When President Bill Clinton described the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) as “the longest-sought, hardest fought prize in arms control history,” he was not exaggerating. In the face of international outrage over their rapid-fire pace of Cold War testing,
Not until the end of the Cold War three decades later did
The CTBT is crucial to disarmament and nonproliferation. By prohibiting all nuclear test explosions, it impedes the ability of states possessing nuclear weapons to field new and more deadly types of warheads, while helping to prevent the emergence of new nuclear-armed states. Moving forward on the CTBT remains an essential step toward restoring confidence in the beleaguered nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime. The nuclear-weapon states’ commitment to achieve the CTBT was a crucial part of the bargain that won the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 and the 2000 NPT Review Conference document.
Since it was opened for signature on September 24, 1996, 181 countries have signed the CTBT, and 150 countries have ratified it. The roster of ratifiers includes three of the five NPT nuclear-weapon states:
Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate’s brief debate and 51-48 vote against CTBT ratification on October 13, 1999, coupled with the Bush administration’s opposition to the treaty, has slowed the momentum toward the pact’s formal entry into force. Consequently, 13 years after the CTBT was opened for signature and exactly a decade after the Senate’s first vote on the treaty, the goal of CTBT entry into force remains unfulfilled and
The situation is self-defeating and counterproductive. Given the
There is cause for optimism. The prospects for
What Went Wrong in 1999
The record of the CTBT in the Senate from 1997 to October 1999 suggests that the October 13 vote was not simply “about the substance of the treaty,” as then-Majority Leader
In January 1998, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) announced that he would not hold hearings on the CTBT “until the administration has submitted the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty] protocols and the
In the early weeks of 1998, the
In January 1998, national security adviser Samuel “Sandy” Berger called the CTBT “one of the president’s top priorities,” but the administration had other concerns to which it gave precedence. Domestically, the White House was keen to pursue several policy objectives in the run-up to the midterm elections, and Helms’ “hostage-taking” strategy had raised the political cost of pushing for the CTBT.
For its part, the administration’s national security team was preoccupied with securing Senate approval for NATO expansion. Instead of appointing a coordinator to build CTBT support, national security officials relied on the possibility that Russia would ratify START II, thus enabling them to send the ABM Treaty and START II protocols to the Senate for consideration and breaking Helms’ stranglehold on the CTBT. However, the Duma did not ratify START II, and other crises emerged. Through the first half of 1999, the CTBT remained on the political back burner as the
Following the end of hostilities in the Balkans in the late spring of 1999, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and pro-treaty nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) redoubled their efforts to raise attention to the plight of the CTBT and to press the Senate leadership to begin the process of considering the treaty.
On July 20, a bipartisan group of nine senators held a press briefing, citing overwhelming public support for the treaty and calling for prompt Senate action. That same day, all 45 Democratic senators wrote to Lott, asking for “all necessary hearings...to report the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to the Senate for timely consideration” before the October 1999 international conference on CTBT entry into force. In a separate letter, Republican Senators Arlen Specter (
As he had done for nearly two years, Helms rebuffed his Senate colleagues, sarcastically writing to Dorgan, “Inasmuch as you are clearly concerned about the need for swift Senate action on treaties, perhaps I can enlist your support in respectfully suggesting that you write to the President urging that he submit the ABM Protocols and the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate? I will be very interested in any response you receive from him.” The Raleigh News & Observer characterized Helms’ letter as a “playful response to supporters of the treaty [that] underscores his failure to take any of those concerns seriously. That’s a very unbecoming and dangerous attitude to have toward the serious problem of nuclear proliferation.” The exchange simply reinforced attitudes on both sides.
Nongovernmental CTBT advocates accelerated their public education and Senate lobbying efforts. They encouraged concerned citizens to call their senators about the treaty, pushed newspapers to editorialize on the topic, and collected support from former military and government officials, independent nuclear weapons scientists, and hundreds of public interest organizations.
By late August 1999, news reports suggested that the White House and Senate Democrats were preparing for a pitched battle and were threatening to bring the Senate to a standstill unless Republicans agreed to hold hearings on the CTBT. The renewed effort by CTBT proponents to jump-start Senate consideration of the treaty appeared to be all the more credible to CTBT opponents because of the appearance of White House-led coordination. In reality, most in the
Through August and September, treaty opponents responded by accelerating preparations for a possible vote on final passage. James Schlesinger, who once headed the Defense and Energy departments, and Kyl, in consultation with Lott, stepped up their lobbying efforts, which were aimed at uncommitted Republican senators. In addition, a number of prominent former national security officials were urged to voice their opposition. At the same time, Lott continued to try to prevent the scheduling of a vote. He told Dorgan and other Senate treaty supporters that he would speak with Helms about allowing hearings but that “this is a dangerous time to rush to judgment on such an important issue.... If it is called up preemptively, without appropriate consideration and thought, it could be defeated.” Lott would soon propose a schedule that allowed less than five working days for consideration of the treaty.
In late September, apparently without information about the opposition’s quiet lobbying effort, Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.), along with other leading Senate CTBT proponents and the White House, decided to try to advance the issue by introducing a nonbinding Senate resolution that called for beginning the process to consider the CTBT and scheduling a vote on the treaty by March 31, 2000. The plan to press for the resolution, which was never introduced, was agreed to at a meeting between Berger and the Senate Democratic leadership on the evening of September 22. At the meeting, participants weighed the possibility that Lott might try to schedule a vote on the treaty on short notice, but they considered the possibility low and decided to press forward.
On September 29, having been informed of the Democrats’ intention to introduce their resolution, Helms and Lott abandoned their blocking strategy and proposed a vote on final passage of the treaty by October 7. Lott calculated that the Democrats might not agree to his terms for a truncated debate and that even if they did, he could assemble the votes needed to block ratification. According to Kyl, 34 senators had been persuaded to vote against ratification by September 14.
Indeed, Lott’s initial proposal for 10 hours of debate on the treaty with only six days’ notice was not accepted by the Democratic leadership. Some Senate supporters, the White House, and the NGO community criticized the offer, calling it a “rush to judgment” because it did not provide sufficient time for hearings and a thorough and informed debate. In consultation with the White House, Senate Democratic leaders negotiated for more time and a more thorough series of hearings. On October 1, however, they decided to accept Lott’s final “take it or leave it” counteroffer for a vote as soon as October 12.
The decision to accept the offer was apparently motivated in part by the belief that the negative effect of continued inaction on the treaty could be as severe as outright defeat. It was very likely that if a vote were not scheduled before the end of 1999, and therefore before the 2000 election season, the treaty would not come before the Foreign Relations Committee and then the full Senate until the middle of 2001 or later. As Biden said on October 2, “The question is: If you are going to die, do you want to die with no one knowing who shot you, or do you want to go at least with the world knowing who killed you?”
With the final vote on the CTBT just days away, Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Secretary of Defense William Cohen finally launched a high-profile, high-powered effort to win Senate support for the treaty. The White House highlighted the fact that the CTBT enjoyed the overwhelming support of
Treaty supporters had recognized from the beginning of their campaign that they would need the support of several influential “internationalist” Republicans to win over the large bloc of undecided votes. Yet, over the course of 1998 and 1999, proponents had made little headway, as most senators ignored the issue and the administration did next to nothing to engage them on issues relating to the treaty.
By the end of October 8, the first day of Senate floor debate, the most crucial of these Republican senators—John Warner (Va.), Pete Domenici (N.M.), Richard Lugar (Ind.), and Chuck Hagel (Neb.)—as well as other Republican moderates, had declared their intention to vote against the treaty.
As important as their support might have been, the debate was effectively over before the administration’s CTBT effort moved into high gear during the week of October 4 and the conclusion of hearings on the treaty on October 7. The CTBT’s opponents, led by Helms and Kyl, had already lined up more than 34 “no” votes. The eleventh-hour efforts of the White House were simply too little too late.
Opposition Tinged With Regret
Even as they prepared to vote against the CTBT, many Republicans were clearly disturbed by the politically charged nature of the debate and frustrated with the situation presented to them by the leadership.
As Hagel observed on the opening morning of the Senate floor debate, “We are trapped in a political swamp as we attempt to compress a very important debate on a very important issue. My goodness, is that any way to responsibly deal with what may, in fact, be the most critical and important vote any of us in this chamber ever make? It is not.”
Even as he outlined his reasons for voting against the treaty, an anguished Lugar acknowledged that, “under the current agreement, a process that normally would take many months has been reduced to a few days. Many senators know little about this treaty. Even for those of us on national security committees, this has been an issue floating on the periphery of our concerns.”
Recognizing that the opportunity for give-and-take was absent and that the votes needed for ratification were not there, 62 senators wrote to the leadership on October 12 “in support of putting off final consideration until the next Congress.” Prominent Republicans, including Lawrence Eagleburger, who served as secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, argued that “if the Senate cannot bring itself to do the right thing and approve the treaty, then senators should do the next best thing and pull it off the table.”
Agreeing to postpone the vote required the same kind of “unanimous consent” agreement needed to schedule the vote, and some CTBT opponents had publicly said they opposed any such agreement. On the eve of the vote, Lott and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) were on the verge of an agreement to postpone the vote; but Senators Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), Helms, James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Kyl, and Bob Smith (R-N.H.) reportedly raced to the majority leader’s office to tell him that they were prepared to block any new agreement that would postpone the vote. These senators appear to have been motivated as much by their political instincts as their discomfort with the CTBT.
Smith argued in an October 12 floor speech, “Postponing a vote on the CTBT will allow the White House to claim victory in saving the treaty, and will allow the White House to continue to spin the American people by blaming opponents for not ratifying the treaty. There is no conservative victory in that.” In the end, Lott was either unwilling or unable to persuade this small group of hard-liners to delay the vote.
By taking up the treaty in what Lugar called “an abrupt and truncated manner that is so highly politicized,” the Senate was unable to sort out the many issues relating to treaty ratification. Unlike previous Senate deliberations on arms control treaties, there was no negotiation or exchange of views concerning possible conditions that might assuage concerns and win the support of skeptical senators, such as
It will never be known whether it might have been possible to win the Senate’s approval with greater presidential leadership, a more collegial Senate culture, and a more effective presentation of the case for the treaty. The future of the CTBT, however, may well depend on the lessons that decision-makers and the public draw from the 1997-1999 period and how they apply those lessons in the coming year or two.
Although the outcome of any arms control treaty debate depends on politics as much as on hard-headed national security considerations, a first step toward repairing the damage from the October 1999 debate and building support for the CTBT should be a more thorough and substantive exchange of views between the executive branch and Congress on core technical issues concerning the treaty.
Winning over new, uncommitted senators and changing the minds of some who voted no in 1999 will require some time and new evidence that gives them reason to support the CTBT. Most importantly, the administration must address lingering Republican concerns about the verifiability of the CTBT by documenting how and why the International Monitoring System (IMS), on-site inspections, and transparency measures specified in the CTBT, combined with U.S. intelligence capabilities, can effectively detect and deter militarily significant cheating.
Advances in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) nuclear weapons Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) over the past decade have significantly increased confidence in the reliability of the existing
Contrary to the allegations of some CTBT opponents in 1999, the cessation of nuclear explosion testing has not caused the laboratories to lose technical competence. Rather, significant advances have been achieved as researchers were able to study the physics underlying weapons performance in greater depth, undistracted by the demands of a nuclear weapons test explosion program.
According to weapons physicist Richard Garwin, the new evidence on the longevity of weapons plutonium “has removed any urgency to engineer and manufacture new design replacement warheads.” Garwin says the continued performance of legacy warheads can be more reliably certified than new ones.
Test ban monitoring and verification capabilities have also improved. As the July 2002 NAS panel report documents, with the combined capabilities of the IMS, national technical means, and civilian seismic networks, no potential CTBT violator can be confident that a nuclear explosion of any military utility could escape detection. The IMS itself has more than doubled since 1999, with approximately 280 of the planned 321 global monitoring stations now built, including a new array of highly capable noble-gas monitoring stations that can detect minute amounts of the radioactive gases emitted by underground explosions into the atmosphere.
The developments over the past decade led George Shultz, secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, to say at an April 17 press briefing in Rome that his fellow Republicans “might have been right voting against it some years ago, but they would be right voting for it now, based on these new facts.”
In the final analysis, undecided senators will have to make a net benefit analysis. Given that the United States will need to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal for some time to come, given U.S. interest in detecting and deterring surreptitious nuclear test explosions, and given the importance of strengthening the beleaguered nuclear nonproliferation regime, is the United States more secure ratifying a treaty that bans an activity that is unnecessary for U.S. security but would help others improve their nuclear capabilities, or is it in the U.S. interest to stand outside the treaty?
The political environment has changed significantly since 1999. Most obviously, the Democrats will hold about 15 more seats for the upcoming CTBT vote than the 45 they had 10 years ago. Because they are in the majority now, the Democrats also have much greater control over the Senate calendar than they did before. Under Senate rules, however, the minority party and even individual senators can exert considerable influence over the chamber’s business.
Also, even though a base of 60 is far better than a base of 45, it still means that the Obama administration will need to win the support of at least seven Republicans, a difficult but attainable goal.
There are some encouraging signs. A growing array of Republican and Democratic national security opinion leaders recognizes the value of the CTBT and is calling for reconsideration. In 2007, former Republican Secretaries of State Shultz and Henry Kissinger, along with two Democrats, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn (Ga.), called on the Senate to initiate a bipartisan process “to achieve ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, taking advantage of recent technical advances, and working to secure ratification by other key states.” President George H. W. Bush’s national security adviser, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, and former NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks have also recently endorsed U.S. ratification of the CTBT.During the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Senator John McCain (Ariz.), who voted against the treaty in 1999, outlined a policy that included “taking another look” at the CTBT. He made similar comments earlier this year. Lugar also has indicated that he might vote differently this time.
Avoiding Political Ambushes
In spite of the changes since 1999, some of the potential pitfalls are similar. For example, the Obama administration must not allow CTBT opponents to sap support before the formal debate on the treaty even begins. The White House and the Department of State are now laying the groundwork in advance of formal reconsideration of the treaty, but opponents are also preparing.
One potential advantage CTBT opponents will have is that the Senate is expected to debate the forthcoming START follow-on agreement some time in the first quarter of 2010 and prior to the CTBT. Senate opponents of the CTBT, such as Kyl, have already declared their intent to condition their support for the START follow-on on the acceptance of a set of conditions that would shape and direct the administration’s future policies and budgets for support and “modernization” of the
If the administration’s fiscal year 2011 budget request includes major additional funding for weapons complex infrastructure investments and new-design warheads or if it allows nuclear weapons “modernization” conditions to be attached to the resolution of ratification for the START follow-on agreement, some potential Senate supporters of the CTBT may pocket that and fail to provide their support when the time comes to vote for the treaty itself.
Some senior administration officials are clearly alert to the challenge. “I think there are a lot of people that still hope for the return” of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, “and they are going to be sadly disappointed,” Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen O. Tauscher said in a recent interview.
Tauscher has correctly noted that new-design warhead approaches, such as the RRW plan advanced by the Bush administration and rejected by Congress, are less attractive than other measures, such as refurbishing existing warheads to maintain and modernize the
Although some Republicans will push for new-design warheads, Tauscher said the administration would hold firm and would instead put forward a more robust stockpile management plan that increases the confidence in existing warheads and “negates the need” for the RRW program.
The next 12 to 18 months may represent the best opportunity for
Daryl G. Kimball has served as executive director of the Arms Control Association since 2001. He previously was security programs director for Physicians for Social Responsibility, where he helped lobby for the
1. Gary Samore, Remarks at the Arms Control Association annual meeting,
2. For further details, see Daryl G. Kimball, “Holding the CTBT Hostage in the Senate: The ‘Stealth’ Strategy of Helms and Lott,” Arms Control Today, June/July 1998, www.armscontrol.org/act/1998_06-07/kimjj98.
13. Richard L. Garwin, “A Different Kind of Complex: The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons and the Nuclear Weapons Enterprise,” Arms Control Today, December 2008, www.armscontrol.org/act/2008_12/Garwin.
14. After the defeat of the CTBT in 1999,
17. The RRW program is a proposal by the administration of President George W. Bush to design and develop a new-design warhead as a substitute for the W-76 warhead, which has just undergone a life-extension refurbishment. Congress rejected the RRW program mainly on the basis that it was not considered technically necessary.
18. Josh Rogin, “Tauscher: Sorry, Republicans: No Return of the Reliable Replacement Warhead,” The Cable, September 15, 2009, www.thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/09/15/tauscher_sorry_republicans_no_return_of_the_reliable_replacement_warhead.