Research reveals that, in the case of a serious military threat, the nuclear option polarizes Brazilian society

This is the first study on Brazilians' opinions regarding the acquisition of a nuclear explosive
International Relations
29 January 2024
Research reveals that, in the case of a serious military threat, the nuclear option polarizes Brazilian society

In the second half of the 20th century, humanity grappled with the specter of nuclear war. Due to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and escalating tensions between China and the United States over Taiwan, this old fear is coming back to the fore. In Brazil, this discussion takes on other nuances, given that the country, despite having state-of-the-art nuclear technology, has never opted to build a nuclear bomb.

Now, a new survey by Fundação Getulio Vargas set out to understand what the Brazilian population thinks about building a nuclear bomb. The survey found that in the event of a serious military threat posed by a very powerful enemy, the possibility of Brazil building an atomic bomb polarizes society.

The survey – whose results were published in a paper in the Journal of Global Security Studies, titled “Public Support for Nuclear Proliferation: Experimental Evidence from Brazil” – also reveals that a promise of protection by the United States would be enough to undo the polarization and restore majority opinion against the idea of Brazil going nuclear.

To carry out the survey, polling firm Datafolha interviewed more than 2,000 Brazilians on what they thought about Brazil acquiring or building an atomic bomb. Only 25% of Brazilians were in favor of this measure. The survey also sought to understand what these participants thought about building a nuclear bomb if Brazil were threatened by a very powerful foreign country. In these circumstances, 47% of the population would be in favor of nuclear proliferation.

 

U.S. military influence over Brazil

The survey also sought to understand which factors would contribute to reducing popular support for building an atomic bomb in Brazil, even amid a serious external threat. In this context, the researchers found that a promise of protection against this possible threat from the United States would be enough to reduce support for nuclear proliferation to 27% of the population.

According to Matias Spektor, the survey’s coordinator and a professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas’ School of International Relations, the results have two direct implications, both warning of the risk of public opinion being manipulated by political actors interested in nuclear proliferation while also signaling the Brazilian population’s perception that the United States is a source of protection, not a threat.

“The last few years have revealed that in Brazil and around the world, well-organized minorities are capable of polarizing entire societies and undoing consensuses that previously seemed firm. Furthermore, we not only found that a promise of support for Brazil from the United States would end polarization around the nuclear issue, but we also identified that for this promise to be effective, it would not be necessary for members of the Brazilian government to say that this promise is credible. It’s as if there were tacit trust among the Brazilian people in possible military protection from the United States,” Spektor explains.

 

Understanding what Brazilians think about building an atomic bomb

The results of the survey show that the Brazilian public’s preference for not building nuclear weapons is far from fixed. “This opinion is malleable and depends on the external security context in which Brazil finds itself. The data from this survey makes us reflect, as we are entering a more competitive world with more conflicts, in which great powers compete for prestige, influence and scarce resources,” Spektor says.

The survey was based on a nationwide questionnaire designed to reproduce the country’s social diversity. “Based on a control group and treatment groups, it was possible to verify that Brazilians adjust their preference regarding the possibility of a nuclear weapon in Brazil according to the security context in which the country finds itself,” the researcher says.

The experiment did not identify the names of possible aggressor countries, in order to avoid respondents reacting according to their personal positions. “If we identified an aggressor country by name, our result would lose precision. For example, if we said that the threat came from Venezuela and the respondent defended the construction of a Brazilian nuclear bomb, we wouldn’t know if this preference was driven by the intensity of the threat imposed by the enemy or because the person has a personal or political antipathy toward Venezuela,” Spektor exemplifies.

 

Other questions about nuclear energy in Brazil

The survey was funded by the Stanton Foundation, which specializes in nuclear policy issues. The results prompted the FGV School of International Relations researchers to ask other questions, giving rise to two new surveys in this area.

The first survey will ask where the preference among professionals in the Brazilian nuclear sector for more advanced levels of sensitive technology comes from and under what conditions it varies.

“We need to understand the motivation behind the national effort to acquire technology in this area and what factors might change the course of developments,” says Spektor, who in September 2023 will start to go out into the field in search of answers to this question.

The second survey will ask how the nuclear sector of a country with sensitive technology like Brazil has reacted to the United States’ policy against nuclear proliferation.

“We want to understand how these different instruments condition the reaction of the nuclear sector in emerging countries,” Spektor says. He will also test these ideas empirically.

 

Tracing the history of Brazil’s nuclear program

The research paper “Public Support for Nuclear Proliferation: Experimental Evidence from Brazil,” written together with researchers Guilherme Fasolin and Juliana Camargo, from Vanderbilt University and Fundação Getulio Vargas, respectively, originated from a project that began in 2010, when FGV and the Brazilian government’s Funding Agency for Studies and Projects (FINEP) formed a partnership to reconstruct the history of the Brazilian Nuclear Program. This project was conducted by FGV’s School of Social Sciences (FGV CPDOC). Over the course of almost a decade, researchers compiled approximately 500 hours of interviews with the program’s main players.

Some examples of these interviewees include scientists, engineers, foreign ministers, ambassadors, other ministers and inspectors at the International Atomic Energy Agency, who were all involved in the history of the Brazilian Nuclear Program. The FGV CPDOC team also interviewed nuclear negotiators from countries such as Argentina and the United States who negotiated with Brazil at the time. The specialists responsible for dealing with the Goiânia nuclear accident in 1987 were also interviewed.

Spektor points out that although Brazil doesn’t have atomic bombs, it is one of a handful of countries that have developed technologies to mine and enrich uranium, generating electricity, producing radioactive medicines and creating its own nuclear industry.

“More recently, Brazil has been trying to master the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines,” says the researcher. He recalls that in the 1970s and 1980s, many countries around the world were convinced that Brazil was working to build a nuclear bomb along the lines of India and South Africa.

“Because of this perception, the West German government refused to sell uranium enrichment technology to Brazil and the U.S. government suspended the sale of cutting-edge technologies for the space program. It was only a partnership of mutual nuclear controls with Argentina, which began in the 1980s, that laid the foundations for the international community to be convinced of the peaceful purposes of Brazil’s nuclear program,” he notes.

The project carried out by FGV CPDOC also involved searching for, collecting and organizing official documents from the governments of Argentina, Brazil, the United States, West Germany and the United Kingdom, as well as Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assessments of Brazil’s nuclear activities. This material resulted in the book “As origens da cooperação nuclear: uma história oral entre Brasil e Argentina” (“The origins of nuclear cooperation: An oral history involving Brazil and Argentina”), edited by Rodrio Mallea, Nicholas Wheeler and Matias Spektor, published in 2015 and now available free of charge in e-book format in Portuguese, English and Spanish on the researcher’s website, www.matiasspektor.com.

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