Argentina in a Changing Nuclear Order: An Appraisal

By Merke, Federico | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - Reports, June 6, 2016 | Go to article overview

Argentina in a Changing Nuclear Order: An Appraisal


Merke, Federico, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - Reports


FOR MUCH OF ITS MODERN HISTORY, Argentina has alternatively punched under and over its weight and has struggled to attain a balance between domestic and international responsibilities, on the one hand, and between its Western and Latin American identities, on the other hand. Argentine foreign policy has typically been an instrument of domestic politics, in which rhetorical gestures on the international scene have sometimes yielded short-term domestic gains. The Argentine National Congress has historically played a rather marginal role in foreign policy, and this has reinforced the autonomy of the presidency in designing and executing it. Moreover, an ever more fragmented and denationalized party system has only increased the parochial view of the Argentine political elite. As a result, foreign policy in Argentina has remained almost solely in the domain of the executive and has been fairly dependent on the ideas and preferences of the president and the president's inner circle of trusted advisers. This may explain in part why Argentina's foreign policy may be seen as somewhat erratic or inconsistent across administrations.

And yet, Argentina's history with nuclear affairs has been much more stable than the overall trajectory of its foreign policy. Yes, there have been changes since the 1980s, when the country returned to democracy, but overall, Argentina has developed a bottom-up, consensus-based, incremental approach to the nuclear order. In this light, Argentina's nuclear preferences have evolved from unilateral postures in the 1970s and 1980s toward bilateral and multilateral commitments from the 1990s onward.

Even before Argentina became the first Latin American country to use nuclear energy when its first commercial nuclear power reactor went online in 1974, it defended the right to nuclear development for peaceful purposes. During the 1960s, Argentina took a critical stand against the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and depicted it as the "disarmament of the disarmed," in the words of José María Ruda, then the Argentine ambassador to the United Nations. 1 Between the 1960s and the 1980s, its nuclear program included unsafeguarded nuclear facilities for uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, yet Argentina never made the political decision to develop nuclear weapons.

With the return of democracy in 1983, military programs were firmly placed under civilian control. In the 1980s, a rapprochement with Brazil took place, and in 1991, a bilateral framework, the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC), was established to further nuclear cooperation. That same year, Argentina signed the Quadripartite Agreement with the ABACC, Brazil, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the application of nuclear safeguards. The ABACC framework transformed the nature of Brazil-Argentina relations. In 1993, Argentina joined two multilateral export control regimes-the Australia Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime. A year later, Argentina joined the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (Treaty of Tlatelolco) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a multilateral export control regime, and acceded to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state in 1995. The next year, Argentina became a founding participating state of the Wassenaar Arrangement, a multilateral export control regime focusing on arms and dual-use technology. In sum, Argentina's nuclear preferences have evolved to focus on lines of dialogue, confidence building, and incremental engagement with the global nuclear order.

A number of reasons may explain Argentina's nuclear preferences, but the main rationale so far has been that it sees the benefit of making the existing system work. In the 1990s, Argentina adhered to most of the multilateral nuclear arrangements to signal its overture to the West in general and to the United States in particular. …

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