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March 2013

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The Future of United States Public Diplomacy in Brazil
by Blair Rapalyea

This study — based in part on interviews with U.S. officials — attempts to take a closer look at the public diplomacy program in Brazil while also considering the political and economic situation the United States faces in the Western Hemisphere. Brazil has one of the biggest U.S. public diplomacy programs in the Americas, accompanied by one of the highest levels of funding. This begs the question: since bilateral relations are positive and the majority of Brazilians have a favorable view of the U.S., why is a public diplomacy program necessary?

Brazil and the United States have a very good official bilateral relationship, although it has been aptly characterized as “very broad but relatively shallow.”1 The two countries have many commonalities — most prominently, they are both very large, geographically and ethnically diverse countries with complex cultural backgrounds. Though relations are considered to be positive overall, the United States has not been willing to put itself on the line for Brazil, most notably in not supporting Brazil’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. As Brazil’s economic success lends it more power in the way it is able to interact with other nations, the United States must re-evaluate the lens through which it views its largest southern neighbor. The notion that Brazil is “here to stay” is becoming a theme that sticks as their economy maintains its stability, and Brazilians are rightfully proud of the progress their country has made, both economically and socially, over the past 20 years.

This study concludes that there are very important reasons for a robust American public diplomacy program meant to enhance mutual understanding, whether or not the Brazilian economy will be able to sustain the growth it has enjoyed over the past decade. Public diplomacy (PD) has helped to encourage the current positive relationship, and there are several factors that suggest that PD programs enacted in the current environment will have a deep and lasting effect. First, the Brazilian government is willing and able to support American PD programming, both financially and with other available resources. Second, the Brazilian middle class is growing rapidly, and as more people gain access to global news, it is crucial that the American perspective is heard and understood. Third, Brazil’s growing geopolitical relevance cannot be denied — regardless of whether their economic strength continues at the same level, the United States needs a strong ally in Latin America, and with continued attention and communication, Brazil could be just that.

Brazilian Public Opinion Toward America
What does the foreign public think of the United States and of Americans? This question is the starting point for any effective public diplomacy program. Like policy matters between the U.S. and Brazil, public opinion could be characterized as generally positive between the two countries in recent history. One difficult period stands in contrast – the reign of the military dictatorship in Brazil, which lasted from 1964 to 1985. Many people who lived through the dictatorship and saw the lack of reaction (or perhaps the implicit support) from the United States are still living and politically active today. U.S. Information Officer (IO) Sara Mercado noted in an interview that much of the older population remain skeptical of American policies in Latin America, and many of them are still active scholars and academics that make their opinions known.2 Younger Brazilians who did not share these experiences do not have these biases, and tend to view the U.S. much more favorably than some of their elders.

Considering the population as a whole, Public Affairs Officer (PAO) John Matel said, “they feel good about themselves, so they feel good about us too.”3 The triple effect of the booming economy, their hosting of the World Cup in 2014, and the summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 gives Brazilians many reasons to feel good about themselves and their place in the world. Unlike many other Latin American countries, Brazilians view the United States much more warmly than some of their geographic counterparts. The 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Project found that, for example, only 42 percent of Argentines held a favorable opinion of the United States, as compared to 62 percent in Brazil and 56 percent in Mexico. In response to a question about whether or not they liked American music, movies, and television, 69 percent of Brazilians surveyed answered in the affirmative.4 Though it is not eminently clear why Brazilians do not criticize American culture, people, and politics to the level of much of the rest of Latin America, it may be that they see many similarities and find shared values in these commonalities.

“Common ground”
Considering the commonalities between the U.S. and Brazil, a 2010 article in the Economist says to “think of two continent-sized countries built on gold rushes and cowboys, on sugar and slaves… both consist basically of big cities on the coast where most of the people live… and in between, endless savannahs where all the food grows.”5 It is easy to see the obvious physical resemblance — one could compare cosmopolitan and gritty São Paulo with New York City, rural Goiás with the Midwest — and their simple geographic vastness separates them from almost all neighboring countries.

Perhaps lending even more influence to the state of public opinion are the demographics of the U.S. and Brazil. Both countries have huge, diverse populations, which should not be underestimated as a factor in the feeling of kinship. There are some differences — Brazil does not define race as sharply as the U.S. does — instead of “white” or “black”, Brazilians define themselves by hundreds of different skin colors, with names like clarinha (very light) and canela (cinnamon). This ethnic diversity contributes to the sense of exceptionalism that Americans and Brazilians share, where they exult in a culture built on overcoming obstacles, of feeling fortunate and unique in a place where there are countless different types of people enveloped in one society.6

American Public Diplomacy Practice in Brazil
With a generally friendly and receptive public and a country enjoying the benefits of international attention and a growing economy, Foreign Service Officers practicing PD in Brazil do not face the substantial obstacles that their colleagues do in many other countries. PAO Matel made note of the fact that Brazilians have money to spend on programming, and that they are willing to fund programs that the U.S. Embassy used to fund on its own. Programming has flourished along with the economy as more Brazilians gain the means to attend college, often in the United States, and look to learn English to facilitate that journey. Mercado noted that the mission’s first priority in Brazil is education, so their programs are tailored in large part toward addressing educational exchanges and facilitating that process. Considering their work as a whole, Matel said, “I can’t believe anybody could be more tied in than we are… I’ve never seen this kind of connection before. I’m not sure how it happened, but I’m happy it did.”7

Current PD Strategy
As in many countries, the easiest people for public diplomacy practitioners to reach are the elites, who are more prevalent in major cities where embassies are located, have greater access to media sources such as television, the Internet, and print media, and are able to achieve a higher level of education. The growing middle class is important because of its ability to gain access to media directly, whether local or foreign.8 As middle-class Brazilians become increasingly connected, their opinions are informed by many sources, and U.S. public diplomacy practitioners want to be one of them.9

The core group identified by mission Brazil is the younger population — as Brazilians form their opinions on social and political issues, the public diplomacy program wants to help them build a connection with U.S. policy and culture.10 Younger audiences are also easier to reach through newer means of communication like social media (e.g. Twitter, Facebook), both of which encourage and are improved by audience participation. As educational exchanges between universities in both countries have flourished in recent years, an increasing number of young Brazilians have the opportunity to immerse themselves in U.S. culture and academia.

Unlike public diplomacy missions in countries where there is a deeply rooted conflict, officers in Brazil work mainly to maintain the friendly attitude towards the U.S. and to foster deeper connections. One of the goals is to work with people who either are in a position to do things that will help the U.S. public diplomacy mission, or with those whose actions could work against the U.S. public diplomacy mission — thereby enhancing the positive and minimizing the negative.11

Recent successful programs include a 9/11 remembrance campaign, the promotion and explanation of a more streamlined visa process, and the scholarship and exchange program Science Without Borders. The main focus of programming has been to promote educational exchanges, which are currently extremely popular with Brazilian students and have seen a huge rise in applications over the past few years. Science Without Borders (SWB) is a Brazilian effort that works with the U.S. government and universities, and is intended to promote involvement in the fields of science, math, and technology. The program collaborates with the Fulbright Commission — approximately 150 million USD is sent through Fulbright to fund SWB in the United States, which is money that ultimately benefits not only the students but also the U.S. system of higher education.12

In addition to facilitating educational exchanges, other communicative efforts proved to be very effective. The 9/11 remembrance campaign, named “Superação”, or “Overcoming” in English, was intended to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the tragedy.13 PD officers created a website (www.superacao2011.org), and invited Brazilians to post thoughts and videos dealing with a difficult time in their own lives and relate it to the attacks of 9/11.14 The program is considered a huge success – over 265,000 messages of support were posted on the site, and many of them were shared on other social networks, reaching an even greater audience. 15 The popularity of this program is indicative of the response U.S. PD programs are able to garner from the Brazilian population.

The public diplomacy program in Brazil is operating in a favorable environment, has significant funding from both governments, and is interacting successfully through multiple means of communication, and has one of the biggest budgets in the Western Hemisphere. In an international climate where there are major public diplomacy challenges facing the United States, most notably in the Middle East, how can spending money in Brazil that could be spent in countries with a very high disapproval rating be justified?

The case for continued funding of public diplomacy in Brazil
Brazilian funding
Most of the budget for U.S. PD in Brazil comes from cooperative arrangements with both Brazilian entities and private firms — due to the strength of the Brazilian economy, programs enacted by U.S. PD in Brazil are able to attract investors interested in fostering relationships between the two countries.16 Matel estimated the total budget to be around $10 million USD, specifying that the majority of the program funding comes from Brazil, not from the U.S. Government. Instead of being limited by the amount of money allocated for them by the United States, the PD mission in Brazil, thanks to these partnerships with Brazilian entities, has four to five times that amount to spend.17

The amount of money that is invested in programs like this has exponential benefits for the United States, and cannot be overlooked or taken for granted. If the small part of the budget provided by the U.S. government were to be substantially reduced, it would be even more apparent that Brazil is carrying a heavier part of the load, tarnishing the image of mutual cooperation required for these programs to work to the best of their ability.

Strategic importance of Brazil in the Western Hemisphere
History has proven that no partnership will last forever, and Brazil is one ally that the United States will want to keep for the foreseeable future. As the two biggest economies and the two biggest populations in the Western Hemisphere, the potential these two countries have to influence the region is huge. As long as Brazil maintains economic stability and continues to develop, it will be to the benefit of the United States to maintain that rapport.

Brazil and the United States are not always on the most stable footing – take, for example, Brazil’s offer of assistance to Iran regarding their nuclear energy program. This action stood in direct contrast to U.S. directives in the region, but Brazil saw Iran as a potential partner in development and disregarded the wishes of the U.S. government. Though a change in leadership in Brazil prevented this plan from coming to fruition, it provides an example of how a sense of obligation deep enough to prevent an action undermining U.S. interests does not exist.

The above example illustrates the fact that the partnership between the two countries is imperfect, and the potential ramifications of a break in the relations are large and could threaten the position of the United States in the Western Hemisphere. Public diplomacy in Brazil shows the population that the U.S. is committed to the partnership, and that the opinions of Brazilians are important to the U.S. government. Maintaining a level of understanding in such a strategically important country is crucial to U.S. interests, especially as Brazil continues to increase its profile internationally with trade agreements and participation in international organizations. Having a powerful ally in a region where the United States has struggled with public opinion in the past is critical – it would assist in sustaining partnerships in Latin America that are of high importance to the future of U.S. policy.

Conclusions and Recommendations
A basic question for any government-funded program is how best to allocate resources so as to get the most out of a budget. Public diplomacy funding is an especially sensitive issue in the U.S., as the majority of American taxpayers do not like the idea of their tax dollars being spent overseas. The PD budget designated for Brazil is one of the biggest in the Western Hemisphere. Considering all of the above, does the spending in Brazil make sense given the dramatic issues surrounding public perception that the United States faces in other parts of the world?

In considering the efficacy of public diplomacy programs, much attention has been placed on the efforts in the Middle East – for good reason. The United States is facing a crisis of public opinion due to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the focus, whether critical or complimentary, has been placed on that region. The stark reality of the Middle East is that the policies of the United States have created severe obstacles for public diplomacy, and the situation will likely continue in that vein until troops are withdrawn and some level of stability is returned. This is not to suggest that the focus on programs in the Middle East is unwarranted, but instead that there is progress to be made by considering other countries of pivotal importance with which the United States is building a relationship.

Rather than using the current situation as a reason to reduce the amount of focus and funding in Brazil, the United States should work to sustain current levels, as the relationship between the two countries is at a point where every dollar invested has significant returns. PAO Matel emphasized this, saying that “Brazil is at a stage where it pays off big… our influence now will shape relations for a generation because the Brazilians are ready and able to move ahead.”18 The current situation in Brazil is ideal for facilitating a dialogue about U.S. policy — not only is the public willing to engage with programs led by the U.S. PD efforts, but the Brazilian business community and government has money to assist in the implementation of these programs. This level of interest and willingness to participate in the process is not likely to continue indefinitely, supporting the case for taking advantage of the current situation. As Brazilians increasingly move into the middle class, their ability to engage with international news, both through more people learning English and more people gaining access to information technology, will continue to increase dramatically. Brazil’s economic accomplishments do not only have a domestic impact, however — by improving its internal situation, Brazil has put itself in an even better position to be a Latin American leader. Whether or not the recent economic growth can be continued at the same level, the developments that Brazil has achieved along with its size and location give the country significant influence over its neighbors. If an issue in the region were to arise, having Brazil on the side of the U.S. would be of undeniable strategic value.

The success of the program in Brazil should not mean that it is disregarded as an important place to implement public diplomacy. Instead of being used as a bandage to try and patch over issues once they arise, public diplomacy should instead be a constant presence to encourage consistent dialogue and promote understanding over time. Successful programming has the ability build deeper relationships that can withstand minor issues, so when a change occurs, the United States is not forced to try and implement a short-term solution. A country with growing geopolitical importance cannot be overlooked no matter how positive the situation is perceived to be. The relationship between the United States and Brazil is essential, and there is no better time than now to focus on strengthening the connection between these two countries.bluestar


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1. Leahy, Joe, “Brazil-US Relations Near Turning Point,” Financial Times, April 1, 2012. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/14a03b20-7c18-11e1-9100-00144feab49a.html#axzz2CELh3v1m.

2. Sara Mercado (U.S. Information Officer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), phone conversation with the author, November 16, 2012.

3. John Matel (U.S. Public Affairs Officer, Brasília, Brazil), in-person discussion with the author, October 23, 2012.

4. “Pew Global Attitudes Project,” Pew Research Center, accessed November 26, 2012, http://www.pewglobal.org.

5. “American Brothers,” The Economist, August 13, 2010, http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2010/08/comparing_brazil_and_united_states.

6. Rohter, Brazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed, 228.

7. Matel, interview.

8. Mercado, interview.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Matel, interview.

12. Ibid.

13. Mercado, interview.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Matel, interview.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

Author Blair Rapalyea is a graduate of Smith College and a first-year graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She is concentrating in Public International Law and Security Studies, and studied U.S. Public Diplomacy under Ambassador (ret.) William A. Rugh.


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