How Brazil and Argentina defused their nuclear rivalry

Brazil’s former president, Jose Sarney. EPA/Fernando Bizzerra Jr

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Brazil and Argentina sought to acquire or develop technologies to enrich and reprocess uranium. At the time neither country was a member of the global weapons control regime, and both were bent on building ballistic missiles.

While there is no unequivocal evidence that either country ever worked concertedly towards a nuclear weapon, they certainly saw each other as major potential security threats, and both their military establishments had contingency plans in place for the event of war.

On top of that, both countries were governed by opaque authoritarian regimes that shrouded their official nuclear intentions under a veil of secrecy, meaning their nuclear programmes were poorly understood both at home and abroad. To make matters worse, there was very little high-level diplomatic contact between the two sides, with no major bilateral committees or working groups and very little social and economic interdependence.

It is no wonder, then, that many international observers at the time (including the CIA) estimated that when it came to Argentina and Brazil, spiralling nuclear security competition with serious geopolitical ramifications was a real possibility. And yet somehow, they managed to turn back from the brink.

Face to face

We set out to better understand how these two countries were able to navigate a new co-operative nuclear path. Our research team conducted archival research in Argentina, Brazil, and the US (a selection of which can be downloaded here). We also convened a conference that brought together former Argentine and Brazilian officials and diplomats to reflect on how the nuclear rapprochement became possible.

Building on the pioneering work of political scientists Jim Blight and Janet Lang, we have produced a book based on the transcript of the conference, which can be downloaded here. It tells a unique and rich story about how two regional nuclear rivals de-escalated their nuclear rivalry, and averted what could have been a major crisis in regional and global security.

The transcript shows there was nothing inevitable about the de-escalation. There were several moments when one side appeared to be on the cusp of securing a major technological edge that could have triggered a competitive spiral of nuclear competition. This did not happen because at those crucial junctures, Argentine and Brazilian leaders chose to trust rather than distrust.

To be sure, there were powerful structural factors promoting co-operation over conflict. Both countries were transitioning to democracy, and both were keen to avoid bowing to US pressure and conform to the global non-proliferation regime. But the empathy and trust that developed at the highest levels of Argentine-Brazilian diplomacy was equally crucial.

The transcript reveals how, through a series of face-to-face meetings, a trusting relationship developed between the then-president of Brazil, José Sarney, and his Argentine counterpart, Raúl Alfonsín – and how their relationship paved the way for mutual nuclear inspections. Reflecting upon their personal connection in an interview with a Brazilian newspaper last Saturday, Sarney said that: ‘We established a trusting relationship between us. What we see happening now with immense difficulty with Iran, we did here in South America without international mediation’.

Opening up

In July 1985, Sarney received word that Alfonsín was secretly proposing that Brazil and Argentina set up a system of mutual nuclear inspections. This proposal seemed utterly implausible. These were two regional powers with a long history of diplomatic rivalry, both now bent on purchasing and developing indigenous uranium enrichment and ballistic missile technologies – all outside any international safeguarding regime.

Sarney was unconvinced, but Alfonsín insisted. Surely the two of them could use transparency to reassert civilian authority over their respective military establishments, which had run both nuclear policy and national politics for many years. Also, there was surely no better way to fend off US and wider international pressure to sign up to the 1968 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and negotiate safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Authority.

Alfonsín and Sarney were willing to increase the levels of transparency in their own nuclear programmes, but they never considered joining the NPT. On the contrary, both of them thought the treaty a discriminatory arrangement designed by the major nuclear powers to keep peripheral countries like Argentina and Brazil ensconced in the third world. They remained as wedded to the notion that nuclear technology is a sign of modernity as their predecessors.

But if only they could tell the world that there was no need to worry about their future nuclear intentions because each of them was reassured that the other side was developing nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes only.

When they met in person for the first time in November 1985, Alfonsín brought his proposal forward once more. Once again Sarney resisted, but Alfonsín kept pressing for more transparency and closer bilateral co-operation – and five years later to the day, on November 1990, the two countries set up a binational agency to carry out the mutual inspections.

In the course of these five years, Argentine-Brazilian nuclear co-operation revolutionised the politics of South America. Nobody in the 1970s could have imagined that in two decades, the fractious relationship between Brazil and Argentina would have created a nascent security community – or that the risk of military competition between the continent’s two major states would be diminishing rather than growing.

Lessons learned

This case proves that face-to-face diplomacy and the interpersonal trust it builds between political leaders is a crucial tool for defusing nuclear rivalry, and even outright enmity.

As the Iranian government and the negotiating partners sign their historic nuclear agreement, the most important lesson of the Argentine-Brazilian case is the importance of not fixating on worst-case scenarios. There were less co-operative trajectories open to Argentine and Brazilian leaders in the second half of the 1980s, but these paths were avoided.

What made the difference was the empathy and trust that developed among the key players – something that is still uncertain in the Iranian case. The deal between Iran and the West does not mean the end of the two sides’ trust deficit, and this is where the South American story of nuclear rapprochement is a valuable lesson.