The Story of How South Africa Voluntarily Gave Up Its Nuclear Weapons
The general reduction of tensions associated with the end of the Cold War reduced South Africa’s need for an independent nuclear deterrent. States like Angola could no longer count on the Soviet Union and Cuba for support, and consequently could not pose a real conventional military threat to South Africa. At the same time, Pretoria made key diplomatic concessions that reduced tensions in the region, including granting the independence of Namibia.
At the same time, the National Party began negotiations with the African National Congress to end apartheid rule. The prospect of a South African government led by the ANC possessing nuclear weapons may also have given the apartheid regime some pause; FW De Klerk denies this, but there are surely reasons to doubt that the security apparatus of the National Party shared his reasoning. As it turned out, the ANC had little-to-no interest in paying the diplomatic and military costs of maintaining a nuclear deterrent that deterred, in effect, no one. By 1994 all of South Africa’s nuclear devices had been disassembled.
Apart from the Soviet successor states, which had only very limited control over the nuclear arsenals left on their soil, South Africa is the only country to develop, then renounce, nuclear weapons. Some arms control advocates have pointed to South Africa as a potential model for further nuclear disarmament.
But the case of South Africa is deeply idiosyncratic. The core national security threats to the state disappeared simultaneous to a change in the nature of the regime, making large-scale shifts in national security policy much easier than they otherwise would have been. These conditions are unlikely to be replicated in many situations involving nuclear-armed powers.
The best we can say is that something similar could happen on the Korean Peninsula, if the North Korean regime finally collapsed and its weapons became the property of the Seoul government. In this case, regime change and a dramatic change in the threat environment might well allow the Republic of Korea to abandon the North’s nuclear program, and disassemble the remaining weapons.
But at the moment the idea of a North Korean collapse seems an increasingly distant (if still appealing) prospect. Moreover, while Seoul would undoubtedly come under immense pressure from Beijing, Washington and Tokyo to renounce and disassemble the nuclear program, the new security environment of Northeast Asia would not necessarily favor such a move.
The region and the world are undoubtedly safer because of the decisions made in the 1990s to relinquish South Africa’s nuclear program. Moreover, the dismantling of the relatively small program provided a template for how other nuclear powers could think about eliminating their own programs. However, with the exception of the Soviet successor states (which faced dramatically different constraints) no other states have yet taken up South Africa’s example. With the apparent increase in global tensions over the past few years, it seems unlikely that anyone will join South Africa in the post-nuclear club anytime soon.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky.