Ideational Sources of Nonproliferation Policy in the Global South

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onderco_websiteMichal Onderco, MW Fellow 2014-2015 *

One needs only to look at the Review Conference of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, recently completed in New York**, to see how far from one another are the Non-Aligned countries from Western countries when it comes to stemming nuclear proliferation. This is counterintuitive – the West and the NAM share their interest in stopping (and even back-rolling) the number of nuclear-weapon states. There is very little material motivation for the non-aligned for their position – most of them do not have any nuclear capacity to speak of, and could not even dream of developing any significant nuclear capacity. My research asks what else drives their nonproliferation policy.

Countries in the Global South, particularly the three large democracies – India, Brazil, and South Africa – have been strong opponents of nuclear weapon proliferation, though they existed outside of the formal structures of nuclear governance for an extended period of time. Such enthusiasm for the NPT and non-proliferation regime has been, however, contrasted with the almost opposite positions towards proposals coming from the West about how to stop nuclear weapons proliferation, as well as lukewarm attitude towards Iran’s nuclear program. To explain their nonproliferation policy, we need to understand the ideational sources of their nonproliferation policy. These sources, different in each case, provide a mindset through which state leaders interpret the complicated puzzles of world politics.

Why should we focus on ideas? Often, material incentives provide ambiguous motivations. Simply put, states can choose from multiple, equally possible, paths. Leaders’ ideational frameworks influence how they respond to these incentives. These ideational frameworks originate in an array of historical experiences, socialization, and self-perception. They are sometimes conflicting, and even contradictory. However, they have something in common – they allow leaders to solve complex policy puzzles in ways that “make sense”.

An explanation based on ideas does not exclude an explanation based on interests. Ideas shape how leaders see their states’ interests. I argue that ideas guiding policymakers are domestically grounded. In democratic countries, these ideas broadly reflect the ideas of a significant part of the population; otherwise leaders would not get elected. Unsurprisingly, such mind frames are different between Western countries and the countries of the Global South, but also amongst the countries of the Global South themselves. I study how such mind-frames affect foreign policy. For my research, I conducted over 80 top-level elite interviews on four continents, and read thousands of pages of newspaper articles and parliamentary speeches.

In the minds of South Africa’s leaders, world politics is where the oppressor tries to perpetuate supremacy over the oppressed. South African leaders see their world as a bulwark against such oppression; hence a nonproliferation policy is conceived to protect those whom South African leaders see as the most vulnerable – non-nuclear weapons states from the Global South, among them Iran. In India’s leaders’ minds, world politics is a place where India must find ways – however circuitous they need be – to ensure its domestic growth. In the case of the nonproliferation policy, this means fighting battles as if they were unrelated to one another, seeing each policy puzzle in a separate box. This leads to a sometimes incoherent policy, but always to a very timid one. For Brazil’s leaders, status is uber-important, and foreign policy is guided towards its attenuation. In the field of nonproliferation, this means tailoring the policy towards increasing Brazil’s standing in the world, but also explains the occasionally contradictory nature of such policy. These preferences affect very strongly how these countries prefer to see the shape of their nonproliferation policies.

These countries are not jackals preying on the system of global governance, in fact they have quite well mastered its language and can navigate the corridors of multilateral forums fluently. They are, however, not “middle powers”, as we know them from the past. They are not interested in being good international citizens, just for the sake of it. Despite being liberal democracies, these states do not see the ‘liberal peace’; they see the world primarily as a place for struggle. Their focus on state autonomy is aimed at increasing their own space for manoeuvre. This is where the scepticism for supranational solutions lies.

Part of the Western disillusion with these countries’ attitudes lies with misunderstanding how they see the world. Correctly understanding such worldviews will not only help Western diplomats understand why their counterparts are intransigent, but also help them avoid becoming willing (but unwitting) helpers in endeavours they may not like in the end.

The results of this research have been presented at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC; and at the United Nations in New York. “Iran’s Nuclear Programme and the Global South”, a book based on this research, will soon be published by Palgrave.

**at the time of writing, the conference is still ongoing, and hence I cannot say whether it was completed successfully. You know it by now, dear reader.


(*) The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme