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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
White House, Key Senators Intensify Push for CTBT
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Craig Cerniell

IN LATE JULY, the White House and a bipartisan group of nine influential senators stepped up their efforts to secure U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) before early October, when a special conference on ways to facilitate the accord's entry into force will be held in Vienna. In addition to arguing that the treaty would slow nuclear proliferation and bolster international security, the senators, led by Byron Dorgan (D-ND), released new polling data illustrating the American public's overwhelming support for a worldwide ban on nuclear testing.

Despite this renewed push for ratification, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC) continued to block action on the CTBT. In a July 26 letter he reiterated that the Foreign Relations Committee would not schedule hearings on the treaty until the Clinton administration has submitted—and the full Senate has voted on—the 1997 amendments to the ABM Treaty and the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Unless the administration can strike a deal with Helms or Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), there is little chance that the test ban will be ratified. Such an outcome would put the United States, which took the lead in negotiating the CTBT, in the embarrassing position of having to attend the special conference as only an "observer."

Appearing in the Rose Garden on July 20, President Clinton once again expressed his support for the CTBT and urged the Foreign Relations Committee to hold hearings on the treaty this fall. In making the case for U.S. ratification, he said, "America already has stopped nuclear testing. We have, today, a robust nuclear force and nuclear experts affirm that we can maintain a safe and reliable deterrent without nuclear tests. The question now is whether we will adopt or whether we will lose a verifiable treaty that will bar other nations from testing nuclear weapons."

Just hours later in a press conference on Capitol Hill, seven Senate Democrats and two Republicans echoed the president's call for U.S. ratification. Referencing the Cox Report, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) argued that a ban on nuclear testing would make it more difficult for China to utilize any nuclear design information that it may have acquired through espionage. Moreover, argued Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), the Senate must give its advice and consent to the CTBT if the United States is serious about reducing the nuclear danger in South Asia. Senator Joe Biden (D-DE)—who accused Helms and Lott of "acting irresponsibly"—claimed that the United States would be making "the single biggest mistake in American foreign policy and defense policy that this generation could make at the closing hours of this century" if the Senate did not approve the treaty.

Also on July 20, Dorgan released a letter, signed by all 45 Democratic senators, urging Helms to promptly conduct hearings on the CTBT. "If the United States is to maintain its leadership role and convince other countries to forego nuclear weapons tests, the full Senate must be given the opportunity to consider ratification of the CTBT before [the special conference] begins," they wrote.

To support their rhetoric, the nine senators released new polling data demonstrating the American public's unambiguous support for the test ban. The polls, which were commissioned by the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers and conducted June 18-21 by The Mellman Group (a Democratic polling firm) and Wirthlin Worldwide (a Republican polling firm), revealed that 82 percent of the public believes the United States should ratify the CTBT. The support is bipartisan and regionally consistent across the United States. According to the data, 86 percent of those identifying themselves as Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans favor U.S. ratification, as do 84 percent of those living in the Northeast, 80 percent of those in the Midwest, 84 percent of those in the South and 77 percent of those in the West.

Support for the CTBT is solid even when recent allegations of Chinese espionage at U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories are taken into account. Only 17 percent of those polled agree that "it is irrelevant for the U.S. to ratify and encourage global implementation of the CTBT because this treaty will not stop China from improving their nuclear technology and developing new weapons." The vast majority (84 percent) believe that the United States could better protect itself against nuclear threats from other countries if it had an international treaty banning nuclear weapons test explosions rather than if it resumed such testing itself.

Helms Responds

As expected, Helms continued to show little enthusiasm for the CTBT. "I note your distress at my floccinaucinihilipilification of the CTBT," he replied in a July 26 letter, using an 18th-century word for dismissiveness. In the letter the chairman reiterated his demand that the Clinton administration submit two unrelated sets of agreements to the Senate, stating, "[I]t has been 801 days since President Clinton agreed to legally-binding language requiring that he submit to the Senate amendments to the ABM Treaty for its advice and consent. The continued adherence by the U.S. to the legally-defunct ABM Treaty is a perilous obstacle to the United States' building and deploying a missile defense to protect the American people from a nuclear holocaust." The administration has pledged to submit the ABM amendments to the Senate after the Russian Duma has ratified START II, and to submit the Kyoto Protocol once there is greater participation from developing countries.

Despite Helms' intransigence, momentum for CTBT ratification continued to build. Taking advantage of the recent furor associated with the Cox Report, nine prominent nuclear weapons experts, including Hans Bethe and Richard Garwin, argued in a July 30 letter to Lott that Senate approval of the CTBT "would greatly help to protect the United States against the weaponization of stolen nuclear secrets."

"Whatever information on thermonuclear weapons China may have obtained, it is implausible that Beijing would deploy weapons that incorporate this information without first conducting nuclear explosive tests outlawed by the CTBT," they wrote.

In a report released August 4, the Tokyo Forum, a group of independent experts brought together by Japan to discuss ways to thwart nuclear proliferation and promote disarmament, also urged the United States and other key holdouts to ratify the CTBT. (See document.)

Five days later, Clinton repeated his call for Senate advice and consent and pointed out that the treaty enjoys the support of General Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as four former chairmen: Generals John Shalikashvili, Colin Powell and David Jones, and Admiral William Crowe. It remains to be seen whether the administration will be able to force a Senate floor vote on the test ban in time to permit U.S. participation in the special conference, scheduled for October 6-8.