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The United States Senate this week voted down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This is the first time since the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that the Senate has rejected a major international agreement. We can only hope that the results of this shortsighted move will not be as great. Still, the vote is a blow to nonproliferation hopes, to the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton and to U.S. pretensions to international leadership.

It was not even close. A treaty needs support from two-thirds of the Senate to be ratified. The final tally was 51-48 against ratification, with only four Republican senators crossing the aisle to support the pact. (One Democrat, Sen. Robert Byrd, voted present.)

Most senators opposed the CTBT for two reasons. On the one hand, they feared that the U.S. arsenal would become unreliable without testing and, as a result, would no longer deter other nations. Treaty supporters countered that reliability would be maintained through computer simulations. Alternatively, they asserted that if the U.S. was uncertain that its arsenal would work, adversaries would be equally uncertain that it would not; deterrence would be preserved.

Opponents also argued that it would be impossible to verify that other nations were not testing. Mr. Clinton conceded that 100-percent certainty would be impossible to establish, but the network of monitoring facilities set up by the treaty would provide reasonable guarantees of compliance.

The more compelling argument is that the CTBT itself strengthens the international norms against testing, proliferation and nuclear weapons themselves. While many dismiss such treaties as empty legal posturing, the fact is that their existence gives arms-control and disarmament advocates a foundation for their positions. The growing body of law gives them a theoretical and legal basis for their arguments. It provides a very real counter to the assertions of nuclear nationalists who claim that there is no reason not to develop such weapons. There is a powerful stigma attached to the rejection of international norms.

The Senate vote, then, is a serious blow to the nonproliferation movement. Even though the U.S. has said that it will continue to abide by its self-imposed moratorium on testing, other governments cannot be expected to do the same. Why should India or Pakistan — to name two possible contenders — forgo a right that the U.S. Senate has declined to give up?

Rejection also undermines U.S. credibility. Mr. Clinton was one of the first signatories of the CTBT and he had vowed to see the treaty ratified. The failure to do so is a blow to him personally, as well as to the U.S. The world has been put on notice that the U.S. Senate is not willing to follow its president on matters of foreign policy. In such circumstances, how can the U.S. presume to lead? How can its allies know that it will follow through on its commitments?

While the Senate may not have intended to damage the image of the U.S., there are signs that it was willing to blacken that of Mr. Clinton. There was never a doubt about the outcome of the vote; mindful of the impact rejection would have, 62 senators signed a letter in favor of delaying the vote. Yet a hard core of conservative Republican senators refused to support such a move. Their statements during the debate reveal a powerful personal animus toward Mr. Clinton.

For years, it was a guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy that partisanship stopped at the water’s edge. Apparently, that is no longer true. During Mr. Clinton’s term in office, Congress has regularly challenged the administration’s foreign policy: On issues from North Korea to Kosovo, and now the CTBT, Congress has second-guessed the White House. Some attribute that trend to the president’s success at dominating the domestic political agenda. Foreign policy has traditionally been farther from the concerns of U.S. voters, which gives Republicans an opportunity to oppose the administration without having to pay a political price.

That theory may comfort GOP strategists, but it dismays others who look to the U.S. for international leadership. Nothing will do more damage to America’s image than the notion that U.S. foreign policy could be held hostage by petty partisan squabbles.

The only comforting thought in this entire squalid episode is that the treaty can come up again for another vote. After the 2000 elections, a new administration and a new Congress should be able to conduct a serious debate and work together to craft a national security policy that protects the U.S. and does credit to its international image. Rejecting the CTBT does neither.

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