WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will have a long wish list when she visits the White House on Monday, but there’s one goal that stands above the rest:
Dinner with Barack Obama.
It’s not likely to happen. The U.S. president’s decision not to fully roll out the red carpet for Rousseff in Washington symbolizes the relationship between two giant democracies that by most accounts want to become better allies, but have yet to find the common cause - or magic personal moment between leaders - that brings them closer together.
More weighty topics such as Syria, U.S. monetary policy, multi-billion-dollar defense deals, and Brazil’s offshore oil boom will also be on the agenda for the bilateral meeting.
But the real buzz has centered on what Brazilian officials perceive as a snub of protocol, which they say represents Washington’s failure to fully recognize their country’s recent economic rise and growing clout in global affairs.
Rousseff’s schedule on Monday - which consists of a White House meeting with Obama, a working lunch and a conference with business leaders - contrasts with the reception given to British Prime Minister David Cameron last month.
Cameron was treated to a formal, black-tie state dinner, although his trip was not a full state visit. Obama also flew Cameron to a college basketball game in Ohio where the two leaders were photographed smiling, eating hot dogs and chatting with fans.
Brazilian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to frankly discuss diplomatic issues, say they realize their country does not enjoy the “special relationship” long afforded to Britain. But they pointed out that Brazil did officially surpass Britain last year to become the world’s sixth-biggest economy, neatly capturing why their country should be treated as just as important a partner in years to come.
“There’s a feeling that most people in Washington don’t appreciate what’s happening in Brazil,” said one official close to Rousseff. “It didn’t have to be a state visit, but Obama could have taken her to dinner, or to the Kennedy Center.”
Rousseff is scheduled to have a formal dinner at the Brazilian embassy in Washington on Monday night.
Asked about Monday’s agenda, White House spokeswoman Erin Pelton said the meeting will be Obama’s third bilateral encounter with Rousseff since she took office in January 2011. The meeting “will deepen a partnership that has never been stronger,” Pelton said.
State visits are generally not given during presidential election years, another U.S. official said. Leaders from other key U.S. allies such as Japan, Canada, Australia, Turkey and South Korea have also visited Washington in recent years without receiving a full state visit.
Still, recognition is particularly important to Brazil because of the relatively recent nature of its rise.
Just a decade ago, its economy was barely average by Latin American standards, tainted by years of hyperinflation and political instability. Today, it accounts for more than 40 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, it is a member of the increasingly influential BRICS group of large emerging markets, and it is actively seeking a commensurate role in global bodies such as the United Nations and World Bank.
The transformation in Brazil’s profile has come at a time when the United States is concerned with its own economic problems and with conflicts in the Middle East, feeding Brazilians’ fears that Washington is simply too distracted to notice.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s rise has generated some skepticism, especially among Republicans, because of its independent and sometimes obstructionist stance on hot-button foreign policy issues. Rousseff’s predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, tried to mediate talks over Iran’s nuclear program in 2010, irking the West. Brazil has more recently been a critic of sanctions against Syria and Iran.
Rousseff and Lula both hail from a leftist party that has traditionally distrusted the United States, and has focused on building so-called “South-South” ties among poorer nations. But Rousseff has surprised some observers by distancing herself somewhat from Iran since taking office while placing greater emphasis on human rights.
Indeed, senior officials from both Brazil and the United States told Reuters they believe they have much more in common, and that they are actively looking for ways to work together more closely on issues such as trade, energy and investment.
Moises Naim, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Brazil is in an early stage of its development in which the United States should be working overtime to ensure that it solidifies a strategic relationship for the next 20 to 30 years, instead of allowing Brazil to drift closer to China and other members of the BRICS.
That group, which met last week in New Delhi, also includes Russia, India and South Africa.
“There should have been a dinner for Brazil,” Naim said. “Symbols and gestures in interactions among heads of state matter just as much as what’s actually on the agenda.”
The United States does plan to make at least one gesture that will please Brazil. Washington will announce new steps that will make it easier for Brazilians to obtain visas to visit the United States, a second U.S. official told Reuters, without providing details.
The issue has been high on Rousseff’s agenda because of the symbolic value, and also because it will further facilitate growing tourism and trade between the two countries.
The rest of the agenda will be more complicated, with areas of possible cooperation stymied by recent events.
For example, Obama administration officials are eager to discuss how the United States can play a greater role in extracting oil off Brazil’s coast. But the issue has been tainted by Chevron’s recent oil spills off Brazil’s coast, which have resulted in lawsuits worth a potential $22 billion and criminal charges against the company and its executives.
Brazil, meanwhile, wants to deepen its military and strategic ties with the United States but was frustrated by the U.S. Air Force’s decision in February to cancel a major contract with Brazilian aircraft maker Embraer. The Air Force said an error in the contract’s paperwork was to blame and has launched an investigation.
Rousseff is also likely to lodge a complaint over the United States’ expansionary monetary policy, which she blames for creating a glut of global liquidity that has made Brazil’s exports less competitive abroad.
Dealing with such thorny issues in private may increase the need for a symbolic gesture when it’s all over, Naim said.
“They’re not really going to accomplish anything,” he said. “That would have a more formal reception even more effective ... as a message that the United States really gets Brazil.”
Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis; Editing by Todd Benson and Frances Kerry