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"Forget the Rest" blog

Obama and CTBT Ratification: Dangerous Distraction

5/5/09 Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group

Published in the News in Review, (pdf) Reaching Critical Will newsletter

Today, [U.S. Vice President and CTBT ratification point person Joe] Biden again will be in a pivotal position to win approval of a controversial treaty. This time, to secure enough votes for passage of the CTBT,  he will need to sit down and work out an arrangement with [senators] Kyl and Sessions, House Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and other key Republicans such as McCain and Lugar. What compromises and agreements will be necessary are anybody's guess. But the key will likely not be facts or persuasive arguments, but rather a painstakingly and carefully negotiated deal.

-- John Isaacs, “A strategy for achieving Senate approval of the CTBT,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 15, 2009

President Obama has placed Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) near the top of his arms control and nonproliferation agenda.  As John Isaacs points out above, near-term U.S. ratification will: a) be quite difficult; b) not hinge on “facts or persuasive arguments;” and c) require a “carefully negotiated deal.”  This deal will be political, as it was in 1996, beneath a technical façade.  The names of the very conservative senators Isaacs invokes indicate the gravity and potential scope of any such deal.  The dangers involved in such a process can hardly be overstated.

The CTBT we have today is the fruit of decades of work by thousands of people.  It is also a much more significant treaty now than it was when first opened for signature thirteen years ago.  Currently 180 states have signed the treaty and 148 have ratified it.  The organization created by the treaty – the CTBTO – appears strong, and the worldwide monitoring network is better than ever.  The treaty’s norm against nuclear testing is robust, perhaps exactly as strong as its signatories want it to be in any given situation.  Certainly that norm has been accepted to a very high degree by most nuclear weapon states.

For example, while it is still common for hawks in the U.S. to mutter about having to conduct a nuclear test under this or that hypothetical circumstance, nuclear testing by the U.S. is now inconceivable.  The cutting edge of arms control and disarmament has moved on to other issues.  There is an unspoken but broad consensus among U.S. elites that there are no circumstances whatsoever in which the U.S. would find it in its national interest to ever conduct a nuclear test.  If there ever were such a circumstance, it would certainly command support for withdrawal from the CTBT under its withdrawal clause.

CTBT ratification would not change U.S. testing behavior, then, and at this point no one seriously conceives of the treaty in those terms.  All talk of “returning to nuclear testing” is a ritualized form of speech aimed at extracting some kind of budgetary or policy concession.  If the Administration pursues ratification it will do so because it believes ratification would help curb proliferation – that is, help change other states’ actions.

What deals might be required to get U.S. ratification in the next three years, and how might any such deals affect broader disarmament and nonproliferation aims?  The price of ratification can be expressed in precise political terms: what it will take to convince the 67 th senator to vote for it.  While we can be fairly confident there are 60 votes for ratification, it’s a very long way to 67.  The political topography gets very steep.  The votes just aren’t there.

Since a (second) Senate vote against ratification would be a serious setback for the Administration, the Treaty, and nonproliferation efforts generally, and since Republican Party discipline will make it difficult to be sure of the vote count ahead of time, it may be wise to have some expected extra votes in addition to the bare 67, prior to fully committing to a final vote.  This obviously raises the barrier even higher.

The high price of closing today’s 7-vote gap could set limits on U.S. disarmament diplomacy for years to come, and could also forestall the gradual budgetary disinvestment in nuclear weapons that quietly began in 2006.  To buy the votes needed, the CTBT will have to become, as far as the U.S. is concerned, a nuclear sustainment treaty.

Any ratification deal would be aimed, in part, precisely at negating the treaty’s disarmament impact.  At a minimum, any such deal would attempt to inoculate the nuclear weapons establishments of the Department of Defense and Department of Energy against institutional decline, as much as possible.

Elements of any deal might include floors under nuclear weapons budgets, commitments to develop new missiles, submarines, and reentry vehicles, promises to re-open the prospect of new warheads (as a Council on Foreign Relations panel recommended last week), commitments to new warhead factories (the fate of which is currently hanging in the balance), commitments to creating nuclear weapons educational and training programs and scholarships to ensure the availability of skilled workers, and so on.

There is a general sense among U.S. hawks that the nuclear weapons establishment is under siege, perhaps not so much by specific people or policies as by history itself.  Capabilities are indeed being lost.  Budgets are drifting down; people are retiring; knowledge and above all ideological commitment to nuclear weapons are being lost.  Meanwhile the cost of doing business is rising.

At the same time there is a slow but much-needed sea-change in government priorities going on, a gradual redefinition of national security.  This process is going to intensify year by year as an interrelated set of all-pervading, profound crises related to finance and economic growth, social inequity, food, energy, and climate increasingly grip the attention of governments.  Nuclear weapons are expensive, irrelevant distractions, among their many other liabilities.

In this shifting and uncertain scene, the CTBT ratification process will be viewed by many actors – defense ideologues, nuclear contractors, and pork-barrel politicians – as a means to protect the U.S. nuclear establishment against the vicissitudes of time.  There will be many nuclear hawks who relish the ratification process for the opportunity it presents to get favorable legislative outcomes they could not be obtain any other way.

A CTBT tied to additional, extensive “safeguards” like the examples listed above might well tarnish the treaty in the eyes of many parties, even more than the current surrogate testing capabilities available to the U.S. and other advanced nuclear weapons states.

For all these reasons it is worthwhile for members of the international community to begin an open dialogue with the State Department and others about the ratification process, lest a handful of conservative U.S. senators dictate the CTBT’s future – and much other nuclear policy – here.

CTBT ratification has become a shibboleth in arms control circles.  The U.S. will ratify this treaty if and when it has no meaning.  For now, it is a dangerous distraction.  When the fruit is ripe, it will fall.  That time is not yet.


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