Felipe Dana/AP/File
An F-18 jet lands on aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson during a military exhibition in Rio de Janeiro, March 3. The US and Brazil signed a military agreement on Monday.

Why Brazil signed a military agreement with the US

For the first time in three decades, the US and Brazil have a military agreement. Brazil is shopping for 36 new fighter jets, and the US is trying to counter growing Russian and Iranian influence in Latin America.

The US and Brazil signed a military agreement Monday that both nations touted as an example of partnership and transparency in the Americas.

The defense pact, the first between the two nations since 1977, opens the door to more interchange on research and development, logistics support, education and training, and the acquisition of defense products and services.

It comes as US Defense Secretary Robert Gates sets off on a tour of Latin America, including visits to Colombia, Peru, and the Caribbean – seen as part of a broader effort to strengthen ties with allies, as well as shore up support in a region that has embraced Iran and made increasing arms purchases from Russia.

But it’s perhaps Brazil, where Mr. Gates had originally planned to visit before a schedule change, which has the most to gain from the deal reached Monday. “Brazil is going to get recognition, and that is very important. Future wars are going to be as much about the management of information and intelligence as they are about armaments. And Brazil doesn’t know how to do that. The US is the perfect country to help us minimize that risk,” says Fernando Arbache, an anti-terrorism expert in Sao Paulo who teaches at Brazil’s Naval Headquarters. “With this accord Brazil is aligning itself strategically with the US, like the European nations have done with NATO.”

Secretary Gates and Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim signed the cooperation agreement on the sidelines of the nuclear summit held in Washington. It’s the first such agreement since a1952 cooperation accord was canceled in 1977, when Brazil was under military control. Since then there has been little military cooperation between the US and Brazil, says David Fleischer, an analyst in Brasilia, in a weekly political note.

The US heralded the common interests shared by the US and Brazil. “The agreement is a formal acknowledgment of the many security interests and values we share as the two most populous democracies in the Americas,” Gates said. “These common interests make Brazil’s growing involvement and significance in global affairs a welcome development for the United States.”

The deal does not mean the relationship between the two nations is without strain. The US has unsuccessfully pushed Brazil to support fresh sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program. To some critical eyes, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Brazil in November, while Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is scheduled to visit Iran next month.

It also comes as Brazil is expected to finally announce this year it will buy 36 new fighter jets. French, Swedish, and US companies have all vied for the $4.4 billion contract. Mr. Jobim said Monday Brazil is close to making a decision on whether to purchase US F-18 fighter jets or those of a competitor, including the French Rafale or Swedish Gripen aircraft.

Brazil’s president is close to French President Nicolas Sarkozy – the two met five times in 2009 outside summits – and he sees France as a “strategic partner.” Brazil last year signed a deal to buy 50 French helicopters and five submarines, one of them nuclear-powered.

In the long-term, the defense accord is more likely to bolster Brazil than the US. “Brazil always been a moderating power. It could be helpful [for the US] in the interest of regional security,” says Johanna Mendelson Forman, a security and Latin America specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The sense that I get is that Lula is laying foundation for his defense industry.”

Countries in Latin America have been rushing to purchase arms, which has raised some eyebrows. But Ms. Mendelson Forman says most armies are attempting to modernize after years of stagnation. Russia as the prime supplier has to do with buying at the right price, not any sort of geopolitical message, she says.

As it attempts to defend what it sees as its increased role in global and regional affairs, Brazil’s defense budget has increased almost fourfold since 2006. Mr. Arbache says Brazil needs more military might to go along with its newfound economic might. “It doesn’t matter how smart you are, if you’re weak, people can take advantage of you and deficiencies. To be an economic power you have to be a military power,” he says.

There could be regional fallout. A military agreement that the US made with Colombia last year caused a stir within South America, after the two nations agreed that US troops could have greater access to Colombian military bases. The agreement with Brazil does not include such clauses, nor does it lay out anything specific other than a general framework for greater cooperation.

Still, many expect nations generally opposed to the US, such as Venezuela, to balk. Brazil, however, is unlikely to flinch. “As they emerge as a key power,” says Evan Ellis, a professor of national security studies at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University, they are charting their own course as they seem to be saying: “’We will align with Iran, if it’s useful for us. We will do defense cooperation with the US if it’s useful for us,’” says Mr. Ellis. “’Nobody tells us that Iran is the devil, and no one tell us the gringos are the devil.’”

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