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International Security 26.2 (2001) 45-86

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The Rise and Fall of the South African Bomb

Peter Liberman

South Africa built six nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s and then scrapped them in 1990-91. 1 As one of the few states to produce nuclear weapons and the only one to dismantle an indigenous arsenal, the South African case presents a rare opportunity to study the causes of nuclear acquisition and disarmament. This article examines the political history of the South African bomb and the light it sheds on three general sources of nuclear weapons policy: security incentives, organizational politics, and international pressure along with state sensitivity to such pressure. It is based on published research as well as dozens of interviews with South African nuclear policymakers.

Official South African accounts and some scholarly studies stress the changing security threat to South Africa as the mainspring behind the nuclear weapons program's development and ultimate demise. 2 Although the militarization and dismantlement of the program did coincide with the vicissitudes of threats [End Page 45] to South Africa, the state did not face the kind of nuclear coercion or conventional invasion threats commonly thought to trigger nuclear weapons programs. 3 International ostracism of South Africa because of its policy of apartheid certainly exacerbated its insecurity, and isolated states are often prime candidates for nuclear acquisition. 4 But South Africa remained militarily predominant in southern Africa, and Soviet or Soviet-backed aggression was a remote possibility. Moreover, nuclear weapons would have provided only a limited remedy to this threat, even had it materialized. 5

These weaknesses of the security explanation have led some observers to conclude that domestic politics drove South African nuclear weapons policies. One general domestic explanation for nuclear proliferation, derived from organizational politics theory, is that influential science, energy, and armament complexes spur nuclear acquisition. 6 Heads of state are likely to dominate decisionmaking on policies with such dramatic diplomatic, security, and budgetary ramifications. But scientists' rarefied expertise, particularly when combined with internal secrecy over nuclear policies, gives them extraordinary informational advantages in political debates. 7

The South African nuclear science agency did have a vested interest in a nuclear explosives research program, as did the armaments agency--but not the [End Page 46] military--in weaponization and delivery systems. Their high prestige helped them make their case to Prime Minister B.J. "John" Vorster in an environment of secrecy that minimized dissent. But it is unclear whether he needed much persuading. Defense Minister P.W. Botha's interest in the program and his reliance on an informal military adviser are somewhat inconsistent with an organizational explanation. The decision to dismantle the program, orchestrated by President F.W. de Klerk and supported by nuclear science officials, also runs counter to organizational politics expectations. 8

A third general source of nuclear weapons policies are international nonsecurity incentives, mediated by states' varied sensitivities to such incentives. The superpowers' initial nuclear monopoly glamorized joining the nuclear club, for example, but later international antiproliferation sanctions and ostracism raised the costs of going nuclear. 9 Even after the advent of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime, however, some governing elites continued to see reputational, political, and economic rewards in defying international pressure. Etel Solingen has argued that the economic orientation of nuclear "fence-sitters," states that have neither joined the NPT nor overtly joined the nuclear club, colors their sensitivity to international pressure. 10 According to Solingen, economic liberalizers (including politicians and interest groups as well as government agencies) dislike the budgetary burden and political [End Page 47] influence of state arms and energy complexes. Liberalizers also see nuclear restraint as a means to international approval, aid, and trade. In contrast, nationalist-statist governments more readily flout international norms and risk sanctions because they care less about international finance and trade, because they gain domestic political support from state enterprises, and because they see symbolic political benefits in defying foreign demands.

In the case of South Africa, changes in state sensitivity to international sanctions and norms did correlate roughly with changes in nuclear...