Brazil Isn’t Ready for Trump’s Invitation to NATO

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- At a predictably strange press conference with the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, President Trump threw out the idea of making the huge South American nation a member of NATO. Or did he? “I also intend to designate Brazil as a major non-NATO ally or even possibly, if you start thinking about it, maybe a NATO ally,” he said.

First, let’s get the terminology right. (Reuters had a little trouble with it.) The NATO Treaty is quite specific that actual membership is limited to nations of the North Atlantic community - and a glance at any globe therefore disqualifies Brazil. A Major Non-NATO Ally is a category of defense and security partner with some benefits in terms of sharing military intelligence, increased coordination, and enhanced planning and privileged acquisition of military hardware. More than 15 nations are already in that category, including Israel, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

The idea of fostering close cooperation between Brazil, a top-10 global economy with real strategic heft in Latin America, and the NATO alliance does make sense. So does designating it a major ally, despite justifiable concerns about Bolsonaro’s campaign pledges to apply an “Iron First” to squelch drug and gang problems in Brazil’s huge slums.

The alliance has a strong recent tradition of working with non-alliance nations in combat zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the Balkans, as well as counter-piracy and counternarcotics. Some of the key partners include European nations Sweden, Finland and Austria; Balkan and Caucasus nations Georgia, Macedonia and Armenia; Pacific nations Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea; and Arab nations including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Each made credible, professional deployments. This cooperation lessens NATO’s load and, above all, creates a network of interoperability among the non-alliance nations that can be leveraged in the future. 

The U.S., contrary to President Trump, cannot simply decree that Brazil will become a major alliance ally – but Washington would be smart to encourage it. It would pull each side’s security programs closer together, and would allow stronger contacts at the military-to-military level. During my three years commanding the U.S. Southern Command, I found the military brass in Brazilia enthusiastic about wider cooperation. But the leftist government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva usually hit the brakes. Above all, major-ally designation would lay the tracks for humanitarian work in Venezuela, which will be a hemispheric basket-case for a decade even if President Nicolas Maduro is removed from power.

But Trump’s suggestion of making Brazil an actual NATO ally makes little sense. For starters, the Brazilians themselves are highly unlikely to want to join. When I was Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, we approached them for troops to deploy to Afghanistan, and they resoundingly rejected the idea – even though Colombia, El Salvador and other Latin American nations did cooperate. It is also highly unlikely that the other NATO nations would effectively blow up the treaty to make a country outside the North Atlantic a full member. If the alliance were even to contemplate such a notion, Australia and New Zealand would be far ahead of Brazil. Finally, Brazil’s defense spending is an anemic 1.3 percent of GDP, well below the 2 percent goal Trump appropriately insists the Europeans meet. Colombia, which spends a higher percent of GDP of defense than the U.S. (at 3.4 percent) and has been a major NATO partner, would be a more obvious Latin American choice.

It is an old saw that “Brazil is the country of tomorrow … forever.” It is a nation of enormous potential, indeed. But as for NATO membership, one day at a time.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.