Nuclear Free Continent — Assessing the Literature on South American Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons

In the wake of the Second World War, the international community was individually and collectively faced with the reality that the shape of war and peace had changed permanently with the detonation of nuclear weapons in anger at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though the Cold War was a conflict primarily centered around economic and idealistic differences between the United States and the Soviet Union, nuclear technology particularly weapons remain defining centerpieces of the conflict.(Bracken) Nation after nation followed the example of the United States and the Soviet Union of acquiring nuclear weapons technology. While the literature contains varied theories as to the efficacy of nuclear weapons for maintaining security and/or international status and prestige, the historical fact consistently demonstrates the desire of nuclear weapons technology for individual nation states. Thereby, the fact that South American nations collectively chose to abandon nuclear weapons programs–a reality that has continued to date–is enigmatic. Scholars and theorists have then sought to answer the question providing insight into this particular phenomenon.

The literature tends to agree universally upon one fact, that the three major powers of South America (Argentina, Brazil, and Chile) do not consider the others to be likely military threats. Espiell points out that the three countries of inquiry–Brazil, Argentina, and Chile–all unilaterally view the NPT as an imposition upon their sovereignty by outside agents.(Espiell) “The first three of these countries have repeated again and again that they oppose NPT because it is discriminatory and violates the legal equality of States and is therefore unacceptable.”(Espiell) Therefore, the importance of non-proliferation in South America is not due to outside influencing treaties or factors. However, it is not delineated if this response to apparent Western Imperialism is the result of the breakdown of liberal treaties or more of a realist assumption. There is the possibility that considering the treatment of South American indigenous populations by western peoples through the course of history has lead to a constructivist mistrust of all foreigners outside of the South American continent. Either way, the motivation for the isolationist tendencies of South American nations needs further investigation.

Though the motivation needs more investigation, the literature seems to contain unilaterial agreement that South American nations do not see the internal differences as a threat. Sagan says so in his work The Spread of Nuclear Weapons and the article “Why do States Build Nuclear Weapons.”(Sagan and Waltz)(Sagan) In the former he states that Brazil and Argentina abandoned nuclear weapons programs “because each realized neither posed a threat to the other.”(Sagan and Waltz) In addition in Sagan has stated again that:

“both Argentina and Brazil refused to complete the steps necessary to join theLatin American nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) and began active pro-grams in the 1970s that could eventually have produced nuclear weapons;however, their 1990 joint declaration of plans to abandon their programs is seenas the natural result of the recognition that the two states, which had not foughta war against one another since 1828, posed no fundamental security threat to each other.”(Sagan)

Therefore, while both nations were on the path to developing nuclear weapons the lack of internal threats prevented their acquisition of nuclear weapons. The prominence of this theory seems to be shared across the literature as well. Taylor, Bracken, de Sá, Marvin, and Espiell all do not mention internal security between the main three as concerning enough for the development of nuclear deterrents.(Taylor)(Bracken)(de Sa)(Marvin)(Espiell) Price lists the possibility to Venezuela as a potential South American threat that could change the current approach to nuclear weapons.(Price) However, considering the time when his article was written and the political changes that have occurred since, the possible nuclear armament of Venezuela now seems unlikely. Thereby, it seems likely that considering this change even Price would most likely agree with the consensus apparent in the literature that there exists no conflict between the main three that would make the development of nuclear weapons attractive or necessary.

Since the development of nuclear weapons has not been necessary for the security of South American nations against one another, the literature indicates that this motivating factor lead to these nations reaching the same conclusion to adopt non-proliferation strategies. Sagan again reinforces that the adoption of these treaties was the result of mutual understanding and cooperation–a marked neo-liberal perspective.(Sagan) That being said, the adoption of the NPT seems to be a different matter upon which the literature contains more diverse opinion. Espiell points out that the adoption of the NPT seemed to merely coincide with the already adopted Tlatelolco Treaty.(Espiell)Furthermore, while the goals intertwined the NPT was seen as opposed to the interests and sovereignty of South American nations. This perspective is also found in the writings of De Sa.(de Sa) De Sa even masterfully traces the tenuous relationship between the United States and Brazil in the historical context of Brazil’s long time interest in nuclear technology even before the Second World War.(de Sa) This historical analysis shows how the existence of the NPT is not held in high regard by South American nations.(de Sa) This disregard for NPT requirements and regulations could be seen as concerning considering the development of nuclear submarines and apparent exploitation of non-proliferation loopholes.

Therefore, the conclusions drawn for reviewing the literature on why Argentina, Brazil, and Chile abandoned nuclear weapons programs and signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty seem to revolve around a few interesting factors. First, possible internal threats and conflicts are of such a slight nature that the use of nuclear weapons as deterrents does not seem attractive. In addition, the presence of the United States as a systemic factor when relating to nuclear technology seems to be viewed with skepticism, opposition, and distrust. Furthermore, the adoption of the NPT as a non-proliferation treaty remains secondary to the Tlatelolco Treaty and factors internal to the South American geographical region. Furthermore, the literature looks forward to prediction in assessing the likelihood of non-proliferation continuing to be maintained by South American countries. In moving forward to prediction there also exists strong consensus in the unlikelihood of non-proliferation being abandoned. While Price raised concerns to the effect, they were related to a radically changing internal imbalance in Venezuela.(Price) As elucidated before, the presence of this threat has greatly waned since Price wrote that article. That being said, the literature would then imply that some sort of radical political shakeup that would lead to security threats internal to the geographical could lead to nuclear arms proliferation.

While radical internal security changes are possible reasons South American nations might adopt nuclear arms, the more likely cause seems to be systemic threats outside of the South American continent. While severely declining relations between Brazil and the United States seems unlikely, the literature indicates that relations between the two nations as regards nuclear weapons have not always been amicable.(de Sa) That being said, the literature contains no explicit reference to United States foreign policy as being a possible motivator for nuclear arms development. On the other hand, as Marvin points out that the Falkland Wars were not sufficient motivation for Argentina to develop nuclear weapons, it seems unlikely then that even systemic threats would motivate South American nations toward nuclear arms.(Marvin)

Though the literature seems to not consider systemic threats as likely motivators for the adoption of nuclear arms, there exists another possible motivator for nuclear weapons development particularly by Brazil. Bracken raises the point that the non-presence of Brazil on the United Nations Security Council is a curious phenomenon.(Bracken) “That either country [Britain and France] should be on the Security Council at all, while India, Brazil, Germany, and Japan are not, makes little sense in the twenty-first century. But nuclear weapons all this charade to go on.”(Bracken) The argument that Bracken is presenting here centers around that the possession of nuclear weapons by Britain and France allows them to remain on the UN Security Council; thereby, the implication being that nuclear weapons allow greater prestige than might be deserved. Thus, if Brazil sought a Security Council seat they might develop nuclear weapons in order to command the respect and consideration of the international community. Taylor reinforces this position by positing this as a possible more realistic justification for the development of a nuclear submarine program by Brazil.(Taylor) While de Sa does not mention the UN Security Council directly, referencing Brazil’s desire to provide for the security of both themselves and the Americas in the wake of possible United States decline follows the same logic.(de Sa) However, Marvin seems to consider the possibility of nuclear weapons giving prestige and power as unlikely.(Marvin)

“Nuclear weapons are no longer seen as a path to international status. If a Latin American country armed itself today with a nuclear weapon it would be more likely to receive global condemnation than great power prestige.”(Marvin)

Marvin seems to adopt an approach that does not account for the benefit of nuclear weapons as objects that manifest national power. Rather, he raises the legitimate concern that doing so would ultimately achieve the opposite result of condemnation.(Marvin) He continues and points out that greater conventional weapons such as aircraft carriers would fill this requirement much better than nuclear weapons.(Marvin) Be that as it may, the literature seems to maintain a perspective that sees the possibility of Brazil developing nuclear weapons as a means to gain greater prestige and project national interests with greater diplomatic and military force.

While the literature contains much on the systemic factors that influence the adoption of non-proliferation treaties both from a liberal and realistic perspective, there is a gap in the inquiry as regards to constructivist and unit level perspectives as influencing factors for the adoption of non-proliferation. A comprehensive study that contrasts the unit level factors between South American nations and nuclear weapons possessing nations from a constructivist point of view would yield an interesting perspective. Possibly, this constructivist would provide insight into unit level changes that nuclear capable nations desiring non-proliferation could make to bring about disarmament. In particular, considering the prevalence of Catholicism in South America, investigating a connection between Second Vatican Council documents on nuclear arms proliferation and South American non-armament might yield compelling connections.(John XXIII) Whether that influence would be a systemic, unit, or some sort of hybrid level factor would be within the purview of such an investigation.

Furthermore, the literature also lacks analysis from critical perspectives including feminism and neo-Marxism. Differing economic conditions may very well be an influencing factor; therefore, investigating this perspective bears doing. In addition, the unique cultural approach to the role of women in South American society coupled with a feminist analysis of South American foreign policy bears an in depth study. While no data has been found for the this review, the possibilities of investigating this possible phenomenon remains compelling.

Finally, developing game scenarios for application within the context of military gaming could provide invaluable insight into what possible outcomes might occur if South American nations did turn nuclear. Answering how nuclear weapons becoming a factor in the geographical region could in turn provide insight in how to put into place new treaties, oversights, and strategies to counteract proliferation and maintain the current state of nuclear security.

In investigating South American non-proliferation, the literature maintains consensus as to why the three primary nations adopted a position of nuclear disarmament even amidst the development of nuclear weapons. Since the three did not pose legitimate security threats to one another, no nuclear weapons were developed. Furthermore, while treaties were successfully developed to maintain the status quo of non-proliferation–the literature seems in agreement that the NPT was adopted despite protest and that the internally developed Tlatelolco Treaty was much more effective in maintaining non-proliferation. While the likelihood of the status quo changing is unlikely the literature sees that radical internal security changes could motivate the development of nuclear weapons. The more likely cause of nonproliferation being abandoned though would be systemic factors external to South America. Even more likely still would be a movement to gain a seat on the UN Security Council by Brazil by increasing power and prestige through nuclear weapons. The literature still needs to include more constructivist unit level analyses incorporating religious influences. Furthermore, neo-marxist and feminist analyses should be conducted as well to gain as much as possible phenomenological data. Finally, developing theoretical strategic games to investigate what possible outcomes would occur if nuclear weapons were incorporated into South American international relations would greatly help to provide insight into what steps should be taken to ensure continual nuclear security in South America.


Paul Bracken. The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics. New York: Macmillan, 2012.

H. Gros Espiell. “The Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America,” International Atomic Energy Agency Bulletin, Volume 22, No 3/4. Accessed March 17, 2017.

Pope John XXIII. Pacem In Terris Encyclical Of Pope John XXIII On Establishing Universal Peace In Truth, Justice, Charity, And Liberty. Vatican City: Vatican City Press. April 11, 1963. Accessed April 15, 2017. documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_11041963_pacem.html

Taylor Marvin. “Why Are There No Nuclear Weapons in South America?” Political Violence At A Glance Expert Analysis On Violence and Its Alternatives. August 7, 2014. Accessed March 17, 2017. nuclear-weapons-in-south-america/.

Owen Price. “Nuclear Nonproliferation Efforts Should Not Neglect South America,” World Politics Review, November 9, 2006. Accessed March 17, 2017.

Mitchell Reiss. Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press with Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Andrea de Sá. “Brazil’s Nuclear Submarine Program,” The Nonproliferation Review, 22:1 (November 3, 2015), 3-25. Accessed March 3, 2017. 2015.1070044.

Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz. The Spread of Nuclear Weapons An Enduring Debate Third Edition. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Scott Sagan. “Why do States Build nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb,” International Security, Vol. 21, Winter 1996/97, 54-86. Accessed March, 6 2017.

Paul D. Taylor. “Why Does Brazil Need Nuclear Submarines?” United States Naval Institute. Proceedings 135.6 June 2009, 42-47. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute, June 2009. Accessed April 14, 2017.


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