What is Brazil up to? That is the question national security planners should be asking. Since abandoning its nuclear weapons program in the late 1990s, Brazil has appeared the model for nonproliferation. Relations with Argentina, its longtime rival, have warmed and the two states even cooperate on nuclear and other security issues. Compared to the Middle East, South America is stable and peaceful, hardly an environment that would necessitate nuclear weapons. Yet, changes in Latin America and a perceived shift in the balance of power away from the West require a reconsideration of that assessment. Moreover, Brazil’s refusal to adopt the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocol and its pursuit of nuclear propulsion technology raise worrisome questions about its intentions.
To Brazil, Latin America is not as stable as often believed. To the north, Venezuela chaffs at the prospect of Brazil as regional hegemon. In 2010, Russia and Venezuela reached a deal to build the Latin American country’s first nuclear reactor. Although the project was scrapped after the Fukushima disaster, the prospect remains. Venezuela has also challenged Brazilian influence in Bolivia and Ecuador, two countries that have or have attempted to nationalize the facilities of Petrobras, Brazil’s state oil company. In 2008, the government of Hugo Chavez levied a controversial $282 million tax on a Brazilian construction firm. Such actions have riled Brazilian leaders.
Further north, the United States, long the guarantor of South American stability, appears hamstrung by economic challenges. According to former Argentine diplomat Emilio Cárdenas, Brazil believes that the West is in gradual decline and that Brazil is jockeying with other rising nations for position. This shift in the balance of power engenders a greater degree of uncertainty about U.S. capabilities and intentions in the future. Such uncertainty, in addition to Brazil’s new political and economic prowess, gives it the ability to challenge the U.S. at the margins of its power. Moreover, if the ability of the U.S. to maintain order in the hemisphere is truly constrained, it is incumbent upon the Brazilian government to seek alternative sources of security.
This perceived shift in the balance of power presents Brazil with an opportunity for international leadership. That is why Brazil is seeking to achieve a degree of political clout commensurate with its new economic power, setting as its chief foreign policy goal a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. A key component of permanent membership is the ability to share the burdens of maintaining international security. Currently, there is some question as to whether Brazil is capable of such a charge. Looking at the current permanent members as well as the other BRICs – Russia, India, and China – Brazil sees nothing but countries with nuclear weapons.
According to Kenneth Waltz, the preeminent realist international relations scholar, states mirror other states – states without nuclear weapons see the power and prestige of states with nuclear weapons and they want in. Former Brazilian Vice President José Alencar who died last year, remarked that Pakistan won international relevance “precisely because it has a nuclear bomb.” A nuclear weapon would not only deter rogue neighbors but solidify Brazil’s regional dominance and prove that it possesses the military capability to contribute to international security.
In addition to this perceived shift in the balance of power, consider Brazil’s more aggressive military strategy from 2003 to 2010 during the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Part of that strategy is the development of an enormous nuclear attack submarine analogous to India’s ballistic missile-capable Arihant-class. In addition to its potential as a missile platform, the propulsion reactors in Brazil’s submarines would require a higher degree of uranium enrichment than those for commercial power, possibly above 90 percent. In 2004, Brazilian Ambassador to the United States Roberto Abdenu remarked that "submarines are not subject to the [IAEA] safeguards regime.” This interpretation provides Brazil the capability to enrich weapons-grade uranium and develop a full fuel cycle outside of international scrutiny and without violating its agreements, such as the Treaty of Tlatelolco.
Furthermore, although Brazil does participate in various nonproliferation agreements, it refuses to adopt the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This protocol would strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s ability to detect clandestine weapons programs through various mechanisms, including a stronger inspections regime. According to Brazil’s National Strategy of Defense, a precondition to any additional restrictions under the NPT, such as the Additional Protocol, is the disarmament of nuclear states. However, even modest decreases in the nuclear inventories of the United States and Russia have proven difficult to accomplish. If the U.S. and Russia are unable or unwilling to disarm, Brazil feels no responsibility to take further steps to tie its hands by acceding to the Additional Protocol.
Taken independently, these actions are not necessarily provocative. However, when one considers how Brazil’s security environment is changing, these actions bring Brazil’s intentions into question. The perceived decline in the United States’ willingness and ability to intervene militarily in Latin America, hostility of neighboring countries to Brazil’s economic interests, and the hopelessness of nuclear disarmament provide powerful incentives to explore nuclear capability. None can claim that Brazil is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon, but its more assertive military posture, refusal to sign the NPT’s Additional Protocol, and pursuit of nuclear propulsion technology should give American policymakers and nonproliferation analysts pause.
Travis C. Stalcup is a George and Barbara Bush Fellow at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.