ACA Senior Fellow Speaks at U.S.-Brazilian Workshop in Brazil

Defining the Ideal Relationship between our Countries and Looking to Areas of Misunderstanding and Disagreement

Prepared Remarks by Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association
at U.S.-Brazillian Workshop on Global and Regional Security
Brasilia, Brazil
August 13-14, 2012

I wanted to begin this scene-setter by giving you a little more information on my personal background.

I grew up in the farming state of Iowa, deep in the interior of the United States.  It’s sort of like the Brazilian state of Goias, but there’s no samba music on the radio, no cafezinho in the cafes, and no Southern Cross in the night sky.

However, every time I fly home from Washington in recent years, I arrive on an Embraer aircraft.  And the farmers in Iowa worry about competition from Brazilian farmers in marketing soybean and ethanol – more evidence that our two countries are important to each other.

Most of my professional career in the U.S. Foreign Service and later as a staffer in the U.S. Senate has involved arms control and other political-military issues, but my first and last diplomatic assignments were to serve as a political officer of the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia.

In the course of these two tours, I experienced the U.S.-Brazilian relationship near its nadir, during the dictatorship of General Geisel as President Carter was pushing on human rights and nonproliferation.  I’ve also seen the relationship at one of the high points – when Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Bill Clinton found common cause on a wide variety of issues, benefitting from good personal chemistry as well as converging national interests.

I confess to being heavily influenced by the recipe used to make progress in U.S.-Brazilian relations during my second tour between 1995 and 1998.  I believe that progress continues to be made, although it is still burdened by some legacies of the past as well as by natural differences of perspective.  Before I get to specifics, I will offer two sweeping generalizations:

  • The U.S. public is raised on the notion of “American exceptionalism,” which assumes a different standard for U.S. conduct in the world as superpower and “indispensible” nation than is expected from other countries.  The United States Government has a tendency to expect friends to be subservient and follow its lead.
  • For its part, the Brazilian Government still has a tendency to define its own independence and greatness in contradistinction to the policies and characteristics of the United States.  And Brazil resists the international obligations that the world needs it to accept if the challenges of the future are to be successfully managed.

As with any two large nations, the United States and Brazil have divergent as well as common interests.  This is true with security as well as with trade and environmental issues, as can be seen in the case of nuclear arms control.

My point of departure on this subject is the historic Prague speech of President Obama in April 2009.   Key to his message was his assessment that: “the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.”  His famous and consequential punchline was: “I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”  In operationalizing this aspiration, he listed specific policy objectives:

-- reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy;

-- negotiating a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia;

-- “aggressively pursuing” ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; and

-- seeking “a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons.”

I’m sure the Brazilian government could enthusiastically embrace the disarmament commitments in this portion of the speech, no doubt noting that since giving it, Obama has not been able to convince the U.S. Congress to move forward on some of the fronts he articulated.

But then Obama turned to the other part of the bargain made by the parties signing the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)--that states without nuclear weapons would agree not to acquire them and not help other countries to acquire them.  He called for additional resources to strengthen international inspections, for insuring that there are real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules, and for building a new collaborative framework for civilian nuclear cooperation.  Finally, Obama announced a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years, cutting in half the length of time previously planned, and to build on efforts to break up black markets in nuclear materials, detect and intercept materials in transit, and use financial tools to disrupt the illicit nuclear trade.

Brazil has been less enthusiastic embracing the nonproliferation side of the ledger, as it is still chafing from the “discriminatory” nature of the NPT.  Brazil demonstrated its potential to help with the process of diplomatically engaging the recalcitrant Iranians in negotiating with Turkey the Tehran Declaration of 2010.  But in the end, it failed to address Iran’s 20 percent uranium enrichment activities, which threatened to render meaningless the Tehran Research Reactor fuel swap offer from the previous year.  That deal was ultimately rejected by Tehran’s leadership.  The fuel swap would have been an important confidence-building measure, but it was never intended to resolve the core issue – Iran’s failure to comply fully with IAEA safeguards.  It was Iran’s compliance shortfall, which prompted the UN Security Council to overwhelmingly endorse stricter sanctions against Iran at the beginning of June 2010.  Brazil and Turkey cast the only “no” votes, diluting the potential political impact on Iran that a unanimous vote would have delivered.  Even Lebanon, with Hezbollah members in the governing coalition, managed at least to abstain.

Brazil’s program for domestic uranium enrichment has also led to nonproliferation concerns--not so much that Brazil is suspected of any longer harboring nuclear weapons ambitions, but that it is not setting a good example for other non-nuclear-weapon-state members of the NPT.  A substantial majority of NPT members, over a hundred, have signed the Additional Protocol to the treaty, which provides enhanced safeguards against the diversion of peaceful programs.  Brazil has not signed--giving encouragement to the refusal of other states, like Iran and Syria, whose nuclear activities are very much suspected of being intended to create the capacity to build nuclear weapons.  As Maria Rost Rublee wrote in a 2010 Nonproliferation Review article, Brazil’s opposition to the Additional Protocol complicates the efforts of the Nuclear Supplier Group to use adherence to the procedures as a criterion for “responsible countries” in order for them to be considered as recipients of enrichment and reprocessing technologies.  Rublee also notes that Brazil’s rejection of full visual inspection by the IAEA in order to protect “proprietary information,” sets an unfortunate precedent that could also be exploited by proliferators.

In similar fashion, Brazil’s plans to build and deploy six nuclear-powered submarines complicates international efforts to monitor and control the production of uranium enriched to levels in excess of that needed to fuel civilian power reactors.  That the NPT permits members to enrich uranium even to weapons grade levels for the purpose of fueling naval reactors is widely considered a loophole in the treaty, because it could enable non-nuclear-weapon states to legitimately stockpile material that would constitute the most difficult prerequisite for being able to quickly build a nuclear bomb.  Iran’s announcement in June that it intended to build nuclear-powered submarines set off alarm bells for just this reason.  Han Ruehle, a former head of the German Defense Ministry’s Planning Staff, articulated the suspicion clearly, recently describing Iran’s announcement as: “just a pretext to enrich weapons-grade uranium the legal way,” adding: “Its role model is Brazil.”

I would argue, by the way, that Brazil’s pursuit of nuclear-powered submarines is the outdated legacy of Brazil’s previous pursuit of nuclear weapons options and is now driven by mistaken considerations of national and military service prestige rather than by contemporary military necessity.  Carlo Patti’s 2010 article about Lula’s nuclear policies in Revista Brasileira de Politica Internacional referred to Brazil’s two “traditional goals: the national industrial enrichment of uranium and the construction of a nuclear submarine.”  In 2008, a top Brazilian general, Jose Benedito de Barros Moreira, described the development of a nuclear submarine as “Brazil’s number one military priority.”

I do not understand this logic.  Canada and Australia both have enormous maritime boundaries and abundant natural resources to protect, but both opted out of developing or otherwise acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.  So did Japan, which, unlike Brazil, faces large potential threats from its immediate neighbors.  If Brazil worries about invasion or interference in its maritime economic zone, I would think that the 20 modern conventional submarines Brazil plans to have would provide more effective deterrence than six nuclear-powered ones.

A senior Iranian official visiting Syria last week hailed the governments in Damascus and Tehran as part of the “axis of resistance.”  I have an allergy to simplistic designations of “axes” – whether of “resistance” or of “evil.”  I do not worry that Brazil will lose its bearings as a responsible and democratic nation.  And I welcome Brazil’s willingness to take the United States to task for its failures to live up to its own stated commitments and values.  I do hope, however, that our two countries will not interpret encountering policy differences as a “zero-sum” game, but rather as recognition that even friends sometimes disagree on the best way to achieve national goals both hold in common.

I am inspired by the critical help rendered by Brazil during my second tour here – for example, in advancing peace talks between Peru and Ecuador, which ultimately ended South America’s last major border dispute.  I was impressed during my second tour how Brazil’s introduction of a simple but rugged voting machine virtually ended voting fraud in this country, with enormous applications for fostering good governance in the developing world.   More recently, I’ve noticed how the performance of Brazil’s peacekeepers in Haiti won deep respect.

I foresee huge opportunities for bilateral cooperation in environmental pursuits – from securing and maintaining the health of the Amazon basin to mitigating growth in the planet’s carbon output through cultivation of renewable energy resources.

I look for constructive international initiatives by a country, which is renowned for the historic success of its diplomacy and the skill of its diplomats.

I expect Brazil to prosper not only in agriculture, mining and manufacturing, but in the new high tech industries of the future as well.  And I expect an increasingly prosperous Brazil to contribute its share to the international organizations, which will be increasingly important for maintaining peace and facilitating international cooperation.

I look for Brazilian contributions in developing successful approaches to combating epidemics and controlling tropical diseases.

I look for better exploitation of one of planet’s best locations for a spaceport –Alcântara, Maranhão – using both foreign and Brazilian space launch vehicles in a cooperative international framework.

I also believe that Brazil will eventually join an expanded UN Security Council as a permanent member.

So I’ve offered some views by one North American on how working constructively together on security issues could benefit the bilateral relationship.  I’m eager to hear other perspectives.