Nuclear Reactor: Botching Brazilian Diplomacy

Americans could be forgiven for largely ignoring The Washington Post’s April 4 report on the clash between the United States and Brazil over safeguards on sensitive nuclear technology. After all, Brazil is not threatening to build nuclear arms, and it faces few if any security threats that might prompt such a move. True, U.S.-Brazil relations have been rocky at times, but they are a far cry from America’s relations with rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. Even more reassuring, the fight that the Post exposed was over a technical matter that ought to have been resolved quickly and quietly.

But Brazilians didn’t quite see things that way. The day before the Post story ran, the dispute had been an innocuous curiosity; by the next day, the disagreement had become the focus of national outrage in Brazil. By the week’s end, Brazilian authorities had dug in their heels, wearing their refusal to cooperate as a badge of honor, and chafing at what they claimed was unwarranted and insulting American pressure.

Of course, the dispute will likely be smoothed over and forgotten. But the flare-up was not a fluke, and it is not peculiar to Brazil. It is an entirely foreseeable—and largely avoidable—consequence of how the Bush administration has decided to go about fighting nuclear proliferation. And it suggests key lessons about how not to enforce nuclear non-proliferation in the future.

The dispute began with the United States and Brazil at odds over how the International Atomic Energy Agency (iaea) was to inspect Brazil’s new uranium enrichment plant. The IAEA asked for full access to the plant; Brazil claimed that the IAEA could do its job with partially restricted access, an option allowed in principle by IAEA regulations. While the negotiators had a long way to go, most believed the differences could be resolved.

Once the dispute went public, however, Brazilian resentment over American nuclear weapons policy quickly bubbled to the surface. That anger had been simmering since February, when President Bush proposed a set of new initiatives to thwart nuclear proliferation. Most prominent among them was a requirement for all states to adopt intrusive “Additional Protocol” inspections—something Brazil had not yet done—and, more importantly, to halt construction of new uranium enrichment facilities, which Brazil is in the process of building. Given Brazilian sensitivities over these two issues, the Bush administration might have spoken to the country’s leaders before making the proposals. But it did not. Brazil’s leaders took the proposals as an ambush, and became quietly angry. Now they have seized on the publicity surrounding the IAEA dispute to air their displeasure about U.S. nonproliferation policy in general.

This situation isn’t confined to Brazil. My conversations with foreign diplomats suggest that with the possible exception of Britain, no other state was consulted before the administration unveiled its plan. Which is why it’s reasonable to assume that other states quietly felt the same way about the announcement—and that with the proper provocation, their frustration would have showed, too.

This is not merely a problem of tone or a failure to conduct smart diplomacy. There is also a substantive problem here: The Bush proposals discriminate against underdeveloped nations in ways they are going to find unacceptable; in the case of Brazil, the United States has claimed a right to build uranium enrichment plants, while declaring that Brazil should have none. To fix this situation, the U.S. could offer to tighten some of the rules governing its own nuclear operations, while providing modest concessions on what other states are allowed. The administration should decide what new balance it thinks would be best—but then go into discussions willing to make a deal.

Some will ask whether we should even care. After all, Brazil isn’t about to build nuclear weapons just because it feels offended, and neither are the other non-rogue states that will be bothered by our heavy-handed policies. As Brazil’s Foreign Ministry has noted, Brazil is not Iran or North Korea, and ought not be viewed that way.

But that analysis offers little solace. In the fight against proliferation, we need states like Brazil to do more than simply refrain from developing nuclear arms; we need them to be examples of what states peacefully pursuing nuclear energy—but not nuclear arms—look like. That is, we need them to provide a clear contrast with violators like Iran and North Korea, and, in so doing, to focus the spotlight on these rogue states. Yet if American policy drives Brazil to act like, for example, Iran—toying with inspectors and thwarting international rules—it will be harder to isolate rogue states as offenders, and thus to gather support for effective enforcement action.

In the world of nuclear policy, power can manifest itself in strange ways. Which is why Brazil, a non-aggressive state with no nuclear ambitions of its own, has the power to confuse U.S. nonproliferation strategy. It’s also why we treat such countries with disdain at our own peril.