Brazil as a mediator or swing vote in security issues

This article asks whether Brazil will increasingly become a mediator or swing vote in important security issues like nuclear non proliferation because of its increasing economic clout, among other reasons.

The future of non-proliferation

An awkward guest-list
Apr 29th 2010
From The Economist print edition

The United States cannot count on a warm response, even from friends, to its campaign to strengthen the international regime on nuclear proliferation

IT IS one of those regular diplomatic fixtures, but the party seldom goes with a swing. Every five years, the 189 countries that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are invited to gather to take stock of progress towards its stated goal: eventual nuclear disarmament, as part of a hoped-for process of more general disarmament. Over the years much of the news has been bad. But this time, the review that starts in New York on May 3rd, and lasts all month, convenes after a burst of unaccustomed good tidings. Will the 150 or so delegations that are expected in New York take this rare opportunity to make real progress in stopping the bomb’s spread—or let the chance slip away?

This will be the second time in as many months that the United States hosts an important global gathering on nuclear matters. But neither Barack Obama’s charisma, nor his record as a champion of disarmament, will be enough to guarantee that the guests enter the party spirit as fully as he and others would like; some significant countries are wavering, and a handful of spoilers are bent on wrecking the show.

Already the NPT has been badly undermined by rule-breakers like North Korea. (It quit the treaty in 2003 and has since boasted of having tested two nuclear devices.) Since then Iran, Syria and others have fallen under suspicion too. However, the aspiration for eventual nuclear disarmament—remote as that goal may be—got a big boost last year from Mr Obama, when, in a speech in Prague, he committed America to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

In April this year, after months of hard bargaining, America and Russia agreed to new, deeper weapons cuts and updated inspection rules that will see their strategic arsenals shrink to 1,550 warheads apiece, a third below previously agreed levels and a small fraction of the many thousands they built during the cold war—with more cuts to come. Mr Obama also pleased many people by announcing strict new limits on the circumstances in which America might even think of using its bombs. Days later, a hand-picked gathering of 50 world leaders in Washington, DC, recommitted to making nuclear stocks safer; and in their civil nuclear programmes, to rely less on materials (like highly enriched uranium) from which bombs can be made.

The hope on the part of America, most European governments, some in Latin America and many in Asia is that this momentum will now propel the NPT review towards consensus on steps to bolster the treaty’s anti-proliferation rule. The last such meeting, in 2005, ended in something close to a punch-up.

For example, the mandatory safeguards that accompany the treaty were devised in the 1970s, when any sort of inspection seemed a radical new departure. If they are to keep up with the new threats the treaty faces, and even with the spread of purely civilian nuclear technology as countries look for carbon-free energy, inspectors need to see more, receive more information and be able to use more effective and up-to-date methods.

Most countries have already volunteered for these extra checks and adopted an “additional protocol” as a bolt-on to their original safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear guardian. But it is the refuseniks—from probably honourable Brazil and Egypt to dissembling Iran and Syria—that most concern inspectors.

And there is the nub of the problem. Opposition from Iran, though regrettable, is to be expected. It seems determined to keep inspectors at arm’s length. Like Libya, Iran was caught cheating, having done secret deals over the years with a nuclear black market run by Pakistan’s now disgraced former nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan. Unlike Libya, however, Iran is still trying to hide some of its nuclear work. (Libya may anyway side with the party-poopers in New York; it was miffed not to be invited to Mr Obama’s nuclear-security summit.) Syria has likewise dug in its heels: it was reported to have been building a nuclear reactor to produce bomb-usable plutonium with North Korea’s help, and possibly Iranian cash, until the almost completed structure was bombed by Israel in 2007.

Yet the push for tighter rules in support of a stronger NPT has met pushback from others too. After years of demanding that the world’s nuclear powers take bolder steps to cut and eventually eliminate their arsenals, you might think that non-nuclear Brazil, Egypt, Mexico and South Africa (all members of an informal “new agenda” coalition that also includes Ireland, New Zealand and Sweden too, and has helped in the past to broker NPT compromises) would be queuing to offer support.

Instead, in the lengthy run-up to this latest review they have sometimes seemed among the sharpest critics. They are all involved, in different ways, in a set of three overlapping rows: on compliance and inspections, on demands for universalisation of the treaty to bring in the remaining holdouts (now just India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea), and on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. How these rows turn out will determine success or failure in New York, and the future of the NPT itself.

Brazil once had a nuclear-weapons effort. But when the military government that started it gave way to a civilian one, it went to great lengths, in co-operation with its neighbour and one-time nuclear rival, Argentina, to show that the programme had been dismantled. Yet it still refuses to let IAEA inspectors take a full look at its uranium-enrichment machines at Resende, and will not sign the additional protocol that would oblige it to do so.

Brazil says this is to protect home-grown technology. Yet inspectors have long practice at keeping commercial secrets, and plenty of other countries with their own advanced technology have no such qualms, argues Pierre Goldschmidt, a former chief nuclear inspector now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank.

Brazil’s agenda

So does Brazil still have lingering military ambitions? Occasional remarks by senior politicians suggest it might. But its president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, insists not. He does have his own agenda though, which could complicate the NPT review. For he sees himself as a different sort of peace-monger. Like Turkey’s leaders, he has offered to mediate between Iran and the UN Security Council, which is again mulling tougher sanctions in the face of that country’s nuclear defiance. Indeed, Lula will soon visit Iran in an attempt to push a nuclear-fuel deal that, when agreed last October, might just have bought some real space for diplomacy. But Iran has since backed away from it.

The worry is that with the NPT review under way, Iran may use this visit to play games, as it has done in the past with Russia and others: seeming to show willingness to compromise for just long enough to tie everyone up in knots, but then pulling back. If Lula falls for such a gambit this time, that might seem to give Iran’s spoiling tactics greater support, both at the Security Council and at the NPT table.

Short of that, Iran can be certain only of the backing of Cuba, Venezuela, Syria and perhaps Libya. That is why its diplomats and its outspoken president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been canvassing support in places from Austria to Uganda and Zimbabwe to try to ease the pressure and prevent deepening isolation (only Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe gave backing, amid reports that Iran is also seeking to buy uranium wherever it can).

Yet Lula seems undeterred. Like South Africa, Mexico and others, Brazil has often resented the way the nuclear powers (though China and Russia try to keep their heads down here) have sought to set the NPT agenda. In particular there is resentment at efforts to impose new restrictions, such as the additional protocol, and at proposals for fuel banks that could be a way of discouraging countries from creating their own nuclear technology (as Brazil has done). Above all, this pressure on non-nuclear NPT members comes at a time when India, under a deal first negotiated by Mr Obama’s predecessor, George Bush, is being allowed to import technologies and materials others are discouraged from acquiring. India, critics point out, may have been Mr Bush’s best new friend, but it has never signed the NPT or taken on its obligations; meanwhile it has built an arsenal of bombs. Resentment grew when the America-India deal was strong-armed through the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an informal 46-nation body that sets global rules for nuclear trade.

To many governments, therefore, compliance is mainly an issue for the West, says Mark Fitzpatrick of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. If they are to take on further obligations, they want things in return. In 1995 the NPT was extended indefinitely, as part of a deal that extracted other commitments from the five official nuclear powers at that conference and the next one in 2000. Few of these terms have been met.

They included a promise of a Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT); a separate treaty to end the production of fissile material for bombs (called an FMCT); and renewed commitment from the nuclear powers to eventual disarmament. Mr Obama says he will again press America’s Senate to ratify the test ban: it refused in 1999 on a partisan vote.

But it is Pakistan that is single-handedly holding up the start of negotiations on an FMCT, though others, including India are not keen to make speedy progress. Pakistan deeply resents the controversial Indian nuclear deal. India is now able to devote more of its limited supplies of domestic uranium to weapons production, letting imports cover more of its civilian needs. Pakistan argues that it needs to keep up, and China seems to be helping it do so by supplying technology that will boost its fissile-material productions and perhaps a nuclear reactor or two, though this would all be against NSG rules. What Pakistan would really love is a deal like India’s. Instead, given Pakistan’s past proliferation record, says George Perkovich of Carnegie, the pressure at the NSG is likely to be the other way: to come up with a set of rules that, in effect, closes the door to further India-style exemptions.

But the trickiest issue may prove to be the promise given in 1995 to explore ways of setting up a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. To Egypt, this is a way of pressing Israel to give up its nuclear arsenal. A nuclear-free zone, it says, could be a first step to a wider ban on weapons of mass destruction. Until it gets some meaningful progress, it will not support making the additional protocol on enhanced inspections obligatory for all. For its part, Israel says flatly the time to negotiate on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the Middle East (its neighbours may not have the bomb, but they have other nasty things up their sleeves) is after a peace agreement.

Not being a treaty participant, Israel will not be in the room in New York. Egypt is nonetheless impatient, after 15 years of waiting, to see some progress. The United States, Britain and others have been floating the idea of an exploratory conference—not a negotiating forum since there is no prospect of agreement even on what to negotiate. The IAEA and the European Union might also host workshops to look at some of the technical issues that would come up if such a zone were ever on the agenda.

In truth there is no chance of the additional protocol on inspections being adopted as a requirement at this month’s review. Iran will block such a move (it may yet be made a condition of nuclear trade by the NSG, though Turkey has been the recent holdout there). But broad support from a wide coalition of countries, including the Brazils, Egypts and South Africas, for strong language to back up the inspectors and to find ways to improve the workings of the NPT would help go some way to restoring the treaty’s battered authority.

Published by Janar Wasito

Janar Wasito is the manager of Magis Capital in San Diego, CA. He is a graduate of Harvard and Stanford Law School, and a former Marine Officer.

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