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A top U.S. diplomat is in Brazil as that country seeks recognition as a global player

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Biden administration official is in Brazil at a time when that country is seeking recognition as a global player. The Brazilian president just led a huge trade delegation to China, and Russia's foreign minister recently visited Brazil. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The way Linda Thomas-Greenfield sees it, the U.S. and Brazil have a lot in common. They're the two largest democracies in the region.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: This is a relationship that is historical. It's broad. It's deep.

KELEMEN: The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. is making a point on this trip to talk about racial justice and poverty with local students and separately with Brazil's first lady. She also met with the foreign minister, as Brazil's close ties with China hover over the visit.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It was discussed. Again, our position is that we don't tell countries - sovereign countries - who to choose to partner with. What we're here to discuss is our partnership. We have a very strong partnership with the country and with the people of Brazil.

KELEMEN: That's true, says Bill McIlhenny, who wrote about Brazil in a German Marshall Fund report about so-called global swing states. He says the U.S. does have close ties, but China is Brazil's biggest trading partner.

BILL MCILHENNY: And I think to see that, you only need to look at the large ministerial delegation that Lula took to China last month and the really needy economic and security agenda of his meetings there. So there's definitely an effort by Brazil to rebalance relations more toward Beijing.

KELEMEN: In part, that's for business reasons. But McIlhenny says President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is also trying to raise his country's global profile on the world stage. And that means hedging his bets in the U.S. competition with China and also with Russia.

MCILHENNY: There's a long tradition in Brazilian foreign policy of trying to hedge and just stay out of the way of great power conflict. But in practice today, I think that is a tricky thing to pull off. And Ukraine really illustrates this. It's a very poignant fault line.

KELEMEN: When Lula was in China, he echoed Russia's talking points, blaming the West for encouraging the war in Ukraine. Bruna Santos, who runs the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, says those remarks did not go over well.

BRUNA SANTOS: By attempting to, like, dismantle or questioning existing powers like the United States and Europe, I think that Lula has triggered more suspicion than confidence.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield wasn't even asked about Ukraine when she held an hour-long fireside chat with university students here in Brasilia. But she did talk about it, saying this is a conflict that should matter to every U.N. member state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Ukraine is on the front lines of fighting for all of us. They're fighting for democracy. They're fighting against a bully who thought that it was OK to invade a country, take their territory and kill their people and rape their women.

KELEMEN: Thomas-Greenfield later told reporters that she's encouraging Brazilian government officials to engage more with Ukraine, especially if this country wants to present itself as a peacemaker.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Brasilia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.