How Brazil and Argentina overcame their nuclear rivalry


Brazil's President Sarney and Argentina's President Alfonsín, 1985

Book review: The Origins of Nuclear Cooperation. A Critical Oral History between Argentina and Brazil. Edited by Rodrigo Mallea, Matias Spektor and Nicholas J. Wheeler. Editora FGV, 2015. Available for download here in English, Spanish and Portuguese.


Despite occasional cooperation, Argentine-Brazilian rivalry was, for most of the 19th and 20th century, the dominant regional dynamic in South America. This only changed in the 1980s, when secret diplomatic negotiations and trust-building measures led to an agreement to renounce peaceful nuclear explosions and develop a safeguards framework, an achievement that set the stage for close cooperation on many levels today. The transformation of the bilateral relationship was revolutionary and fairly unexpected. As Matias Spektor and Rodrigo Mallea write in the introduction of The Origins of Nuclear Cooperation,

Nobody in the 1970s imagined that four decades later the regional system would resemble an incipient security community or that a spiral of security competition between the two major states was an increasingly remote possibility. On the contrary, when officials in Brasília and Buenos Aires first began to probe ideas of nuclear cooperation, the odds were stacked against any moves towards sustained engagement. 

Interestingly enough, better cooperation in the nuclear realm between Argentina and Brazil also generated trust in Washington and Europe, which had profound suspicions about the intentions of both Brasília and Buenos Aires. In that sense, the successful completion of the negotiations affected not only the bilateral relationship, but both countries' role in the emerging international order marked by growing institutionalization at the end of the Cold War.

The book is a laudable step towards gaining a better understanding of this crucial period in South American history. Rather than providing their own account of events, the editors published the transcript of a conference which brought together key actors of the Brazilian-Argentine nuclear rapprochement. The simultaneous presence of people who were involved in the events under study, documents that many of these people produced at the time, and scholars who come to the subject as experts in the field made for a uniquely rich discussion about what happened, why it happened, and to what effect, providing the reader with a vivid account of the period. While other conference of this kind had taken place before, the FGV-ICCS Rio conference in 2012 was the first that allowed historical actors and academics to anchor their conversation in the wealth of official documents that made up the cable traffic between the two countries (and between them and the US) at the time.

Current international relations students in particular, who grew up in an era marked by Brazil's growing prosperity, stability and regional dominance, will be surprised to learn that in the 1980s, Brazilian diplomats thought Argentina to be militarily far superior to its giant neighbor. Sebastião de Rego Barros, a Brazilian diplomat, explains that at the time, decision-makers in Brasília believed that in the case of a conflict, Brazilian ammunition would last for only five hours: "It was like being neighbors with the United States or the Soviet Union", he recounts. Interestingly enough, this assessment was not shared by Argentina, which regarded Brazil to be superior. As an Argentine participant argues during the conference,

I have to say I am particularly struck by this perception because historically the Argentine perception about Brazil was totally the opposite. I would say that the evaluation at that moment (...) was that if there would be a war between Brazil and Argentina the Brazilians would arrive walking, parading up to Buenos Aires. This conception lasted for so long that the (...) three provinces on the border with Brazil were doomed to total backwardness so that they would become no man’s land in the case of a Brazilian invasion.

And yet, despite this divergence of opinion, the book's findings suggest that security dilemma dynamics did not emerge due to a combination of factors, including an incapacity on both sides to reach high levels of uranium enrichment, US non-proliferation policy, the lack of profound enmity between both societies, cooperation between each country's scientific and technical communities, and skilled diplomacy.

Still, the developments described above are all more remarkable as the process began under the watch of military dictators, and was concluded after both countries had returned to democracy as the Cold War was drawing to a close -- a time marked by internal domestic upheavals on both sides. Even in 1985, during a briefing on Brazil's nuclear activities, President-elect Tancredo Neves inquired whether, in the case of an Argentine nuclear attack, Brazil would be "prepared to react".

The success after years of negotiations, the editors point out, should not lead us to believe that bilateral ties were free of problems. Rather, despite progress, low-level suspicion, frustration and miscommunication resurface from time to time, up to this day. This may be one of the book's most powerful lessons: While disagreements will always exist, careful diplomacy can nonetheless go a long way to generate trust and establish meaningful cooperation. That makes the book useful not only to those who study nuclear cooperation, but also to those interested in diplomatic negotiations and diplomatic history in general. After all, the difficulties that marked the incipient cooperation existed not only due to disagreements between the two countries, but also due to complex dynamics and rivalries within each country, in several instances threatening to derail the bilateral relationship. Tellingly, an Argentine diplomat recounts how he obtained intelligence at the time indicating that "not everything in Brazil was centralized, especially in the nuclear realm", that there was "dissidence within Brazil's armed forces" and that "the President and the Foreign Ministry did not control everything" that was going on -- such as when a Brazilian military airplane flew over an Argentine nuclear installation, a move that briefly heightened tensions.

We can only hope that more recent negotiations (such as the one between Iran and the P5+1 or between Greece and the rest of the EU) will, years from now, gain their own critical oral history, a key tool to help understand the dynamics that took place behind closed doors, invisible to the contemporary observer.

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Photo credit: by Victor Bugge, official photographer of Argentina