chapter  10
25 Pages

Mexican nuclear diplomacy, the Latin American nuclear-weapon-free zone, and the NPT grand bargain, 1962-1968

Mexican Subsecretaría de Relaciones Exteriores (Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs) Alfonso García Robles addressed the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on May 16, 1968 about the draft nuclear nonproliferation treaty that the Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament (ENDC) had referred to two months earlier. He contrasted that treaty with the 1968 Treaty of Tlatelolco, which prohibited the introduction of nuclear weapons in Latin America, a region whose “special conditions” permitted “a multilateral instrument which, from the standpoint of disarmament and treaty law is undeniably far superior to the draft before us.”1 García Robles had guided the nuclearweapon-free zone (NWFZ) treaty through a chain of shoals arising from Latin America’s Cold War: US hegemony and anticommunism, Cuba’s revolutionary isolation, and growing militarism in Argentina and Brazil. With a General Assembly vote looming, García Robles insisted that two elements of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) would need to be bolstered if it was to achieve a commanding majority: nuclear-weapon states (NWS) would have to accept “first steps” towards disarmament and help with access to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.2 His intervention that day would yield a final handful of revisions in a long line of Mexican amendments whose collective addition helped level the playing field in the ensuing global nuclear order. The significance of Mexican nuclear arms control diplomacy in the 1960s lay in the relationship between concurrent efforts to prohibit nuclear weapons in Latin America and halt their spread elsewhere. The two negotiations were always seen as bearing upon one another. UN Secretary General U Thant expressed his hope in 1965 that the Latin American talks would have a “catalytic effect on other initiatives for denuclearization, for nonproliferation, and for other measures of disarmament,” a view shared by US arms controllers.3 The Treaty of Tlatelolco opened for signature on February 14, 1967, seventeen months before the NPT was finalized. García Robles served as chair of the treaty’s negotiating commission, where he helped orchestrate a low barrier to entry into force, language that effectively disallowed “peaceful” nuclear explosives, and a strong inspection regime managed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – the first time that the agency had been tapped to

impose multilateral safeguards. Mexico thereafter stood in the vanguard of efforts to draft a nonproliferation treaty that better embodied a postcolonial conception of nuclear rights and responsibilities rather than a superpower-led effort to freeze the status quo. Its contributions to the final NPT text included four new articles and various preambular statements either inspired by the Treaty of Tlatelolco or formulated by Mexican officials to add technical assistance and arms control pledges to nonproliferation as legal pillars of the treaty’s “grand bargain.” For García Robles, regional identity, economic interests, and antinuclear norms dictated how he set the course of Mexican nuclear diplomacy. On the one hand, Latin American solidarity was seen as crucial. On the other hand, Mexico’s status as a non-nuclear-weapon state hungry for socio-economic development through nuclear technology was also determinative.4 Finally, García Robles commitment to nuclear arms control and disarmament throughout his career reflected a sense of “duty” to avert nuclear war, which he portrayed as a threat to “the survival of the human race” and “the whole Earth.”5 Mexican nuclear diplomacy was thus shaped by Latin American traditions of anticolonialism and cooperation, politico-economic affinities with other postcolonial nation states, and an ethical inclination toward nuclear disarmament. Connecting the histories of the Treaty of Tlatelolco and the NPT makes clear how regional powers such as Mexico availed themselves of multilateral tools to ensure that a global nuclear order accorded with their identities and interests. From this vantage point, more than US hegemony or Cold War politics drove the NPT; regional actors, including those from Latin America and the Global South more generally, had a hand in its construction.6 Scholars have usually portrayed the NPT as a Cold War production meant to soothe European insecurity on account of Germany’s division after the Second World War and the flux of USSoviet relations.7 Yet, nation-states in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America were centrally involved, judging the value of nuclear prohibitions according to their own geopolitical circumstances, international reputations, societal priorities, and judgments about the international system’s efficacy, equality, and justness.8 Mexico’s role in the making of the NPT helps reframe our narratives about global nuclear diplomacy and Latin America’s Cold War. Inter-American nuclear diplomacy in the 1960s exemplified the interactive relationship between the making of regional and global nuclear regimes. Correspondingly, it illustrated the active role that Latin American states could play in world affairs. The entangled negotiations showed that regional nuclear regimes did not simply compete with those of global purview; they also altered their constitutions by virtue of setting precedents, sharing actors, and setting up quid pro quo’s.9 As the hemisphere’s hegemon, the United States could at times dictate terms to its southern neighbors.10 Yet, Latin American actors could also exploit superpower interest in the region’s ideological struggles to solicit financial assistance, military arms sales, and counterinsurgency training to fight those battles.11 Latin Americans were savvy operators in multilateral forums and international

organizations as well. In the case of the NWFZ, the United States made numerous concessions to Latin American diplomatic realities. Thanks to the success of the Treaty of Tlatelolco and a tilt from the Industrial North to the Global South in the UNGA, where Latin American delegations had become a crucial voting bloc by 1965, Mexico also left a lasting imprint on global nuclear governance as a regime builder. At least in reference to nuclear war and peace, Latin America was not merely a “workshop of empire” during the Cold War. At critical junctures, it served as an architect of world order, helping transform the NPT from a superpower entente into a global settlement by informing how it would accommodate the interests of non-nuclear-weapon states, especially those dreaming of sovereign equality in the Global South.12