The U.S. boycott of the November 11-13 UN conference to encourage support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) fits a pattern of unilateralist nonengagement that is becoming the hallmark of the Bush administration’s arms control policy.
Washington’s lack of support was not surprising to the diplomats at the conference, given that Secretary of State Colin Powell had said in January that President George W. Bush would not ask the Senate to reconsider approving ratification. But the United States’ absence at the high-level CTBT meeting should be recognized as more than a minor slight. It is merely the latest in a series of new and harder-line U.S. actions on the test ban.
First, on August 21 the United States announced that it would not provide technical or financial support for certain test ban treaty monitoring activities, most notably on-site inspections. (See ACT, September 2001.)
Then, on November 5 the United States voted against a Japanese resolution on nuclear disarmament, which it has supported in years past, specifically because the resolution stressed the importance of taking practical steps to implement Article VI of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), including “continuation of the moratorium on nuclear-weapon-test explosions…pending the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.” U.S. opposition was unexpected because the resolution’s language mirrors that in a communiqué that Powell approved at a G-8 meeting earlier this year.
On the same day, adding insult to injury, the United States called for a vote on—and then voted against—a procedural decision to place the CTBT on the agenda of the UN General Assembly. The U.S. representative to the UN explained that the United States had asked for the vote, which resulted in a 140-1 outcome in favor of placing the test ban on the agenda, because “the United States does not support the CTBT.” However, he asserted that “as a nuclear-weapon state, the United States understands its special responsibility under Article VI of the NPT.”
The U.S. boycott of the CTBT conference and its votes on the Japanese resolution and the procedural decision have crossed leaders in Tokyo and Western capitals, who recognize the importance of strengthening, not weakening, multilateral non-proliferation efforts in the aftermath of September 11. The U.S. decisions also imply that the Bush administration supports selective compliance with the NPT, which clearly calls for action by the nuclear-weapon states on the test ban treaty and other disarmament measures. To be effective, the NPT must serve the interests of all treaty partners, not just a few.
Despite the Bush administration’s disengagement, the recent CTBT conference clearly demonstrates that three nuclear-weapon states (the United Kingdom, France, and Russia), as well as all the European and Western bloc countries, continue their strong support for the treaty. In this sense, the conference was a success. However, the real test for the test ban will be whether such support will be sustained by the friends of the treaty inside and outside the United States. Such action will be needed to keep the door open for future ratification of the treaty and to maintain progress on monitoring and verification systems in preparation for entry into force.
When the CTBT negotiators decided to allow states-parties to convene high-level conferences to “facilitate entry into force,” few could have imagined that the United States would be among the chief holdouts. Although there are other “hard cases” such as China, which participated in the conference, and even India and Pakistan, which have said they will not delay entry into force, the Bush administration’s recent CTBT actions make the United States, along with North Korea, the principal obstacle to a permanent test ban treaty. Such an approach not only jeopardizes U.S. goals under the NPT, but it leaves open the risk of a resumption of testing and the dangerous political and military action-reaction cycle it would produce.