I am currently researching the spread of nuclear technology in the developing world, which means I have to confront the politics of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Although I support the NPT, as a historian it is hard to analyze it without some kind of nod to the “haves” and “have nots” aspect of it. As someone very interested in the history of technology, I cannot help but see parallels with a similar technological regime established at the end of the nineteenth century. I’m hoping I’ll get some emails or replies to this post, to help punch holes in this parallel, so that when I write the book I can anticipate problems with it. So here goes:
An international regime to control the spread of nuclear weapons was not entirely without precedent. Think of the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, is often associated with the “Scramble for Africa” toward the end of the nineteenth century. That agreement essentially set forth rules of engagement in developing African colonies, protectorates, and other military/economic enclaves. It is a very well known agreement and, even though it’s often forgotten, it is an important turning point in the history of imperialism. However…
Perhaps more significant was the follow up declaration set forth in Brussels just a few years later. It stands today as one of the most significant documents about the proliferation of dangerous technology, and its basic assumptions resound clearly in the nuclear realm. It set forth a regime of control that rested on fundamentally moral grounds, in this case the quashing of the slave trade. But it also served two important functions: it reinforced the importance of free flowing commerce while institutionalizing the relationship between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
Looking back it may seem inappropriate to compare a nuclear weapon to a breech-loading rifle, but the effect of the rapid transformation of firearms in the nineteenth century is hard to overstate. The turn from unreliable flint-lock muskets during the Napoleonic era to accurate, weather-resistant weapons that could be loaded while lying down helped the upstart Prussians to shock the world by defeating first Austria and then France in major wars toward the end of the nineteenth century, creating a German empire that would dominate European politics for decades to come. And putting magazine-loaded repeating guns into action—such as the famous Gatling gun and Maxim—meant that enemies could be gunned down at the turn of a crank or the squeeze of a trigger. Combined with other developments of the industrial age, such as railroads and shallow-water steamboats, these weapons gave Europeans an unprecedented degree of colonial control. And it was not merely Europeans who were concerned: the United States, the Ottoman Empire, and the Shah of Persia all perceived the proliferation of the new “arms of precision” as a dire threat. These were the weapons of mass destruction of their time.
The effect of the agreement, as historians such as Daniel Headrick have pointed out, was that the Europeans in Africa had the technological edge, and only the more rudimentary (not to say obsolete) lay in the hands of Africans, regardless of whether their governments were legitimate or not. The most infamous case of this disparity was the 1898 battle of Omdurman, when General Kitchener’s well-armed troops at Khartoum killed some 10,000 Mahdists, wounded even more, and took some five thousand prisoners, while less than fifty British soldiers were killed.
According to the declaration, experience had proven that the preservation of the African people had become a “radical impossibility” without new restrictive measures against trade in firearms. Therefore firearms imported to most of sub-Saharan Africa were to be placed into a public warehouse under the control of European governments. Only older kinds of guns could be sold to Africans, while the new “arms of precision,” such as rifles, magazine guns, and breech-loaders, were kept away from Africans. This included not just the weapons themselves but all the accoutrements—detached weapon parts, cartridges, caps, or ammunition. The market for guns in Africa would be strictly limited to ordinary powder and flint-lock guns.[i]
All of this sounds strikingly similar to the safeguard system established by the NPT. Obviously there have been plenty of opportunities to sabotage the NPT by stretching or breaking the rules, but the system is in place to monitor the spread of nuclear technology and at the very least to establish some kind of paper trail to track down sales.
In retrospect the agreement at Brussels seems like a typical chapter in the history of imperialism, in which Europeans and Americans united in their mutual distrust of black Africans and their mutual desire not to sabotage their own long-term economic interests for the short-term gains of arms profits. And yet the agreement was practically unassailable on moral grounds at the time, because it was clothed in the language of anti-slavery. Banning these “arms of precision,” except among colonial police and military forces, served as a means stifling the evil of the slave trade more effectively.
Similarly, it is inconceivable to support nuclear proliferation today. It is not only a matter of security, but it seems immoral to want more countries to have nuclear weapons. But this position is itself an echo of history. Is it possible to shed the imperial trappings, or as we would say today, is it possible to promote world security without reinforcing the inequities between the global North and South?
[i] General Act of Brussels Conference relative to the Africa slave trade, signed at Brussels, July 2, 1890 (London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1892), p. 40.