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Mr. President, It's Time to Move Forward on the Test Ban Treaty

Arms Control NOW

 New York Magazine) President Obama at his 2009 Inaugural Address. Weeks later, he pledged to "immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty." (Image Source: New York Magazine)

By Daryl G. Kimball

Following the November 2012 U.S. election, the prospects for achieving U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) have improved. Moving forward and gaining the necessary 67 Senate votes in support of ratification of the CTBT remains difficult, but is within reach.

Since the beginning of his first term, President Barack Obama and senior administration officials have consistently expressed support for the pursuit of U.S. reconsideration and ratification of the treaty. In March 2012, Obama said that: "... my administration will continue to pursue ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty." The 2012 Democratic Party platform also pledged to "work to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty."

In 2013, Democrats will have a 55-seat working majority, which means that the president and his allies would need to persuade at least a dozen pragmatic Republicans to secure two-thirds Senate support—an attainable goal.

The Case for the CTBT Is Stronger Than Ever

Over the past decade, the concerns about the CTBT that were raised in 1999 have largely been addressed. Next year, only 12 Senators who voted "no" on the treaty in 1999 will remain and a key CTBT opponent--Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.)--is retiring.

As the 2012 report by the National Academy of Sciences on "CTBT: Technical Issues Related for the United States" documents, maintaining an effective nuclear stockpile will require continued diligence, but it does not require nuclear test explosions. The stockpile stewardship program is more successful and better-resourced than ever before.

The NAS report also confirms that with the combined capabilities of the International Monitoring System and U.S. National Technical Means, as well as tens of thousands of civilian seismic monitoring stations, no potential CTBT violator could be confident that a nuclear explosion of military utility would escape detection.

With the CTBT in force, other states would find it far more difficult to perfect the more sophisticated and reliable warhead designs. It is also clear that U.S. ratification would trigger action by other key CTBT hold-outs, including China, India, and Pakistan, to ratify the treaty.

Today, there is very substantial, bipartisan support from the national security community for the CTBT, including a large number of former skeptics.

All of the United States allies have approved the CTBT and there is overwhelming global support for its early entry into force.

Next Steps

Winning Senate approval for the CTBT will not be easy, however. It will require the kind of effort the administration pursued to win support for New START. The Senate's 71-26 vote to approve New START in December 2010 shows that even controversial arms control agreements can be approved in a tough political climate when the executive branch devotes sufficient time and high-level attention, when key Senators seriously consider the facts, and when U.S. military leaders speak up in support of the treaty.

To date, the Obama administration has not yet launched a systematic and high-level political effort for the CTBT. Following the 2012 election, there is no reason for further delay, but at the same time the process cannot be rushed.

Preparing the ground for the CTBT will be a 1-2 year endeavor. Getting beyond 67 won't happen immediately. In fact, we will not likely know if it is possible until shortly before a vote on advice and consent.

One key reason for a serious, step-by-step approach is the fact that the Senate has not thought seriously about the CTBT in more than a decade. This presents opportunities and challenges. A substantial number of Senators and staff are unfamiliar with the subject and need to take a close look at the new evidence regarding the treaty. Senators and their staff will need time to review the information, ask questions, and get responses.

To move forward, President Obama will need signal to the Senate, the public, the news media, and to his own administration that he is serious. To do so, he should appoint a senior, high-level White House coordinator or a high-level task force to push the ratification campaign along. As far back as 2000, thoughtful CTBT advocates, including Gen. John Shalikashvili, have called for "a sustained interagency effort to address senators' questions and concerns" on the CTBT and other nonproliferation issues.

The Obama administration and CTBT proponents will need to aggressively counter misinformation being put forward by hard-line opponents of the CTBT. Undecided Senators have a responsibility to base their judgements on the facts and not the outdated myths and misconceptions of pro-testing advocates.

The final result will depend on the politics of the moment and it will depend on the ability of CTBT proponents to make a strong case and bring forward the many U.S. military and scientific leaders who support the CTBT and to mobilize key political constituencies in support of the treaty.

As President Dwight Eisenhower said five decades ago, on May 29, 1961, not achieving a nuclear test ban "would have to be classed as the greatest disappointment of any administration, of any decade, of any party."

Now is the time for President Obama and the Senate to finally move forward on the CTBT.

Stay tuned.