The State Of Argentine-Brazilian Nuclear Relations

Friday, April 26th, 2013


Two frameworks

Mainstream Western international relations literature on the foreign policy of small countries, middle powers, and emerging actors, emphasizes that structure—i.e. the world system—determines agency—i.e. the individual state—thus limiting the alternatives available to the agent.[i] A modified approach from the periphery may stress the highly-intertwined, mostly-complex, and seldom-preordained relationship between the international and the internal. In this sense, three external factors as well as three domestic factors are crucial. On the one hand, the distribution of power, the balance of threats, and the dynamics of ideas and institutions alike constitute essential elements that inform—as both constraints and opportunities—the policymakers. These three external factors operate in two distinctive levels: the global and the regional. On the other hand, the socio-economic model, the elite’s preferences, ideological or otherwise, and the leadership style are significant when decisions are finally made. In short, the foreign policy in a southern state is conditioned, positively or negatively, by the simultaneous interaction of the domestic, the regional, and the global. Thus, options at the disposal of a traditionally peripheral country, especially middle powers, are more varied, intricate, and unexpected than thought by staunch realists in the Northern Hemisphere.

With respect to nuclear politics, there are several arguments to explain why certain countries opt to develop or acquire nuclear weapons. Most of these arguments underscore the importance of willingness on the part of the governing group or at the apex of the executive. Some arguments emphasize the relevance of opportunity, both abroad and at home, and some others point out to defense or identity considerations as the key motivating aspects. Few arguments highlight the role of international law and the nature of the political regime as contributing features that impel or restraint the development or acquisition of nuclear weapons. In this context, at least three dimensions are critical to understanding why a country restrains itself—or not—from transforming its nuclear production capability into a nuclear weapons capacity: security concerns, prestige issues, and national reasons.

For the purpose of this analysis, nuclear foreign policies of non-central countries, such as Argentina and Brazil, should be evaluated in terms of some fundamental determinants, both external and internal.

The global scenario

Even though there were some modest, but encouraging, signs on the nuclear security front from 2009 to 2010, the post-9/11 period in particular shows several disquieting tendencies. The established bargain is eroding—both asymmetrical and legitimate, between states with and without nuclear weapons, by which non-nuclear states agree not to develop nuclear weapons, the nuclear powers promised to disarm, and the peaceful use of nuclear technology was allowed. Effective global governance is absent. In essence, the original deal “has been distorted, particularly by nuclear-weapons-possessing governments.”[ii] This assertion, seen from the South, looks plausible if certain problematic features of the three external factors mentioned above are pondered.

In terms of the distribution of power there is a shifting locus of power from West to East, and in that context, the Asian continent has been the region where hidden or open proliferation of some actors has occurred, as well as where nuclear defiance and potential nuclear “cheating” have surfaced.[iii] Several countries from the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Western Asia seem to be ready—with or without the aid of the West—to develop their own nuclear weapons program in the event of a drastic deterioration of the international environment in Asia.[iv] Additionally, the aggressiveness deployed against countries without active nuclear programs or countries that abandoned theirs may have a contradictory impact; that is, if a country avoids or relinquishes nuclear proliferation, it may become a target of military force.[v]

With respect to the balance of threats, the Obama Administration’s continuation of the Bush Administration’s preemptive policy generates growing apprehension, and the reformation of the negative security assurances in the Nuclear Posture Review of 2010 implies the potential use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS).[vi] Also, the gradual incorporation of preemptive uses of force in the strategy of different countries is an additional signal of alarm, and the persistent high spending on nuclear weapons by nuclear-weapons states (NWS) demonstrates the lack of moderation by the NWS.[vii] Another effect to consider in the balance of threats is the importunate, recent double standard by which North Korea’s missile test was harshly condemned worldwide, while India’s nuclear test was not criticized by the Western powers, lending to the worrisome trend by which “nuclear proliferation is becoming easier, not harder.”[viii] Finally, the militarization and weaponization of outer space also contributes to the expanding dangers the international community faces.

In terms of the dynamics of ideas and institutions, the 2010 and 2012 Nuclear Security Summits were not watershed events and the degree of robust consensus and enforceable advancement derived from the successive Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Review Conferences since the end of the Cold War is minor. A number of contributing factors were quite damaging to the International Nuclear Regime (INR): the 2005 Bush-Singh statement in which the United States lifted a three-decade moratorium on nuclear trade with India, a non-party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty; the unique “waiver” given to India in 2008 by the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) and “exempting the South Asian country from the NSG’s rules governing civilian nuclear trade”; and the 2008 approval by the U.S. Congress of the 2007 agreement facilitating nuclear cooperation between Washington and New Delhi.[ix] This lack of significant progress on disarmament among NWS, plus the attempt to constrain civilian nuclear activities among the NNWS, reinforces the perception in the South that the INR is devoted to maintaining the military preponderance and the economic supremacy of a few privileged powers. The fact that the United States abandoned the Antiballistic Missile Treaty; the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty  has not been ratified by countries such as China, India and Pakistan; and the negotiation of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty reaching a stalemate is disturbing. The “intense politicization” of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) further negatively affects the INR.[x]

The unintended consequence of the current global nuclear environment is to generate incentives for nuclear weapons development among countries with latent nuclear production capabilities, such as Argentina and Brazil. However, most significantly, neither Buenos Aires nor Brasilia has opted to build up a nuclear weapons program.

The regional setting

In contrast to the global landscape, the Latin American region is highly positive concerning the nuclear question. The region is witnessing a nonviolent, non-nuclear weapons-based distribution of power where an emerging power—Brazil—several lesser and regional powers—Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela—and a few smaller powers—Cuba, Chile, and Costa Rica—coexist with a superpower—the United States—that feels secure, due to the absence of any real countervailing actor or coalition of nations against Washington.  

The region has underlying and localized balance of threat relationships, e.g. between Colombia and Venezuela, but the fact that Latin America has no weapons of mass destruction, and has been arguably the least aggressive in terms of resorting to war between states, contributes to ameliorate the actual tensions and potential confrontation in the area. It is characterized by certain ideas and institutions, which support commitment to the principle of uti possidetis—may you continue to possess such as you do possess—the adherence to international as well as inter-American regimes, the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and non-proliferation.

Within this context, a key stabilizing attribute of Latin America since the mid-1980s has been the cessation of the security dilemma between Brazil and Argentina. The pacifying effect of this bilateral achievement—under the impulse of democracy, interdependence, and integration—was reinforced by the establishment in 1991 of the Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC), the only one of its type in the world. In addition, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Nuclear Materials Security Index, Argentina ranks sixteenth—just below the United States at thirteenth and before France at nineteenth—due to its strengths, among inter alia material production and elimination trends, on-site physical protection, control and accounting procedures, response capabilities, domestic nuclear materials security legislation, independent regulatory agency, and voluntary commitments.[xi] Thus, from the Argentine opinion, Brazil should not fear a return to the past when both countries maneuvered for influence and advantage in South America using the nuclear issue as a critical component of their mutual geopolitical ambitions. This opinion is not a sign of weakness but of responsibility on the part of Buenos Aires. The organizational interest of key domestic actors linked to the nuclear issue has been in Argentina to guarantee its fundamental aim of developing peaceful nuclear capabilities with the greatest possible autonomy and within the context of legitimate constitutive and regulative rules.[xii]

Looking ahead

Professor at University of Colorado, Bryan C. Taylor asserts that, “nuclear weapons have always had a tense relationship with the future.”[xiii] In that sense, there seem to be two alternatives regarding Argentine-Brazilian nuclear diplomacy. These options, in turn, are closely related to the three aforementioned dimensions of nuclear politics: security concerns, prestige issues, and national reasons.

Both Argentina and Brazil face a complex and uneasy international security conjuncture. Critical, externally-driven anxieties are very important in the decision to convert latent nuclear production capabilities into a nuclear weapons development initiative.[xiv] Concerns with current global shifts may be higher in Brazil than in Argentina, because Brasilia is committed to become a visible, emerging, world player in the context of growing international frictions, but its potential role as a pragmatic broker on nuclear issues is not yet recognized—as was the case of the 2010 Turkey-Brazil-Iran deal—by key Western NWS. A combination of ambition, fear, and mistreatment may provoke an opportunity to justify a significant improvement of its nuclear program.[xv] The regional facet of concern should be nonexistent to Brazil: nothing originating within Argentina—its ongoing, notably transparent nuclear program, eloquently low defense budget, negligible policy of arms acquisition, non-altered alliance structure, and foreign strategy—should create hesitation on the part of Brazil. Thus, neither the global nor regional security considerations are, per se, powerful enough incentives to modify Brazil’s restraint on the nuclear question.

Prestige issues such as status-seeking recognition, identity-constructed politics, and independent self-image, among others, are recognized as relevant elements in the nuclear debate.[xvi] The search for significance and prominence makes it more likely to build up or obtain nuclear armaments. It is understandable if Brazil seeks greater appreciation by, and participation in, different formal and informal institutions as a key state in world affairs. However, it does not logically follow that it will be successful in attaining such appreciation by modifying its long-standing policy on peaceful nuclear usage. Pragmatic, moderate, non-nuclear weapons diplomacy has contributed to Brazil being a major actor in international relations today, so why change now? In the end, a cost-benefit analysis will inform Brazilian policymakers on its eventual quest for more prestige thorough the possession of nuclear weapons. In that context, a potential aggressive response by Argentina should be taken into consideration.

Finally, national reasons may trigger the development of a nuclear weapons program. For example, a coalition of civilian government officials, nuclear scientists, corporate contractors, armed services, think tanks, and leading personalities from different political orientations may provide the impetus for such undertaking. It is at this level that Argentina follows the debate on nuclear issues in Brazil with particular attention. Seen from Buenos Aires, it is evident that there is not yet any hegemonic constellation of forces geared towards the building up of nuclear weapons. Yet it is also true that the episodic and public manifestation of voices in favor of nuclear weapons in Brazil generate genuine worries in Argentina, both in the government and among interested citizens.

In the end, a very specific mix of security, status, and domestic dynamics will be fundamental for Brazilian determination to continue or to change its current nuclear policy. In the meantime, from the Buenos Aires perspective, there are two alternatives for Argentine-Brazilian nuclear politics: to preserve the existing mode of bilateral relationship in the hopes of consolidating reciprocity and avoid its deterioration. Alternately, to elevate the intensity, quality, and scope of bilateral cooperation on nuclear matters in order to advance scientifically and economically, establishing a “friendship” between Argentina and Brazil. Never before has there been an Argentina so willing to explore and encourage the second option.

Author’s Biography

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian has served as the director of the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the Universidad Di Tella in Buenos Aires. He holds a B.A. in Sociology from the Universidad de Belgrano, and an MA and PhD in International Relations from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. From 1999 to 2008, he taught at the University of San Andrés. From 1995 to 1998, he was an associate professor at the National University of Colombia in Bogota, where he served as a principle researcher at the Institute of Political Studies and International Relations (IEPRI). In 1982, he the Centre for International Studies (CIS) at the University of the Andes in Bogotá, and served as the director from 1987 to 1994. He has published several books, essays, and opinion pieces on the foreign policy of Argentina and Colombia, on relations between the United States and Latin America, on the contemporary global system, and on drug trafficking, terrorism and organized crime.


[i] Somehow, middles powers are a residual category of states not being either a great power or small actor in world politics. Notwithstanding both in terms of capacities—e.g. size, GDP, population, armed forces—and behavior—e.g. influential, pro-active, commitment to multilateralism—they are singular participants in international affairs. 
[ii] Daniel H. Joyner, “Recent Developments in International Law Regarding Nuclear Weapons,” International and Comparative Law Quarterly 60, no. 1 (2011): 209.
[iii] Proliferation by India, Pakistan, and Israel; defiance by North Korea; and suspected “cheating” by Iran.
[iv] For example, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey.
[v] Iraq did not have an active nuclear program in 2003. Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
[vi] Previous negative security assurances indicated that Washington would not attack with nuclear weapons non-nuclear parties to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) except “in the case of invasion or any other attack on the United States, its territories, its armed forces or other troops, its allies, or on a state towards which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non-nuclear-weapon state in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon state.”; The 2010 NPR changes this reservation. From then on the United States “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”; The “not in compliance” yardstick seems to be judged only by the United States, not any international body or concert of nations. This in turn, however novel and well-intended, may be misused politically or in a prejudicial way; something the United States has been doing with regards to the deployment of its military muscle since the end of the Cold War; See Philipp C. Bleek, “Bush Administration Reaffirms Negative Security Assurances,” Arms Control Today, 2 March 2002; See “U.S. `Negative Security Assurances´ At a Glance”,, accessed on May 30, 2012.
[vii] See W. Michael Reisman and Andrea Armstrong, “The Past and Future of the Claim of Preemptive Self-Defense,” American Journal of International Law 100, no. 3 (2006); For example, U.S. $104.9 billion over 2010-12; See, Bruce G. Blair and Matthew A. Brown, “World Spending on Nuclear Weapons Surpasses $1 Trillion Per Decade”, Defense Monitor 40, no. 3 (2011).
[viii] According to Kaufmann this is so because “the technology of choice, uranium enrichment using gas centrifuges, is now only moderately difficult to obtain, easy to operate given a few years of experience, and relatively easy to hide.”; Chaim Kaufmann, “Why Nuclear Proliferation is Getting Easier,” Peace Review 18, no. 3 (2006), 315.
[ix] See Kranti Kumara and Deepal Jayasekera, “Nuclear Supplier Group gives India ‘unique’ waiver, but only after row between Delhi and Beijing,” World Socialist Web Site, 17 September 2008.
[x] According to Hibbs: “The politicization at the IAEA exists for several reasons: erosion of US-Russian cooperation, cemented by the Cold War, to prevent the horizontal spread of nuclear arms; the rise of equity issues in international nuclear diplomacy; and nearly a decade of discord between the Bush administration and IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei contributed. In 2009, some observers predicted that consensus would be restored with the exit of both ElBaradei and President Bush. In fact, despite Obama’s resolve to rededicate the United States to multilateral nuclear diplomacy–and the intention of ElBaradei’s successor, Yukiya Amano, to pull together member states drifting apart into opposing North and South blocs–the lack of consensus has continued unabated…China and Russia have serious strategic differences with the West. In particular, both firmly oppose plans by the United States to deploy ballistic missile defense systems, and they are challenged by Western states’ support for the political opponents who toppled Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and those who could oust Bashar al-Assad in Syria. China and Russia have had longstanding close ties to both these rulers, and they also have compelling regional security and economic interests in Iran. Politicization of the IAEA, its limited authority, and the lack of cooperation of major powers deters effective global governance in areas of crisis that have a nuclear dimension: North Korea, Iran, and South Asia.”; Mark Hibbs, “Nuclear Energy 2011: A Watershed Year,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 68, no. 1 (2012), 14; In addition, former officials warn of parallels between IAEA approach to Iran and mistakes over Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction; See Julian Borger, “Nuclear watchdog chief accused of pro-western bias over Iran,” Guardian, 22 March 2012.  
[xi] See “NTI Nuclear Materials, Security Index, Argentina,” Nuclear Threat Initiative,
[xii] On constitutive and regulative rules see Brian Frederking, Kaitlyne Motl, and Nishant Timilsina, “Nuclear Proliferation and Authority in World Politics,” Journal of International and Global Studies 1, no. 1 (2009).
[xiii] Bryan C. Taylor, “‘A Hedge against the Future’: The Post-Cold War Rhetoric of Nuclear Weapons Modernization,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 96, no. 1 (2010), 1.
[xiv] See Dong-Joon Jo and Erik Gartzke, “Determinants of Nuclear Proliferation,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 51, no. 1 (2007); See J. I. Katz, “Lessons Learned from Nonproliferation Successes and Failures,” Comparative Strategy 27, no. 5 (2008).
[xv] Some analysts, such as Hans Rühle, former director of the planning staff of the German Ministry of Defense, assert that even though there is no proof of it, Brazil is almost certainly developing nuclear weapons. See Hans Rühle, “Brazil and the Bomb: Vexing nuclear activities in South America,” (Paper, IP Global, Berlin 2010).
[xvi] See Scott Sagan, “Why Do states Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb,” International Security 21, no. 3 (1996-1997).