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Damage Assessment: The Senate Rejection of the CTBT
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An Arms Control Association Press Conference

On October 13, the United States Senate voted 51-48 to reject the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The next morning the Arms Control Association held a press conference to discuss the ramifications of that historic vote, including the possibility of resumed nuclear testing, the damage to U.S. credibility abroad and the injury to other arms control agreements. (For more information on the CTBT vote, see our news coverage and the chart of signatories and ratifiers.)

Panelists for the press conference were Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr., president and executive director of the Arms Control Association; John Steinbruner, currently senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and soon to be professor of public policy at the University of Maryland; Ambassador Thomas Graham, president of the Lawyers Alliance for World Security; and John Isaacs, president and executive director of the Council for a Livable World.

This is an edited version of their remarks and the question-and-answer period that followed.

Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.:

The Senate's very unfortunate repudiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT] yesterday was a shock to all of us when it actually occurred, even though I think the outcome was in the end generally anticipated. As has been frequently noted, this is the first rejection of a security-related international treaty by the U.S. Senate since the ill-fated Treaty of Versailles, and we're all familiar with the history subsequent to that action.

I believe the Senate action is the most serious setback to the arms control regime in the 40 years since President Eisenhower first introduced the comprehensive test ban in 1958. It seriously undercuts the ability of the United States to play a leadership role in its central foreign policy objective of preventing further proliferation of nuclear weapons and also in its goal of further progress in arms control in general.

For many years, the comprehensive test ban has been seen as the litmus test of the willingness of the nuclear-weapon states to follow their obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] to move away from dependence on nuclear weapons as the central component of their military establishment and policy. Many non-nuclear-weapon states that strongly support the NPT and have no nuclear aspirations nevertheless consider the NPT inherently discriminatory because it allows the nuclear-weapon states not only to maintain their nuclear capability, but also to test, which, short of nuclear war, is widely seen as the most blatant manifestation of nuclear weapons capabilities.

When, in 1995, the Non-Proliferation Treaty came up for review and extension, the United States was able, with great effort, to build an international consensus in support of indefinite extension. But to achieve that outcome, the United States committed itself—and the other nuclear-weapon states also committed themselves—to achieving a comprehensive test ban in 1996. The treaty was completed under U.S. leadership, and President Clinton was the first to sign the treaty in September 1996.

The world will see the Senate action as a repudiation of this clear U.S. commitment. I think that in a damage assessment of where we stand, it is self-evident that this action greatly undercuts the ability of the United States to persuade or pressure other countries not to continue or initiate nuclear weapons programs.

The most specific example is the case of India and Pakistan, where current events indicate the extreme instability in the region and where I think there is little question that the Indian nuclear establishment would very much like to continue testing. There is no way the ambitious objective laid out for the Indian nuclear program can be met with the few tests, which may not have been that successful, that have occurred to date.

In a broader and perhaps more dangerous ramification from the point of view of U.S. security, I think there's a real chance that unless this action can be reversed, we will see China and Russia, in due course, resume nuclear testing. It was with great difficulty that they were persuaded to go along with the comprehensive test ban. It was strongly resisted by their nuclear weapons establishments. Russia is in a position where, with its economic crisis and its nuclear establishment in disarray, there is no way it can duplicate, even on a small scale, the kind of stewardship program for which the U.S. is paying $4.5 billion a year to maintain the reliability and safety of its nuclear stockpile and integrity of its nuclear weapons establishment.

China also has economic problems, and its program is much less mature. Based on personal conversations, I believe that their nuclear weapons establishment would very much like to be able to continue nuclear testing. If the United States establishes that it is free to resume nuclear testing whenever it wishes, it will be increasingly difficult to prevent a resumption of testing in Russia or China.

Domestically, the vote underscores a new fierce partisanship relating to arms control that really reverses a general overall bipartisan approach to arms control. There have been differences, but the Republicans can certainly claim as much credit as the Democrats for success in this area over the last four decades.

In this regard, I was just shocked at the poor quality of the debate, and particularly that of those who opposed the treaty. We're not here to rehash that debate, but it really was a new low in partisan rhetoric. The arguments that alleged inability to maintain the reliability and safety of the stockpile were totally incorrect and misleading.

But what disturbed me the most were the frequently repeated charges that the treaty would endanger the U.S. deterrent. This is something like shouting "fire" in a crowded theater. The notion that our stockpile, which has more than half a dozen different designs of nuclear weapons and several thousand deployed weapons, would suddenly, despite the tremendous resources available to the stewardship program, become unreliable, unusable and known to be so by the rest of the world, is simply absurd.

The most distressing aspect was the complete disregard for the advice of the military on this subject. As you all know, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs [of Staff], the vice chairman and the heads of the four services all joined in supporting the treaty, as did four previous chairmen of the Joint Chiefs. These are the people who have responsibility for the reliability of the forces and for the safety of their personnel, and they certainly are not known as flaming radicals. On the contrary, they have a very conservative and cautious approach to their responsibilities. Their advice and support—freely given support—seemed to carry no weight at all.

I think the fact that almost all Republicans lined up against this measure in an exhibition of party loyalty demonstrates the alarming fact that the Republican Party has been taken over by a very small group of extremists in this area, led by Jesse Helms [R-NC], James Inhofe [R-OK], Jon Kyl [R-AZ] and others, and strongly supported by Majority Leader Trent Lott [R-MI].

Their approach is not just to disapprove of the comprehensive test ban as a special case. I think it's pretty clear from the statements in debate that they are opposed to all arms control and will object to anything that is brought forward, and that they actually are anxious to dismantle as much of the existing arms control framework as possible.

Well, what is to be done? The president obviously must forcefully and continually restate our support for the comprehensive test ban, despite its rejection by the Senate. It's his responsibility, not theirs, as to what happens next and to do the best he can to assure people that this issue will be revisited. And I think the Democratic senators, since their effort to defer the vote was also rejected out of hand, have an obligation to maintain this issue continually and strongly before the Senate so the issue is kept alive.

Finally, since the Republican Party has chosen to make this a partisan issue—a test of party loyalty, in fact—I think that although I have always felt it's critical to have a bipartisan approach to arms control, there's no choice now but to make this a partisan issue and take it to the people, who have demonstrated their strong support for arms control, and particularly the comprehensive test ban.

Ambassador Thomas Graham, Jr.:

Last night, the United States Senate voted against ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, with only four Republicans crossing party lines. I would like to address the likely impact that this unfortunate decision will have on international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

The Senate's inability to approve CTBT ratification is far and away the most disastrous development in international nuclear non-proliferation policy in recent years. It is a decision in the Versailles Treaty tradition, and we know where that took us. There is also something wrong when a majority of the Senate votes down a treaty that 82 percent of the American public not only wants ratified, but wants ratified promptly.

From the beginning of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime in 1968, non-nuclear-weapon states have regarded the CTBT as a litmus test as to whether the nuclear-weapon states will live up to their half of the basic NPT bargain: 182 countries have forsworn nuclear weapons in exchange for negotiation toward eventual disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states.

When the indefinite extension of the NPT was negotiated in 1995—something the United States very much wanted—an associated consensus agreement called the Statement of Principles and Objectives specifically called for the completion of the test ban by the end of 1996. This was the only objective that was given a specific time frame for achievement. And while the CTBT was opened for signature in 1996, failure to ratify it will be seen as an act of bad faith by significant non-nuclear-weapon states that only reluctantly agreed to a permanent NPT in 1995, freeing them from a committment they now consider void, their commitment to a permanent NPT.

This vote could have disastrous implications. CTBT rejection is tantamount to stating to potential proliferators, as has been said by others, that although we have not tested in seven years and have no intention of testing in the foreseeable future, you others have the green light.

To repeat, this is the most serious setback to U.S. national security in recent years. As President Chirac of France, Prime Minister Blair of the United Kingdom and Chancellor Schröder of Germany noted in their unprecedented October 8 op-ed in The New York Times, "As we look to the next century, our greatest concern is proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and chiefly nuclear proliferation. We have to face the stark truth that nuclear proliferation remains the major threat to world safety."

The NPT regime is the fundamental component of international efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. CTBT rejection has raised the prospect of the NPT regime gradually unraveling, perhaps beginning at the April 2000 NPT review conference, with nuclear weapons spreading widely around the world. This would create a nightmarish situation for U.S. and world security. Also, as Chirac, Blair and Schröder noted, U.S. CTBT rejection creates a fundamental divide between the United States and its NATO allies.

With U.S. rejection of the treaty, China and Russia may resume testing. China only reluctantly joined the CTBT in 1996 and has been waiting—explicitly waiting—for U.S. leadership. Russia has announced the formulation of a new nuclear doctrine requiring new types of tactical nuclear weapons, which some are already saying necessitates further Russian nuclear testing.

It is likely that India and Pakistan will now refuse to sign the CTBT, as they had promised to do, and perhaps will conduct further nuclear tests. Nations such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Indonesia and Egypt eventually may test nuclear weapons. Should any of these latter states test nuclear weapons, it is quite likely that many other states, such as Japan, South Korea and others, would reconsider their status as non-nuclear-weapon states under the NPT. This would, of course, completely destroy the NPT regime, which could never be revived. We would just have to be prepared to live in a widely proliferated world.

This week's military coup in Pakistan, the first in a nuclear-equipped nation, underscores the danger of nuclear weapons spreading to unstable regimes and regional adversaries. Ratification and entry into force of the CTBT would benefit U.S. national security for that reason. It is of the highest importance to U.S. and world security that the U.S. Senate reverse its decision in the near future. In the meantime, the president should make clear that we will maintain the testing moratorium, and he and others should keep reiterating that it remains U.S. policy to seek ratification as soon as possible.

The bargaining by the United States and others for the CTBT in 1995 led to achieving our objective of a permanent NPT, something we very much wanted. This is an important commitment that we made in the context of a strong, viable and permanent Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, which is central to our security in the future. We are a nation that believes in the rule of law. Therefore, we should keep our commitments and ratify the CTBT.

John Steinbruner:

Let me say at the outset that we have unquestionably experienced some very serious damage as a result of the Senate's action, and I believe that most of the world will be surprised and shocked. This act was a partisan maneuver within the American political system, and other nations will predictably find it very difficult to comprehend because the CTBT is widely judged to be overwhelmingly in the interest of the United States. It's therefore probable that much of the world doesn't yet know what to do. As a result, the vote is not likely to have any noticeable effect in the short term.

It is clear that both India and China have some internal pressures to resume testing themselves. Most analysts still believe that there is sufficient political restraint at the top of those governments to prevent testing in the near future. But we have set a clock ticking in both political systems, and there will probably be tests unless there is some change in the situation.

I think that most of the world will choose to believe that somehow this decision will be reversed, leading to ultimate ratification by the United States. So it's still possible to believe that this is a temporary setback from which we can recover. But we should also examine the possibility that it could be a lot worse than that. In that regard, I thought it was ironic that HBO was showing the movie "Titanic" this week. There's a chance we've hit an iceberg here, and we're in the early stages of fathoming what has happened and what it means.

I want to talk, however, about the larger context of events that magnifies the risks of this specific development. Russia is undergoing a monumental internal transformation, and that poses grave dangers to us because they are, at the same time, trying to run a military establishment that is simply overwhelmed by its security burden. The Russians have no international help worthy of mention. They are in implicit confrontation with NATO and with China. They have the longest and the most turbulent border, the most exposed territory. They have by far the greatest security problem in the world.

They have an economy that is somewhere between 2 and 7 percent of ours, depending on which numbers you believe, for a society of 146 million people. Their economy also has very deep structural problems and will not grow in macroeconomic terms any time soon because they do not have, and nobody has for them, a viable reform design to handle large establishments that are so far from market conditions.

The result is that the Russians simply cannot afford their military establishment, which currently has less than 10 percent of the minimum amount of money required to maintain its personnel and equipment and thereby preserve its internal coherence. As a result of this condition, Russian military forces are deteriorating and have been for the entire history of the Russian republic.

That same establishment is running a deterrent operation directed against the United States. As we speak, there are 3,000 Russian weapons on rapid-reaction alert, primed to respond within 10 minutes after the detection of an attack with a mass attack on the United States and to begin to execute it within 20 minutes.

The associated early-warning system does not have comprehensive coverage of Russian territory either in space or in time, and it will not acquire it any time soon. In addition the entire mechanism of internal control required to hold weapons on this degree of alert and keep them from being launched accidentally or without authorization has deteriorated.

This situation is by far the gravest physical danger to the United States, and there is nothing in our current policy that will alleviate that threat. Quite the contrary, the entire thrust of our policy is exacerbating the problem. Although we do have the very useful Nunn-Lugar program to help reinforce Russia's internal control mechanisms, that activity is a small element of a much larger context that has been dominated recently by three developments. First, there is NATO expansion, which intensifies the pressure on the Russian military establishment to a degree that our political system has not fathomed. Second is our intervention in Kosovo, where we demonstrated that NATO, despite its claim to be a defensive alliance, will initiate offensive operations outside of its territory, not in response to attack on any of its members and without consideration for international mechanisms, including the UN Security Council. Russia sees this as a very serious threat.

Finally, the United States is saying that it will deploy a national missile defense, basically presenting the Russian political system with an ultimatum: either you accept the revisions to the ABM Treaty or we will deploy a national missile defense in defiance of the treaty. That presents Russia with a severe policy dilemma. They do not believe they can responsibly accept a limited national missile defense deployment in their own interests. However, if they reject it, the entire framework of restraint, as they view it, is destroyed. We have put them into an extremely serious corner, and they're trying to figure out what to do. There is some possibility—I don't want to exaggerate it but I think it would be irresponsible not to look at it—that the entire framework of arms control will become seriously unglued.

Our political system has not fathomed the nature of this problem. We don't understand the real danger to us. And that is why one thinks about the Titanic—people oblivious to the danger, acting with unbelievable irresponsibility and supreme arrogance. We're on the outskirts of that situation, and we may have triggered a sequence here that we will not be able to reverse.

We may see severe negative consequences if the resonant features of this situation begin to kick in. The full sequence would be a policy catastrophe. If the repudiation of the CTBT foreshadows the end of the ABM Treaty and offensive strategic restraints and the NPT, we will be in an entirely new and very dangerous situation. When you add the element of internal deterioration in Russia and the progressive loss of control over a large weapons inventory, you've got a truly explosive situation. It's time for all of us to wake up.

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Posted: September 1, 1999