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Historically, the term “atomic diplomacy” invoked the implied or explicit threat of nuclear weapon attacks to pressure geopolitical rivals and maintain global order and security. The U.S. had hoped its monopoly on nuclear weaponry would prevent Russia from moving into Japan and allow for a US-led occupation rather than a US/USSR-led occupation. Thus began America’s early attempts to use its nuclear weapons status as a coercive tool in its diplomatic toolbox. The leading global powers in the post-WWII world established the UN Security Council and later the UN Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC) to manage the spread of nuclear technology for peaceful uses and the creation of safeguards for nuclear states. The United States put forth a proposal to create an International Atomic Development Authority. This proposal would have created a governing body over the nuclear fuel cycle but was ultimately quashed by the USSR due to the desire to maintain a traditional Soviet approach to the fuel cycle and prohibition of nuclear weapons.

In the early post-war period, the U.S. used atomic diplomacy to impede the spread of communism. Western Europe was protected under the American “nuclear umbrella,” guaranteeing its security through the threat of a nuclear defense against the USSR. However, America’s monopoly on nuclear weapons was short-lived: the USSR would detonate its first nuclear weapon in 1949, ending the American monopoly. Within 15 years, the UK, France, and China had all joined the “nuclear club” as each, in turn, tested their first nuclear weapons. An early example of atomic diplomacy between the U.S. and USSR occurred during the occupation of postwar Germany in 1948-49. The USSR had created a blockade that prevented the U.S. and its allies from using roadways, railroads, and canals leading the U.S. to station several B-29 bombers in the region to signal to the Soviets that it was capable of a nuclear response. As tensions rose between the Soviets and Americans and the Cold War continued, atomic diplomacy experienced a radical shift in its usage. 

As nuclear weapons stockpiles grew, the power of atomic diplomacy waned. A new concept known as mutually assured destruction (MAD) became a fundamental principle of atomic diplomacy between the U.S. and the USSR. Having reached essential equity in the destructive capabilities of each nation’s nuclear stockpile, the U.S. and USSR realized that the implicit threat of nuclear war was no longer a feasible strategy. As a result of this realization, the willingness to use nuclear weapons as a bargaining tool to pressure geopolitical rivals was vastly reduced.

A vital tool in the American playbook during the Cold War Era, Atoms for Peace, began as a speech given by President Eisenhower to promote the peaceful uses of nuclear technology while limiting the creation of new nuclear weaponry. Initiated in 1953, Atoms for Peace shifted American legislation to enable the sharing of atomic technology and encouraged disarmament and the growth of the global civilian nuclear industry. Despite the positive aspirations of Atoms for Peace, the initiative utilized a disingenuous approach toward atomic collaboration. Atoms for Peace’s earliest efforts began in East Asia, in post-WWII Japan. The U.S. relied heavily on a propaganda campaign to ensure that the program was perceived as positive by the population despite being less than a decade after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Several Japanese politicians led this effort by promoting nuclear energy as the path to Japanese self-sufficiency. Despite these shifts in attitude, the U.S. attempted to stifle Japan’s nuclear ambitions through the limitations imposed on the rate of technological development. 

Atoms for Peace suffered from institutional bias, whereby European countries were offered modern reactor technology, but countries in the global south only received research capabilities. While promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear energy in these developing nations, the U.S. reintroduced attitudes developed under colonial rule. The United States believed the nations that would be key beneficiaries of the Atoms for Peace initiative were “backward” countries. An inherent power dynamic favored the U.S. as the “sponsor” to these needy nations and reinforced a colonial mentality. This negative perception of developing nations belied an exploitative and coercive stance toward atomic diplomacy. The colonial mentality established under Atoms for Peace compelled the supposedly “backward” nations to focus on areas of development typical of colonial rule. While Atoms for Peace was conceived to move from strictly military and weapons-based coercive diplomacy toward a more symbiotic system, it was not an equitable or altruistic plan. The true U.S. goals were to share nuclear technology to solidify alliances and counter growing Soviet influence over developing nations. 

Today, the world worries less about nuclear war and more about catastrophic climate change. At the same time, over 30 countries are pursuing commercial nuclear power, and almost all with import their first projects. Where the climate movement has focused on incorporating environmental justice, and the Biden Administration introduced the idea of “climate diplomacy,” there is a need for a new kind of “nuclear diplomacy.” This new nuclear diplomacy must be cooperative and collaborative, not coercive like in the past. It must hold out the promise of shared success rather than a zero-sum outcome. In short, it should be genuinely equal parts “nuclear” and “diplomatic.”

To avoid following in the flawed footsteps of the Atoms for Peace initiative, legislators must create a new system of nuclear diplomacy that does not rely on a colonial or exploitative attitude towards developing nations seeking to introduce nuclear energy into their energy mix. Current leading nuclear energy vendors, China and Russia, tend to provide sufficient fuel and technology services, but nations that make agreements with them must entirely rely on Russian or Chinese fuel and reactor operation. Creating a dependence upon a provider of services or resources, like China or Russia, creates a profoundly unequal relationship that jeopardizes both the energy security and independence of recipient countries. Viewing developing nations as equal partners in potential agreements, each with something to gain and provide will allow both parties to benefit from developing a rapidly growing industry that aids global decarbonization and strengthens diplomatic relations between countries.