H-Diplo Article Review 1141, Vera on Mateos and Suárez-Díaz, "Atomic Ambassadors"

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H-Diplo Article Review 1141

30 September 2022

Gisela Mateos and Edna Suárez-Díaz.  “Atomic Ambassadors: the IAEA’s First Preliminary Assistance Mission (1958).”  History and Technology 37:1 (2021): 90-105.

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Thomas Maddux | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Nevia Vera, Universidad Nacional del Centro de la Provincia de Buenos Aires (UNICEN), Argentina

The importance of deepening the understanding of the dynamics at the intersection of science, technology, and foreign policy is not new. During the twentieth century and, more assiduously, since the beginning of the twenty-first century, several authors have emphasized this point. In 2002 Caroline Wagner identified a greater juxtaposition between the scientific-technological and foreign policy spheres. She suggested orienting new analysis towards the foreign policy aspects of science and the scientific aspects of foreign policy.[1]

In the last fifteen years, the concept of Science Diplomacy,[2] which refers specifically to those practices that take place at the intersection mentioned above has spread and deepened. However, as Kenji Ito and Maria Rentetzi comment -recovering William Colglazier’s contributions[3]- it can be said that Nuclear Diplomacy was the first manifestation of science and technology diplomacy in modern times.[4]

The concept of Nuclear Diplomacy has been used incrementally since the 1960s,[5] as the spread of peaceful uses of atomic technology collided with the growing need to tighten proliferation controls in the Cold War context. Here, nuclear technology began to take on greater importance in the foreign policy agendas of central, peripheral, and semi-peripheral countries alike.[6]

Initially, Nuclear, or Atomic, Diplomacy was understood as a foreign policy tool to exert pressure on other states by using the threat of using nuclear weapons. Therefore, the first decades of the Cold War witnessed the consolidation of a Nuclear Diplomacy practice that was aimed at guaranteeing the survival of states in a scenario of uncertainty in the face of the possibility of atomic war through the implementation of bilateral negotiations and various instances of cooperation,[7] such as those dedicated to the construction of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Because of this imprint, which was firmly anchored in the need to prevent nuclear conflict, historically, writings on Nuclear Diplomacy have tended to focus on the strategies of the major powers to avoid atomic confrontation, i.e., they tend to emphasize security and non-proliferation aspects.[8] However, as its scope expanded in line with the growing interest in the peaceful uses of the atom, the term Nuclear or Atomic Diplomacy was broadened. It started to be used to refer to the negotiation processes surrounding non-proliferation, disarmament, international security, and deterrence policies — issues of particular relevance to the interests of core countries — and also to aspects related to peaceful uses of nuclear technology, such as those aimed at generating nuclear power, and to agricultural, industrial and medicinal uses, which were fundamental issues for the development agendas of peripheral and semi-peripheral countries.[9] It is essential to highlight the relevance of analyzing the nuclear trajectories of developing and underdeveloped countries that were not necessarily conceived or designed for war purposes in order to pull back the veil and make visible other stories obscured by the obsession with the bomb.[10]

In the latter sense, the article by Gisela Mateos and Edna Suárez-Díaz is a significant contribution to the literature on Science Diplomacy in general and Nuclear Diplomacy in particular. Through a careful review of archival material, documents, and questionnaires (which in their article gain particular relevance as epistemic tools), the authors explore the role of the first Preliminary Assistance Mission (PAM) that was implemented in 1958 by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in its first mapping of the nuclear capabilities and needs of the developing and underdeveloped world, whose first destination was Latin America.

To this end, the article explores “the role of these missions in shaping, controlling and redirecting national nuclear programs and needs.” (91). It also traces and describes “the movement inherent in the enactment of diplomatic activities of missions, and their material and intellectual consequences that helped to reproduce the conditions of profound technoscientific and economic asymmetries” (101). It posits that Nuclear Diplomacy enhanced international scientific and technological collaboration by means of implementing paper technologies, such as questionnaires-and missions led by experts, IAEA staff, and officials. These allowed for face-to-face negotiations and conversations while preserving asymmetries inherent to the Cold War era and the North-South divide, at times even deepening them, and creating and reproducing further demand for atomic assistance. Methodologically, the article displays a thorough tracing of documents, questionnaires, and letters that allows us to discover how the first PAM was designed and which actors and discussions were central to this program. It offers an innovation compared to diplomatic studies that are aimed at achieving parsimonious and systemic readings.

The article has many strengths, especially in its findings, and certainly opens up future avenues of research. First, it highlights that these missions were conceived with the specific objective of gathering information on the nuclear capabilities and needs of the target countries and of “advising and assisting national agencies to formulate their plans and aspirations on atomic matters” (90, italics in the original). Thus, the analysis of the first PAM shows the consolidation of the second function of the IAEA: that of becoming not only the international nuclear watchdog but also an agency dedicated to assisting the atomic development of technologically less advanced countries. Concomitantly, it makes visible a trend that began after the advent of nuclear weapons on the international scene: the greater relevance of scientific and expert communities in decision-making processes in the global arena and inter-state and transnational non-state organizations.

In its positioning and advancement as an agency providing scientific and technological assistance to the developing world, the IAEA became the broadcaster of a message that promoted nuclear technology almost as a panacea for the obstacles to development. To understand the effectiveness of the message, it is enough to read statements by several Latin American governments in the 1950s, such as those of Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, the countries most interested in nuclear developments.[11] Hence, the authors state that “Ambassadors were key players in the translation of the secular credo of modernization, as embodied in the atom, into concrete programs of training and applications in medicine, agriculture, and industry, and in the consolidation of scientific communities of physicists, radiochemists, nuclear engineers, and radiobiologists, among other fields” (100). In this sense, the article opens the black box of diplomacy, stressing the involvement of multiple and diverse actors -often invisible in more parsimonious studies on diplomacy- such as scientists, experts, engineers, technicians, and officials of the international organization and the counterparts receiving assistance.

Second, the article highlights the relevance of paper technologies, specifically questionnaires, as material instruments of Nuclear Diplomacy and administrative and organizational tools that left a mark that allows reconstructing the history of the first PAM. They are also epistemic instruments, that is, they acted as keys to the co-construction of knowledge and the mapping of the nuclear capabilities and practices of developing countries that had until then been almost unknown to the agency. The use of questionnaires and the subsequent generation of an extensive bureaucracy associated with the paper technologies established formal channels of communication that permitted a deepening and an extension of nuclear cooperation. In turn, this process was strengthened by establishing the missions mentioned above and implementing them through trips that allowed personal meetings between the interested parties and negotiations on the interests of both parties.

A third contribution of the article is that it illuminates the strategies of international organizations to ensure their survival and reproduction. It records IAEA’s joint practices with organizations already consolidated as providers of assistance to the developing and underdeveloped world, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO), which were higher on the priority agendas of developing states than the nuclear agency. Also, as the authors conclude, the IAEA created the demand for its reproduction: the first PAM successfully generated the need to further missions in other parts of the world, such as Asia, the Middle East, or Africa.

However, what I consider to be the most significant contribution of the article is linked to its ability not to lose sight of - indeed, its ability to reveal - that these practices cannot escape: i) the Cold War framework in which they developed; ii) the manifest inequalities in access to technology and the consequent strategies of developing countries to acquire it through international organizations such as the IAEA, as a neutral legitimizing channel at the domestic level; and iii) the persistence of colonial practices within the recently created international organizations. It also illustrates how science and technology shape the foreign policy agenda and become an extension of broader national interests.

Regarding the first point, the impact of the Cold War context on IAEA practices can be illustrated, for example, in the composition of the missions that traveled to Latin America, where it is possible to identify a preeminence of American scientists, experts, and advisors, to the detriment of representatives of Soviet and even Latin American interests: “at the last minute, [Norman] Hilberry [Director of the Argonne National Laboratory] had included the USAEC representative for Latin America, a fact that can be interpreted as a veiled reference to the Monroe Doctrine, according to which the United States exerts its ‘protection’ and power over the American continent” (101).

Thus, we can explicitly visualize the influence of the United States through the Atoms for Peace program, as well as the annoyance it caused in other countries, which were also interested in entering the nuclear market and which, during the following decade, sought to break the US commercial monopoly.[12] This fact reflected in the complaints made by “representatives from the USSR, the United Kingdom, and Canada, as well as private companies and funds, [who] complained of the lack of information and transparency about the IAEA’s undertakings and inclination to favor US experts, as this country exerted an overwhelming access and privilege within the IAEA rankings and decision-making processes.” (94).

Regarding the second point, the article shows that these missions and the IAEA’s assistance provided countries like Mexico with the opportunity to access US technology (for example, the TRIGA Mark III) through a neutral means such as the intermediation of a multilateral agency in order to reassure domestic demands of sectors not inclined to negotiate with the United States (which they saw as an imperialist hegemon). This shows the importance of legitimizing domestic policies through multilateral organizations. In Mexico, this became a fundamental strategy for other projects such as Laguna Verde (the Mexican nuclear power plant), which was brought to completion thanks to the recommendations legitimized by the IAEA.[13]

Finally, the article manages to demystify the supposed neutrality of international scientific and technological policies and observe them through a critical prism that deepens the analysis of the influence of international organizations in the construction of dependent technoscientific programs. And here lies one of the most significant contributions of the authors: the effort to highlight the persistence of colonial practices and perspectives, even within organizations dedicated to the dissemination of science, a supposedly neutral sphere. Such findings can be seen, for example, in the adoption of administrative and organizational practices and instruments that are reminiscent of those implemented in colonial times. As noted above, questionnaires served the function of providing information and generating knowledge for IAEA officials about the nuclear programs of countries other than the most advanced. But on the other hand, they also demonstrated the functionaries somewhat paternalistic and colonialist view of these less developed countries, ignoring to a large extent their background in physics research, highlighting the tendency to reduce nuclear experiences only to the capacity to build atomic weapons[14].

In short, the article manages to provide a link that allows us to understand the influence of the recommendations, assistance programs, and reports emanating from an international organization such as the IAEA on the scientific-technological public policies of developing and underdeveloped countries in a double relationship. The agency mapped and helped to shape and make explicit through its questionnaires the nuclear capabilities and needs of those countries, and at the same time, it consolidated its identity as an assistance provider.

In conclusion, the first PAM served to gather information on the status of nuclear science in developing and underdeveloped Latin American countries, allowing the discovery of quite advanced programs in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, among others. It also helped lay the groundwork for future demand for assistance and the establishment of nuclear projects in those countries where atomic science and technology had not yet found a foothold, such as Peru or Colombia. At the same time, the PAM was successful in creating the need for the replication of these missions (which were later taken to other parts of the world), sustaining and reinforcing the role of the IAEA as an agency promoting nuclear development assistance, and not only as an international nuclear watchdog. In short, “The first PAM pioneered a new representation of the world by mapping nuclear development in the Latin American region” (100).

Articles such as this one present an excellent opportunity to explore what has been written on Science Diplomacy in other languages and other parts of the world so that we can go deeper into the demystification of the supposed neutrality and universality of scientific practices and so that this process is not only limited to historical studies but also everyday practice. This is also a unique opportunity to continue with the efforts to uncover the diverse nuclear histories often hidden by the preeminence of studies on atomic weapons, leaving varied and rich experiences such as the one addressed in this article by Mateos and Suárez-Díaz in a distant second place. 

Likewise, it would be interesting to advance toward situated research that delves not only into the perspective of the international organization and its officials, scientists, and experts but also into the debates, meetings, interests, and considerations of the scientific communities, elites, and bureaucracies of the countries receiving and requesting assistance. This would, in turn, make it possible to understand whether there were variations and nuances among governments and how they influenced the conversations and negotiations with diplomatic ambassadors.


Nevia Vera is a Political Science Ph.D. (UNSAM) and a researcher at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in International and Local Issues, National University of the Center of the Province of Buenos Aires (UNICEN). She also holds a CONICET postdoctoral grant and is an Assistant professor in the undergraduate degree in International Relations at UNICEN. Some of her latest publications include:  “Technodiplomacy, or When Science and Technology Become Tools of Peace: The Case of Nuclear Cooperation between Argentina and Brazil in the 20th Century.” Mural Internacional 11 (2020): 1-11; “Strengthening Ideas: An Analysis Proposal to Discuss the Development of Nuclear Technology in Argentina and Mexico (1950 - 1991),” Foro Internacional 1:243 (2021): 127-162; and “Emerging Technologies, Competing Powers, and Disputed Regions: Latin America and 5G in the technological contest between China and the United States,” Revista Estudos Internacionais 9:1 (2021): 94-111, co-authored with Dr. Sandra Colombo and Dr. María Paz López.


[1] Caroline Wagner, “The Elusive Partnership: Science and Foreign Policy,” Science and Public Policy 29:6 (2002): 409-417.

[2] See for example Tim Flink y Ulrich Schreiterer, “Science Diplomacy at the Intersection of S&T Policies and Foreign Affairs: Toward a Typology of National Approaches,” Science and Public Policy 37:9 (2010): 655-677. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3152/030234210X12778118264530; Pierre-Bruno Ruffini. Science and Diplomacy. A new dimension of International Relations(Switzerland: Springer, 2017).

[3] William Colglazier, “Science Diplomacy and Future Worlds,” Science & Diplomacy 7:3 (2018), accessed 8 July 2022, https://www.sciencediplomacy.org/editorial/2018/science-diplomacy-and-future-worlds.

[4] Kenji Ito and Maria Rentetzi, “The Co-Production of Nuclear Science and Diplomacy: Towards A Transnational Understanding of Nuclear Things,” History and Technology, 37:1 (2021): 4-20, DOI: http://doi.org/10.1080/07341512.2021.1905462.

[5] Ito and Rentetzi, “The Co-Production of Nuclear Science and Diplomacy.”

[6] Rodney Jones, “Atomic Diplomacy in Developing Countries,” Journal of International Affairs 34:1 (1980): 89-117; Jo Ansie Van Wyck, “Atomic/Nuclear Diplomacy,” in Gordon Martel, ed., The Encyclopedia of Diplomacy (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2018) [hereafter Martel, ed., Atomic/Nuclear Diplomacy]: 1-18.

[7] Ito and Rentetzi.  “The Co-Production of Nuclear Science and Diplomacy.”

[8] Rodney Jones, “Atomic Diplomacy in Developing Countries;” Van Wyck, “Atomic/Nuclear Diplomacy,”

[9] Jo Ansie Van Wyc, “Atomic/Nuclear Diplomacy.”

[10] For a critique of the reduction of nuclear experiences to the war aspects of the technology, see Itty Abraham, “The Ambivalence of Nuclear Histories,” Osiris 21:1 (2006): 49-65, and Gabrielle Hecht, “A Cosmogram for Nuclear Things,” Isis 98:1 (2007): 100-108.

[11] For more information on the perceptions of the government and scientific communities regarding nuclear technology in these countries, see Luz Azuela y José Luis Talancón, Contracorriente: historia de la energía nuclear en México (1945–1995) (México: Editorial Plaza y Valdés, 1999); Raúl Domínguez Martínez, “Los orígenes de la física nuclear en México,” Revista CTS 7:21 (2012): 95-112; Diego Hurtado, El sueño de la Argentina atómica. Política, tecnología nuclear y desarrollo nacional (1945–2006) (Buenos Aires: Editorial Edhasa, 2014); Ana María Ribeiro, “Átomos na política internacional,” Revista CTS 7:21 (2012): 113-140; David Sarquís, “Apuntes para la historia de la ciencia y la tecnología nuclear en México,” Revista Multidisciplina 15 (2013): 129-175.

[12] See for example Carlo Patti and Matías Spektor, “‘We Are Not A Nonproliferation Agency’: Henry Kissinger’s Failed Attempt to Accommodate Nuclear Brazil (1974-1977),” Journal of Cold War Studies 22:2 (2020): 58-93; and Etel Solingen, “Macropolitical Consensus and Lateral Autonomy in Industrial Policy: The Nuclear Sector in Brazil and Argentina,” International Organization 47:2 (1993): 263-298.

[13] Regarding the use of scientific networks with international organizations such as IAEA to legitimize domestic decisions, see Nevia Vera, “Scientists, Military and Foreign Policy in the Development of Strategic Technologies in the Semiperiphery: Approach to the Study of the Nuclear Technopolitical Programs of Argentina, Brazil and Mexico in Comparative Terms (1950 - 1991),” Ph.D. Dissertation. University of San Martín, 2020. It reflects an interview with Dr. Arturo Sotomayor where he mentions how the Mexican nuclear power plant Laguna Verde could be completed despite domestic anti-nuclear and environmental pressure thanks to the legitimization provided by the IAEA through several studies.

[14] See Abraham, “The Ambivalence of Nuclear Histories.”