The Most Awkward G20 Summit Ever?

September 05, 2013

President Obama is in St. Petersburg, Russia to participate in the G20 Summit today and tomorrow, amidst a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and several G20 member nations. Looming over the summit are the Obama administration’s plans for a possible military attack on Syria, while Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that a U.S. military response without U.N. Security Council approval “can only be interpreted as an aggression” and UNASUR – which includes G20 members Argentina and Brazil, issued a statement that “condemns external interventions that are inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations.”

New revelations of NSA spying on other G20 member nation presidents – Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico – leaked by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden and first reported in Brazil’s O Globo, have also created new frictions. Rousseff is reportedly considering canceling a state visit to Washington next month over the espionage and the Obama administration’s response to the revelations, and reportedly has canceled a scheduled trip to D.C. next week by an advance team that was to have done preparations for her visit. The Brazilian government has demanded an apology from the Obama administration. In an interview with Reuters on Wednesday, an anonymous senior Brazilian official underscored the gravity of the situation:

[T]he official, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the episode, said Rousseff feels “patronized” by the U.S. response so far to the Globo report. She is prepared to cancel the visit as well as take punitive action, including ruling out the purchase of F-18 Super Hornet fighters from Chicago-based Boeing Co, the official said.

“She is completely furious,” the official said.

“This is a major, major crisis …. There needs to be an apology. It needs to be public. Without that, it’s basically impossible for her to go to Washington in October,” the official said.

Other media reports suggest that Brazil may implement measures to channel its Internet communications through non-U.S. companies. But when asked in a press briefing aboard Air Force One this morning, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes did not suggest that such an apology would be forthcoming:

Q   The Foreign Minister said he wanted an apology.

MR. RHODES:  Well, I think — what we’re focused on is making sure the Brazilians understand exactly what the nature of our intelligence effort is.  We carry out intelligence like just about every other country around the world.  If there are concerns that we can address consistent with our national security requirements, we will aim to do so through our bilateral relationship.

Such responses are not likely to go far toward patching things up with Brazil. It is conspicuously dishonest to suggest that the U.S. government “carr[ies] out intelligence like just about every other country around the world,” as no other country is known to have the capacity for the level of global spying that the NSA and other agencies conduct, and few countries are likely to have the intelligence budgets enjoyed by U.S. agencies – currently totaling some $75.6 billion, according to documents leaked by Snowden and reported by the Washington Post.

There are also signs that the Washington foreign policy establishment is troubled by the Obama administration’s dismissive attitude toward Brazil’s understandable outrage. On Tuesday, McClatchy cited Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue – essentially the voice of the Latin America policy establishment in Washington:

Peter Hakim, the president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy group, noted that Secretary of State John Kerry had visited Brasilia last month to patch things up after the initial NSA leaks but “really did not do a very good job. He just brushed it off.”

Hakim said he believed the O Globo report, and he added that “snooping at presidents is disrespectful and offensive.”

Rousseff and Pena Nieto had to issue strong statements, Hakim said. “Both have to show they are not pushovers, that they can stand up to the U.S.,” he said.

The ongoing revelations made by Snowden have affected U.S. relations with other countries as well. As the Pan-American Post points out, Peña Nieto may continue to reduce intelligence sharing with the U.S.; he also said yesterday that “he may discuss the issue with President Barack Obama at the summit.” U.S.-Russian relations, of course, have also recently become tense following Russia’s granting of temporary political asylum to Snowden.

The G20 Summit also comes just after the IMF, at the direction of the U.S. Treasury Department, changed its plan to support the Argentine government in its legal battle with “vulture funds” – meaning that U.S.-Argentine relations may also be relatively cool.

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