Joaquim Nabuco, a Brazilian visionary in Washington

During most of the 19th century Brazil and the United States showed little mutual interest. Brazilian foreign policy was initially directed to Europe (mainly England) and then to border problems in South America (particularly with Argentina and Paraguay). Meanwhile, the US was concerned about its expansion to the west and its internal tensions between north and south. With little convergence in these priorities, the two countries basically ignored each other.

However, this picture began to change at the end of the century, especially because Brazilian coffee found in the USA an excellent consumer market. The definitive change occurred in the first decade of the 20th century, when Barão do Rio Branco, Brazil’s foreign minister for 10 years (1902-1912) decided that the country should privilege relations with the US in its foreign policy. The Baron understood that after Africa and Asia, South America (especially the unprotected Amazon) would be the target of European imperialism. Without an army and a navy that could deal with Europeans, Brazil needed US protection.

Fortuitously, this was also the period in which Theodore Roosevelt gave his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. Roosevelt had already made clear his intention to keep Europeans away from the American continent, particularly in his intervention to build the Panama Canal. An unwritten alliance was formed between the two countries: the convergence of interests caused Brazil and the United States to experience an unprecedented approach in history. To consolidate the new paradigm of foreign policy the Baron elevated the Brazilian diplomatic representation in Washington to the level of embassy. In the diplomatic gesture of the time this was a clear indication of the preference that the country gave to the USA. The Baron chose Joaquim Nabuco to be Brazil’s first ambassador to Washington.

Nabuco is a well-known personage to the scholars of Brazilian history. When he became ambassador to Washington he was already famous for his struggle against slavery in Brazil and for his work as a historian. Like the Baron, Nabuco believed that Brazil would be the target of European imperialism, and that it needed US help to protect itself. Unlike the Baron, however, Nabuco saw an opportunity at the time to do something more: to turn America into a zone of peace, a continent with international relations essentially different from those of Europe.

The Baron saw international relations only as a zero-sum game. He also did diplomacy thinking in terms of a balance of power. Nabuco was not unaware of these aspects, but he believed that through regular international conferences and open trade, America could avoid the wars that were so characteristic of Europe. But for that the US leadership was essential, and should be supported by all. The Baron sought the US punctually: he wanted the protection of a stronger country while Brazil was not able to protect itself. Nabuco wanted a permanent alliance. In his foreign policy the Baron was a kind of conservative: changes do not occur easily. The story simply repeats itself. The 20th century would simply repeat the 19th. Nabuco believed that change is possible. He believed in universal principles linked to classical liberalism.

Nabuco passed away in 1910, only five years after assuming the position of ambassador. Perhaps if he had been more successful in his foreign policy we would have had a very different twentieth century. The United States would not have become involved in Europe, as it did in World War I. America would be a continent of peace, contrasting with the Old World. America would lead by example, not intervention. And many problems we face today, the fruits of American interventionism, would be avoided.