The new administration in Washington has taken office firmly committed to the concept of a national missile defense system, arguing that future U.S. security needs take precedence over arms-control agreements rooted in Cold War history. Its views on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an agreement signed in the late 1990s with the goal of confining nuclear testing to history, are less clear-cut. If friends and allies concede on NMD in principle, they might well be able to shape the final form of NMD and persuade Washington to accept the CTBT in return.

The CTBT was opposed by India when negotiated and dealt a near-fatal blow when it was rejected in a 51-48 vote by the U.S. Senate in October 1999. Yet the treaty is in the interests of both these nations, as well as the entire family of nations. It would make the world safer while enhancing Indian and U.S. security, but only if rescued from the caldron of domestic politics in both countries.

The CTBT has given us a unique opportunity to end nuclear testing definitively. Its commitments and compromises reflect the best attainable balance of different national interests. Signed by 160 countries and ratified by around 70, it would stop testing, end the arms race, prevent proliferation and mark a milestone on the road to disarmament.

As critical as the Senate rejection are its knock-on effects. Foolishly, for it left the treaty hostage to the last holdout, the drafters of the CTBT made its entry into force conditional upon ratification by every one of the 44 countries with nuclear programs. India vigorously opposed the treaty at the time. The U.S. rejection makes it far more difficult for others, such as Canada and Japan, to persuade and coax India into joining the CTBT and making it operational. Without the CTBT, pressures will mount in India to resume nuclear testing and build a more substantial nuclear-weapons capability.

The CTBT added another vital element to the nonproliferation structure with a ban on nuclear testing that is comprehensive, universal and verifiable. Only three countries voted against the CTBT when it was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1996: Bhutan, India and Libya.

Some Indians argue that the CTBT is discriminatory. In fact, every CTBT clause applies equally to all countries: It is a textbook example of a universal, nondiscriminatory treaty.

For the moment, Washington’s rejection of the treaty ensures that the blame for the CTBT’s failure to come into effect falls mainly on the United States. But this may not continue. The new administration is unlikely to be less concerned about nuclear proliferation than was the Clinton administration, and India’s approach will continue to be viewed unsympathetically in Washington.

New Delhi needs to worry now (rather than react later) about its position on the CTBT and related international proliferation questions if Washington’s position were to shift. A prudent policy might be to sign the CTBT now, but perhaps delay ratification (which is easier for the government to manage in India’s parliamentary system anyway) until after the U.S. has ratified.

Meantime, an important development has taken place that might start turning the tide toward U.S. ratification.

In March 2000, President Bill Clinton appointed the widely respected former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, to conduct a review of the treaty. His conclusion, released on Jan. 5, was that U.S. ratification of the CTBT is essential to convince others to adhere to it and to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. On the basis of extensive bipartisan consultations with Congress, he urged the incoming Bush administration to reconsider the treaty.

The CTBT’s rejection by the U.S. Senate was not the result of an in-depth review of its merits vis-a-vis U.S. national interest. Rather, a bold legislative ambush by Republicans compounded by sloppy legislative management in the Clinton administration left the White House unprepared, with insufficient time for the intensive lobbying generally preceding major treaty-ratification votes. The Senate may prove, over time, more open-minded on the merits of the treaty, in particular when viewed in conjunction with other elements of the new administration’s foreign and defense policy initiatives.

The CTBT would help cement and lock in current U.S. superiority in a world free of peer competitors, whether nuclear or nonnuclear. The level at which cheating is undetectable and the CTBT unenforceable is so low as to be of no use to current nuclear rivals developing weapons of military decisiveness. Without the treaty, however, potential challengers to U.S. pre-eminence could develop tactical nuclear weapons that could balance massive American superiority in conventional weapons. For example, China could develop, test and field new generations of mobile and multiple-warhead missiles.

Senior figures in the Bush administration are divided on the issue. Secretary of State Colin Powell has supported the treaty in the past, while Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is against it on the grounds that it will impede U.S. capacity to develop new generations of nuclear weapons as the existing stockpile falls into obsolescence. Shalikashvili addressed the concerns of treaty critics in his report, calling for increased verification measures, enhanced efforts to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal and a review of the treaty every 10 years.

There can be little doubt that the Bush administration does not incline naturally toward multilateral diplomacy and a treaty-based international security system. Nevertheless, it will not wish to alienate close allies on more than one or two issues at a time and may soon find itself engaged in give-and-take with them.

Its top priority appears to be the further development and eventual deployment of a national missile defense system, a U.S. idea that has long unsettled not only Russia and China, but also key European allies and Canada. It could well decide, among other measures, that ratification of the CTBT had become useful to reassure allies and foes alike.

Regardless of their views on NMD, U.S. allies and foes now need to consider their own strategies. Indefinitely stamping their feet on an issue that may be nonnegotiable in essence but negotiable in specifics and at the margins, would be self-defeating. NMD is not something the allies, Moscow or Beijing can stop. However, they could well influence the context within which NMD will be developed, its ultimate scope and its detailed aims. Their eventual consent can also be exchanged against concessions from Washington on related or different issues.

It is time for some creativity in a number of key capitals around the world, starting with New Delhi and Washington.

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