Rethinking the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

It has been nearly 15 years since the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed and ratified by over 2/3 of the United Nations General Assembly. There continue to be several holdouts, but the only state with nuclear potential west of Egypt that has not ratified the treaty is the United States. The last time the CTBT was brought to to a vote in the United States Senate was 1999. As new technology makes it increasingly obvious that the treaty would be beneficial to U.S. national security, the time has come for U.S. policymakers to rethink American participation in the CTBT.

There is one particularly powerful national security argument for ratifying the CTBT. The marginal benefit that the U.S. could gain from further nuclear testing is significantly less than the benefit that  potential military rivals such as China and Iran could accrue. The U.S. conducted over 1000 nuclear tests between its first in 1945 and its last in 1992, and the only reason to ever do so again is to ensure that the weapons are still working properly. However, technological advancements since the Senate rejection of the CTBT in 1999 have rendered nuclear testing obsolete as a means for ensuring the effectiveness of a nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, other states could steadily approach the U.S.’s level of nuclear capabilities through further testing. Since nuclear capability is close to a zero-sum game, a slight decrease in U.S. capabilities–which most likely would not even occur–is easily worth a significant decrease in the potential capabilities of others.

While a U.S. ratification of the CTBT would not guarantee that all the remaining holdout states would subsequently agree to and abide by the treaty, many national security analysts have suggested that such a move would significantly increase the likelihood that states like China, India and Pakistan would participate.  As the world’s greatest nuclear power, the United States has the ability to cement a new global norm that nuclear testing is no longer an acceptable strategy. Furthermore, technology for detecting nuclear tests has also improved in the last decade, making it increasingly unlikely that a rogue state could get away with “cheating” on the CTBT, even with low-yield underground tests.

There are severe environmental and health consequences to nuclear testing, which are powerful arguments in favor of the CTBT. Given that ratification would require 2/3 of the Senate to vote in favor, however, a more realist national security argument like the one presented here might be more effective in forming a bipartisan coalition. Bipartisan support for the CTBT among national security experts has already been growing in recent years, and a strong push to get the CTBT ratified now would likely encourage even more experts to publicly support the treaty.

The Obama administration is currently preoccupied with evolving developments in the Middle East, and the CTBT does not seem to be high on its list of foreign policy priorities. There could be political advantages for President Obama if he were to pursue ratification soon, however. The CTBT is an issue that has a great potential for bipartisanship, which is valuable in today’s highly polarized political climate. The clear national security benefits to signing the CTBT would make it hard for Republicans to oppose, particularly if Obama packages it with enhanced alternate measures of maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal. A victory on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty would be a significant foreign policy accomplishment for President Obama, not to mention a notable addition to his first term resume heading into the 2012 election.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

  1. therealpatch June 7, 2011 / 10:51 PM

    Alan, you point ignores several realities. The immediate threat of continued nuclear proliferation and the possibility of WMD terrorism represent the gravest threats to U.S. national security. This point surely has stronger bipartisan consensus than a UN treaty that laws of the sea Also, there is little reason to believe that the serious substantive changes that have occurred in the past ten years will not have a substantial impact on the Senate ratification process. Advancements in the SSMP and IMS system have made the republican opposition arguments nearly obsolete. It will be increasingly difficult for republicans to deny a treaty that is clearly in the national security interests. Wait, don’t nearly 80% of the american public also support CTBT ratification? I think so! One last thing. During the 1999 debate, Clinton could have gotten consideration of CTBT if he had give into Senator Helems Kyoto and ABM Treaty condition. Senator’s can multi-task and there is room on the agenda.

    Devin McCarthy, join my nuclear weapons blog. I just started it and it’s focus is on nuclear weapons related topics. I’m looking to get people involved that research and debate these issues. The more and wide range of views the better.

  2. Alan Berlind May 25, 2011 / 4:51 PM

    Devin McCarthy, using straight-forward logic, has identified all the reasons why ratification of the CTBT would serve U.S. security interests. But, no matter how persuasive the substantive arguments, attempts to move this treaty to a vote will surely give rise to shrill jingoistic charges of selling off American interests for political gain. The other “national security” treaty awaiting senate action, the UN Convention on Law of the Sea, will meet the same species of non-substantive opposition, notwithstanding the unanimity of strong support from past and present senior civilian and military leaders. These two important treaties cannot both be fought through the ratification process at the same time. Given the immediacy of challenges facing the U.S. at sea, particularly in the Arctic, UNCLOS should be given priority.

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