WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said he intended to designate Brazil as a major non-NATO ally, a move that would deepen the US’s military ties to the country, following a meeting with its new leader, Jair Bolsonaro.
The designation, underscoring the warming relations between the two countries, would grant Brazil preferential treatment by the US, similar to that granted to North Atlantic Treaty Organization members. Trump also signaled he would be open to the country joining the alliance at some point.
“I intend to designate Brazil as a major non-NATO ally, or even possibly, if you start thinking about it, maybe a NATO ally,” Trump said on Tuesday, speaking in a Rose Garden press conference alongside Bolsonaro. “Have to talk to a lot of people, but maybe a NATO ally, which will greatly advance security and cooperation between our countries.”
It is unlikely that Brazil would be named a member of the NATO alliance, which now has 29 members mostly in Europe and in North America.
Under the treaty, nations agreed to defend one another’s interests north of the Tropic of Cancer, which lies just south of Miami.
The NATO accession process can take years, even decades, and requires the consent of all allies.
Rachel Ellehuus, a NATO expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a “more realistic option” would be to make Brazil one of NATO’s global partners, an arrangement that allows cooperation in areas of mutual interest.
Brazil spends an estimated 1.3 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, according to a Central Intelligence Agency analysis based on 2016 figures, well below the goal of 2 percent set by countries holding NATO membership.
Trump has railed against allies that fall short of the 2 percent mark.
Nations that are designated as a “major non-NATO ally” receive preferential access for the purchase of US military equipment, have more training opportunities with the US and can receive surplus US defense equipment. Brazil would be the second Latin American country to enjoy this status, which Argentina already has. In all, Brazil would be the 18th major non-NATO ally.
Trump also said Tuesday that he supported Brazil’s effort to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which would attract much-needed foreign investment to Brazil.
The Latin American country suffered its worst recession on record between 2014 and 2016.
Bolsonaro, who has frequently expressed admiration for Trump, is the nation’s first right-wing president since the end of military rule three decades ago, and he has adopted a similar style of politics to the American leader, often communicating via combative messages on Twitter.
Bolsonaro’s trip to Washington came less than three months after the former army captain took office, breaking with tradition as Brazilian presidents typically first tour South American countries.
Ahead of the meeting on Tuesday, Brazil dropped visa requirements for visitors from the US and several other nations. Asked what the US was offering Brazil in return, Trump said the administration was “working on visas” and said he expected trade with Brazil to go “substantially up.”
For Trump, Bolsonaro represents a much-needed ally in Latin America, where he is hoping to oust Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
Under Brazil’s leftist Workers’ Party, which governed from 2003 to 2016, the country irked the US by supporting Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and then Maduro.
The US has imposed increasingly harsh sanctions on the Caracas regime in an effort to rally support for interim President Juan Guaido. Trump declined to say whether he was still considering US military intervention in Venezuela.
The US is also hoping for Brazil’s support in its trade dispute with China.
While more ideological members of Bolsonaro’s administration are vocal critics of China, other government officials and Brazil’s business leaders have expressed concern over distancing the country from Beijing.
A voracious buyer of Brazil’s soybeans and iron ore, China overtook the US as Brazil’s largest trading partner a decade ago.
Tuesday’s news conference showcased the similarities between the two leaders, who have repeatedly drawn criticism for controversial remarks.
During his campaign, Bolsonaro promised to “make Brazil great” and regularly took to Twitter to attack his rivals.
Bolsonaro declared on Tuesday that the two nations stood “side-by-side in their efforts to ensure liberties and respect to traditional family lifestyles... against the gender ideology or the politically correct attitudes and against fake news.”
Moments later, Trump told reporters: “I’m very proud to hear the president use the term ‘fake news.’”