C. Patti: Brazil in the Global Nuclear Order, 1945–2018

Brazil in the Global Nuclear Order, 1945–2018.

Patti, Carlo
Johns Hopkins Nuclear History and Contemporary Affairs
312 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Robin Möser, Berlin

Over the past years, the emerging scholarship in the field of nuclear history has increasingly dealt with non-traditional nuclear cases, including Sweden,1 Pakistan,2 Ghana,3 and most recently Kazakhstan.4 In this direction, the inclusion of Brazil into the debate is a much sought-after addition, considering the more than seven decades of pursuing various goals in the nuclear sector, which is at the core of Carlo Patti’s new book, Brazil in the Global Nuclear Order, 1945–2018.

Based on 12 years of personally conducted archival research across the globe (in Brazil, Argentina, Germany, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Italy), Patti, who is a professor of international relations at the Federal University of Goiás, Goiânia, adds meaningful points to the debate on the global nuclear order, discussing key aspects such as international arms control and safeguards, technological assistance and sensitive cooperation, and the creation of a Latin American Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ). Moreover, the book includes more than a dozen of contemporary pictures, which complement the volume well.

The author addresses what he perceives as a gap in the literature on the global nuclear order, namely the inclusion of emerging countries’ experiences. He succeeds in doing so as this is the first complete treatise about Brazil, which is grounded on a detailed analysis of obtained primary records, most of them having never been consulted before. Furthermore, the author collected many testimonies through oral history interviews with an impressive number of former actors and interviewed no less than two former Brazilian presidents, high-ranking diplomats, politicians, military officials, and scientists, who occupied key positions during the period under investigation.

In the introduction, the author asserts that three different explanations are usually put forward to account for Brazil’s nuclear ambition to achieve an autonomous nuclear research sector: economic considerations in the wake of the 1970s oil crisis; nationalist ambitions during the various military regimes, against the backdrop of the Cold War; and the quest for an international status, in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations more broadly. Patti then sets out to overcome what he regards as the two greatest shortcomings in the historiography of Brazil’s nuclear past: firstly, no study has connected the above-mentioned arguments to explain why Brazilian leaders took such decisions in the nuclear field and, secondly, the existing literature lacks any consideration of the many international factors that shaped the decision-making.

The author, on the basis of an incredible number of archival sources and the use of oral histories, managed to intertwine various domestic, regional, and global influences: the US Atoms for Peace programme; the rise of a nuclear industry in states such as Germany, France, and the United States, who all aimed to export its products (the Brazil-Germany nuclear deal of 1975 is key here); the US non-proliferation agenda (especially under President Jimmy Carter); and Argentina, the regional (nuclear) rival.

Over nine chapters, together with an introduction and a conclusion, Patti chronologically dissects the efforts of several Brazilian governments to achieve autonomy in the nuclear field. This includes research into uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors for energy production, and the reprocessing of spent fuel. The question of how much these attempts were driven by the aim to ultimately build nuclear weapons is discussed as well. The author argues that it was never the goal of the Brazilian leadership to develop atomic devices; however, they wanted to have the capability to do so. This aim was finally given up in the early 1990s.

Throughout the book (and this is crucial), he sheds light on arms control initiatives emanating from the Global South, and his research on Brazilian and Argentinian disarmament initiatives and mutual agreements, crowned by their accession to the Treaty of Tlatelolco, is a timely and welcome addition to the burgeoning literature on international arms control. The rich account of Brazil’s nuclear development highlights inherent proliferation risks, such as reverse engineering, smuggling, and clandestine deals. The book illustrates how states willing to pursue non-peaceful goals can overcome the barriers of the international non-proliferation regime by diverting safeguarded equipment to non-safeguarded parts of secret parallel programmes.

Patti is at his best when skilfully tying together the domestic aspects with regional and global dimensions: for example, he uncovers the fact that the subsequent accessions of South Africa, France, and China to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in the first half of the 1990s were crucial for Brazilian leaders to likewise sign the treaty in 1998. He also reconstructs the Brazilian-Argentinian relationship and how former rivals became partners with the aim to promote a world free of nuclear weapons following democratic transitions in both states.

For me, three aspects stand out from his analysis. Firstly, the role of the United States in the bilateral relationship is important in setting the terms of the cooperation agreements with Brasilia. However, when Washington rejected the requests for, inter alia, technology, the Brazilians looked for other partners, often targeting those outside the NPT, including India and China, as well as West Germany and France.

Secondly, through a retrospective perspective, the author establishes that the Brazilian-Argentinian relationship has often been portrayed as too conflictual and rivalrous. His research led him to conclude that bilateral affairs started improving since the 1980s, allowing for mutual nuclear cooperation and the successful ratification of the Treaty of Tlatelolco, being the legal basis of the Latin American NWFZ.

Lastly, and this is a timely reminder, Patti shows how Brazilian diplomats became active players in global nuclear disarmament fora, acting as a bridge-builder in an effort to broker a deal with Iran in 2010 and trying to mediate in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

The book’s only shortcoming, in my view, is the almost complete absence of assessing anti-nuclear protests coming from non-governmental organizations (p. 152 and p. 159 mention it in passing) and the impact on the environment of the country’s several large-scale nuclear projects. Keeping in mind the nuclear disaster at Goiânia, “one of the worst civilian radiological accidents in nuclear history” (p. 144), one assumes that there would have been a mushrooming of grassroots resistance to nuclear energy, especially the storage of nuclear waste.

This minor point aside, Patti’s achievement is, by any standards, an impressively detailed study that pushes boundaries in the field of nuclear history. It is a well-researched book whose narrative indeed does justice to the critical role that Brazil played in the development of the contemporary global nuclear order. The volume also illustrates nicely the conditions under which Brazilian leaders renounced a nuclear weapons option, which, given the present state of the world, cannot be highlighted enough.

1 Thomas Jonter, The Key to Nuclear Restraint. The Swedish Plans to Acquire Nuclear Weapons During the Cold War”, London 2016.
2 Rabia Akhtar, The Blind Eye. U.S. Non-Proliferation Policy Towards Pakistan from Ford to Clinton, Lahore 2018.
3 Abena Dove Osseo-Asare, Atomic Junction. Nuclear Power in Africa after Independence, Cambridge 2019.
4 Togzhan Kassenova, Atomic Steppe. How Kazakhstan Gave Up the Bomb, Stanford 2022.

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