atlantic fibre optic cables. Such exposés have clearly done nothing to tamp down longstanding suspicions some Brazilians have held about “The Colossus of the North”.

However, besides her annoyance about the international texture of this surveillance, Rousseff’s decision to forego the state visit also had a domestic political component to it. Commenting about this, the Washington Post reported, “Rousseff, who had a 36% approval rating last month in the wake of nationwide protests against substandard public services, has been under pressure from leftists in her Workers’ Party movement to stay home. Cancelling the trip is seen as politically expedient here, partly because she faces a tough re-election campaign next year.”

With that all that dissatisfaction as background, observers say Rousseff could not afford to look weak in response to a US intelligence effort that has enraged so many Brazilians. Tim Ridout, a fellow at the Washington-based German Marshall Fund, says Rousseff was attempting to demonstrate her strength internationally. Ridout explains, “I see this partly as a way for Brazil to exert its influence and say, ‘We can stand up to the United States and serve as a counterbalance.’”

Rousseff’s American state visit was originally announced in May, but that turned out to be shortly before Snowden’s revelations about the NSA international surveillance programmes had showed up in the media. The Obama administration had been hoping to deepen ties with the increasingly economically important South American nation by wheeling out a state visit for Brazil’s President, with all the pomp and circumstance trimmings. In fact, Rousseff would have been the first Brazilian President honoured with a state visit to the US in nearly 20 years.

But despite assuaging Brazilian pride, analysts say the President’s decision could, at least in the short term, be hurtful to Brazilian economic efforts. The country has been working hard to attract American investment and a greater opening for Brazilian products in the US. Moreover, Bloomberg News reported Brazil’s trade deficit with the United States had widened 161% in the first half of the year to a total of $6-billion over the previous year. As a result, it seems this decision to cancel is a triumph of domestic political needs over economic goals.

“The decision was political, a response to revelations about the NSA,” judged Johanna Mendelson Forman, a Brazil specialist at American University in Washington. Forman added that the real irony is that Brazil has long wanted a state visit for its President to the White House and the US, as such a trip would be symbolic of not only close bilateral ties but also Brazil’s geopolitical and international economic importance. Such desires, however, came into conflict with patriotic sentiment on the part of those angered by the surveillance revelations that most Brazilians saw in the newspaper O Globo or the Globo TV network.

The Washington Post added, “At least publicly, the Brazilians were most upset about a 1 September report on the Globo TV programme ‘Fantástico’ in which NSA slides revealed U.S. government monitoring of phone communications and the e-mails of Rousseff and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. A week later, the programme said the Obama administration had spied on Brazil’s state-run Petrobras oil producer, the country’s most important company.” Mendelson Forman noted further, “This is a generational issue for Brazilians. Those who still feel the US is the imperial power versus those who see Brazil as an equally important global player,” a country that has to work with the United States.

Since the surveillance story broke, Rousseff apparently had become increasingly disinclined to make the trip and the Obama administration had then put in significant efforts to keep the trip going forward, including a one-on-one conversation between Obama and Rousseff while they were both at the G20. Vice president Joseph Biden had called Rousseff to try to dial down the tension over the revelations, and secretary of state John Kerry travelled to Brazil to discuss the matter. However, officials in Brazil’s capital of Brasília publicly criticized his explanations as unsatisfactory.

And national security adviser Susan Rice tried her hand at damage control as well, meeting with Brazilian foreign minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo. Rousseff said after the G20 that Obama had promised her details and answers about the spying activities, but she remonstrated that spying on a friendly nation was incompatible with alliances between friends. “The illegal practices of intercepting the communications of citizens, businesses and members of the Brazilian government constitute a grave threat to national sovereignty and individual rights and are incompatible with the democratic coexistence between friendly countries,” said a statement from the office of Brazil’s President.

Henry L Stimson, the American secretary of state some 80 years ago, famously remarked when turning down authorization to extend spying of Japanese diplomatic codes, “Gentlemen do not read each others’ mail”. Well, that was then, this is now and friends do it whenever they can, it seems. DM

For more, read:

  • NSA spying scandal spoils dinner at the White House for Brazil’s president, at the Washington Post;
  • Brazil’s Leader Postpones State Visit to Washington Over Spying, at the New York Times;
  • Dilma Rousseff postpones state visit to US, at the Financial Times;
  • Brazil’s President Postpones U.S. Visit Over Spying Concerns, at the National Public Radio;
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff postpones US state visit over NSA spying scandal, at the Global Post;
  • Brazil Leader Cancels U.S. Visit, at the Wall Street Journal;
  • For Obama, Brazil decision compounds rough stretch, at the AP;
  • A state dinner is unlikely this year for Obama, at the AP.

Photo: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and U.S. President Barack Obama kiss at the start of a joint news conference in Planalto Palace in Brasilia, March 19, 2011. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes


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