By Taylor Marvin
First off, my apologies for the long absence — I recently moved and started a new job, neither of which are conductive to regular writing.
Today I have a piece at Political Violence at a Glance (which I once edited, but have now moved on from, due to aforementioned the new job) looking at why Latin America remains the world’s largest region where nuclear weapons have never been produced.
The 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco banned nuclear weapons in Latin America. But the treaty’s existence does not fully answer this question — if Latin American states really desired nuclear weapons they would develop them anyway and accept the consequences, refuse to fully abide by the treaty, or would not have signed it in the first place. Today’s Latin America includes several countries that likely possess the technological and financial resources to develop nuclear weapons, with effort — Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico all spring to mind. One of these countries, Brazil, has long sought a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a body whose current permanent members all possess nuclear arms. Latin America is also no stranger to arms races, with a little-known early 20th century dreadnought race between Argentina, Brazil, and Chile being the most famous example. And as David R. Mares writes in his excellent book Violent Peace: Militarized Interstate Bargaining in Latin America, interstate conflict, or at least militarized interstate bargaining, is more common in the region than commonly known. Chile militarized its long border during the country’s period of dictatorship, Argentina nearly went to war with Chile over Beagle Channel islands in the late 1970s, and violent rhetoric between Chile and its neighbors persists.
So if several Latin American countries have the resources to develop nuclear weapons, and arguably at least some incentive to do so, why does the region remain nuclear weapons-free?
The short answer is that Latin American countries were not in a position to develop nuclear weapons during the early years of the Cold War and both Argentina and Brazil abandoned their efforts to build nuclear arsenals in the 1980s and 1990s (see Mitchell Reiss’ Bridled Ambitions: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities for a detailed account of these events), all while the security and prestige gains from these weapons have steadily eroded while their diplomatic costs have increased. Today there is little reason why Brazil or Argentina would invite international condemnation by building nuclear weapons, when both countries face no external threats and see a path to global prestige through international organizations and economic growth, rather than unpopular nuclear arms.
However, as I allude this argument is a bit of a circular one in the Latin American context. It is arguable that states aspiring to global leadership roles have moved away from building nuclear weapons as a means of realizing their ambitions. But this observation rests heavily on the Brazilian example, because Brazil is one of the world’s most prominent non-nuclear states. Of the emerging economies BRICS bloc only Brazil has never possessed nuclear weapons (South Africa voluntarily gave up its own small nuclear arsenal), though of course Brazil’s historical experience is hugely different than India and South Africa, and especially from the USSR/Russia and China. Brazil’s non-nuclear status is not alone among the G4 nations hoping to join a reformed UN Security Council, but Germany and Japan both have unique historical reasons to decline fielding nuclear arms, even if both are capable of building them. So if Brazil does elect to build nuclear weapons the argument that modern aspirants to international status don’t need nuclear arms would collapse, both in theory and probably in practice.
All this isn’t to say that the alarmism of Hans Rühle’s 2010 article is correct. It is still difficult to say what Brazil would actually gain from developing nuclear weapons, and the country’s long coastline, offshore resources, and military modernization ambitions make developing a nuclear-powered attack submarine a legitimate goal (in the sense that consistently operating one or more nuclear attack submarine would grant the Brazilian navy significant new, practical capabilities). Of course it is unclear who an advanced submarine would actually be defending Brazil from, but that isn’t the point of prestige military programs. Unlike nuclear weapons few would condemn an eventual Brazilian nuclear submarine as anything beyond a waste of money, and this comparatively unoffensive weapons program still buys admission to an elite technological club. But even if Brazil joining the world’s nuclear weapons states is unlikely, it is important to remember that the negative consequences of it choosing to do so would be very serious.