“All bets are off! You’ll see a lot of testing . . . . You’ll have Russia testing, you’ll have China testing, you’ll have India testing, you’ll have Pakistan testing . . . and we will be in a much, much more dangerous world.”
The reaction of the U.S. Senate to this warning by President Bill Clinton of the dire consequences if the United States were to abandon the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was swift and unequivocal. It resoundingly defeated the treaty, the first time it had rejected a major treaty in over 80 years.
Clinton’s overstated warnings notwithstanding, however, the CTBT’s defeat is not likely to result in the immediate resumption of nuclear-weapons tests, either by the U.S. or any of the other states the president mentioned. Indeed, the Chinese have so far elected to seize the moral high road, contrasting their continued commitment to the cause of nuclear disarmament with Congress’ abandonment of it. The Russians have similarly taken delight in criticizing America’s “do as I say, not as I do” approach to foreign policy.
However, the Senate’s 48-51 vote (with minor exceptions, almost exclusively along party lines) has effectively killed any hope for immediate ratification of the CTBT by other significant treaty holdouts, notably India and Pakistan. While this may not mean the death of the arms-control and nonproliferation movement as we know it, it certainly raises questions about America’s willingness and ability to continue to lead this effort. It also demonstrates American partisan politics at its very worst.
While this was not one of the Senate’s (or the nation’s) finest hours, it would be wrong to dismiss the vote as simply an ugly exercise in partisan politicking. There were some serious reservations about the CTBT and Clinton failed to make a convincing case for ratification, causing even moderate Republicans to abandon the treaty.
The most serious attacks against the CTBT focused on two issues: verification and the ability of the U.S. to maintain its nuclear arsenal. The verification argument seemed disingenuous to many. While it may be impossible to prove a negative — that a country will not or cannot cheat — the treaty allows for additional monitoring stations and “challenge inspections” that would significantly reduce the ability of potential violators to conduct tests. This is not a treaty based on good faith alone; it contains serious, highly intrusive verification procedures.
The maintenance argument is a tougher one to debate, or even to understand, with experts disagreeing about how hard or even possible it might be to assure the continued safety and reliability of America’s nuclear arsenal by means of just computers and subcritical tests (which the treaty, at U.S. insistence, still allows). But one fact is beyond debate: The U.S. today has a clear advantage over the rest of the world in all things nuclear, and the CTBT freezes this advantage. Even “America First” enthusiasts should been able to figure this out.
Most regrettably, the CTBT episode demonstrated the growing tendency to play domestic politics with international issues on the part of both the Clinton administration and Congress. The outcome may provide the clearest evidence yet that we have entered the “lame duck” stage of the Clinton presidency. But it also reconfirmed the absence of leadership in Congress, which has become increasingly incapable of putting the national interest ahead of partisan politics.
It is important to note, however, that the treaty’s defeat does not signal U.S. abandonment of the CTBT. Clinton has stated that the U.S. will continue to honor the test ban as long as he remains president, and over 80 percent of the American people support an end to nuclear testing. Many Republican senators also acknowledge their support for a comprehensive test ban in principle, even if the current CTBT causes them some concern. Others would no doubt support it, even as written, if it were being tabled by any president other than Clinton. Note also that no serious presidential candidate has called for a resumption of nuclear-weapons testing, even if some express concern for the CTBT as currently written.
Former senior officials in the Bush administration Brent Scowcroft and Arnold Kantor have offered a relatively straightforward way out of this quagmire that acknowledges both the importance of continued U.S. leadership in the field of nuclear nonproliferation and the validity of the more serious concerns about the CTBT. They call for a U.S. initiative to renegotiate the treaty for the sole purpose of limiting its initial term to a fixed five-year period, with the option of renewal for additional fixed periods.
This is the approach that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty originally followed, until all parties agreed on indefinite extension in 1995, after some 25 years of experiencing the NPT in action. The CTBT currently has no time limits, raising concerns about the ability over time to maintain stockpiles or react to other technological breakthroughs. The Scowcroft/Kantor suggestion deserves serious attention, although the prospects of either the administration or the Senate setting aside partisan politics as the 2000 presidential campaign heats up remain slim.
In the meantime, who will step forward to take the lead in promoting nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament now that America has abrogated this responsibility? Will the Russians seize the moral high road and push for their own ratification of the CTBT and START II? Not likely. Will Chinese actions match Beijing’s lofty words? Don’t hold your breath. While China has made it clear that it will not be the first to break the test moratorium, it also laments the fact that it is the least advanced — and thus the most disadvantaged by the CTBT — of the five major nuclear-weapons states and would be more likely to respond to renewed testing by the latest members of the nuclear club (India and Pakistan) or any other new entrant by resuming Chinese testing.
Enter Japan! The Japanese have long championed the cause of nonproliferation and are genuinely committed to the broader goal of nuclear disarmament. It’s time for Tokyo to step forward and put some teeth into this effort. Today, all states presumed capable of testing nuclear weapons, at least in the near term, proclaim a commitment to sustaining the moratorium. Japan can help them continue to see the wisdom of this decision through a few simple, concrete actions.
First, Japan can announce unilaterally that it will permanently cut off all overseas developmental assistance to, and will aggressively discourage direct financial investment in, any country that defies the global consensus against nuclear-weapons testing. This is an action Tokyo can take today, as a matter of principle. It should stress that this action is not aimed at any specific party, but merely reflects heartfelt Japanese public opinion and international priorities.
Second, Tokyo can challenge its fellow G8 members to emulate this move at their next meeting. This will effectively separate the talkers from those who are willing to match high-flown rhetoric with concrete actions aimed at permanently halting future nuclear-weapons tests. Japan has rightly been seeking a more prominent role in international security affairs. The U.S. failure to ratify the CTBT has presented Tokyo with an opportunity to seize the initiative and provide global leadership in an area where few can question its sincerity or commitment.
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