When the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was adopted and opened for government signatures at the United Nations in 1996, the United States was among the first of more than 180 countries to sign the agreement to end nuclear test explosions and prevent nations with nuclear weapons ambitions from pursuing those goals. The US unilaterally declared an end to nuclear weapons testing in 1992, but by 1996 a parochial Senate, motivated by uninformed myths about UN powers and the dangers of international regulation, refused the necessary ratification to bring the binding treaty into force in the US.
In 1999, when the Clinton administration (halfheartedly, some negotiators say) sent the treaty to the Senate, which is constitutionally responsible for approving such international accords by a two-thirds vote, it was formally rejected. A decade later, at the beginning of his presidency, Barack Obama announced that he would revive the effort for ratification of the CTBT, as it is generally known, as part of his global disarmament policy. Now, with only two years of the Obama administration left and little chance of winning the support of a Senate even more hostile to international commitments, ratification looks unlikely.
The example set by Washington is important internationally, defenders of the treaty have long argued. China and Israel are also among the nations that have signed but not ratified the treaty. India, Pakistan and North Korea have neither signed nor ratified. To come into force globally, 44 countries considered “nuclear capable” must have ratified the treaty. So far, only 36 have ratified it, among them Britain, France and Russia.
Rose Gottemoeller, the US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and a globally recognized expert on weapons agreements, is taking the cause of the test ban treaty directly to the American people. In recent speeches in Utah in October, far from Washington, she acknowledged that with all that was going on in the world now, “It is not surprising that most people are not focused on nuclear weapons or nuclear deterrence.”
She told her audiences that they and their representatives in Washington might focus more on the importance of banning nuclear testing. “The threat from these weapons is real and, in fact, it may have increased due to the threat from nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists,” she told an audience at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. The spread of nuclear weapons, now enhanced by rebel armies in the field worldwide, is not a new American concern, so a little bipartisan history was in order.
Gottemoeller started with a warning from Ronald Reagan, president of the only country to use such a weapon, that a nuclear war should never be fought. “President Reagan’s belief became the basis for pursuing serious nuclear arms reductions on a bilateral basis between the United States and the Soviet Union and later with Russia,” she said. “But how do President Reagan’s policies apply in today’s world, since the longstanding principle of nuclear deterrence — the idea that a country would not initiate a nuclear war for fear of nuclear retaliation — does not apply to terrorists.
“This idea — the idea that we cannot assume that we can forever hold accidents, madness and miscalculation at bay — was certainly a factor that drove Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, Bill Perry and George Shultz to endorse the goal of seeking a world free of nuclear weapons,” Gottemoeller said. “They saw that the world had changed. They saw that terrorists would not be deterred by a concept like mutually assured destruction. These four giants of the U.S. national security establishment warned that the very weapons that had provided stability during the Cold War could become liabilities in our current environment.”
Turning to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and its relevance to Americans, she noted that more than 2,000 nuclear explosive tests have occurred around the world in the last 69 years, 928 of those explosions taking place in Nevada, among them 100 above-ground tests, which scattered radioactive material around the region, leaving dangerous “hot spots” of contamination.
Opponents of the test ban treaty in Washington and around the country have said that banning all nuclear testing would restrict the ability of the US to maintain a safe and effective nuclear stockpile. “Today, the situation is much different,” she said. It is a message Americans do not hear directly from the White House often enough to stick in the public mind.
“Today, the Department of Energy’s Stockpile Stewardship Program — a suite of experimental, diagnostic and supercomputing capabilities — allow us to model and simulate nuclear devices without nuclear explosive testing,” Gottemoeller said. “With this program in place, the directors of the Department’s National Security Laboratories affirm the safety, security and effectiveness of the current stockpile to the president every year. In fact, they believe we actually understand more about how nuclear weapons work now than during the period of nuclear explosive testing.”
New scientific advances in the US, she added, will also make it easier and more effective to monitor nuclear testing — or accidents — anywhere in the world. “Plain and simple, the CTBT is good for U.S. and international security,” she said. “Because of this, an in-force CTBT will also constrain regional arms races. These constraints will be particularly important in Asia, where states are building up and modernizing nuclear forces.”
Gottemoeller admitted that there was a lot of work to be done before the treaty can finally gain acceptance. “Despite the clear merits of the treaty, it has been a long time since the CTBT was on the front pages of U.S. newspapers, so we need time to educate the public and Congress to build support for U.S. ratification,” she said. “All told, it is in our interest to close the door on nuclear explosive testing forever.”
Time is not on her side.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.