New Life for the CTBT

Guest Commentary

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), an agreement which would ban all nuclear tests, may soon be revived from its purgatory in the Senate. It was signed by President Clinton in 1996 and rejected by the Senate in October 1999. The arguments that once denied ratification by a 19-vote margin still ring true today. In his Prague speech, however, President Obama called for prompt U.S. ratification of the treaty. He is expected to do the same at the United Nations this month.

In rejecting the CTBT, Senate opponents listed several concerns that motivated their decision: They believed the CTBT was unverifiable and that others nations could easily cheat; the ability to enforce the treaty was dubious; the U.S. nuclear stockpile would not be as safe or reliable in the absence of testing; and the benefit to nuclear nonproliferation was minimal.

Ten years later, many of these concerns are still relevant. The issue of verification has been improved but not settled. The CTBT Organization has set up a network of 228 monitoring stations around the world, but significant gaps still exist. There are no stations in India or North Korea, and only one in Pakistan and Turkey. Sixty-one stations detected North Korea’s nuclear test in May 2009, but none detected radioactive gases to corroborate the seismic data. If North Korea was able to conceal such radiation, there is no reason to believe China or Russia could not as well.

As the continuing crises with North Korea and Iran illustrate, enforcing treaty obligations or punishing rule-breakers is not always effective. The process is often, in fact, completely ineffective due to a lack of international cooperation. If a nuclear test were detected in Pakistan, India, or China, what would happen next? If the record with Pyongyang or Tehran is any indicator, the violating state would take some rhetorical heat and little more than a toothless U.N. Security Council resolution (if that). The CTBT will not immediately change other states’ policies.

The last decade has not been kind to the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. Though the Stockpile Stewardship Program has successfully replaced older components, confidence in reliability has declined as the warheads age. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has stated that a credible U.S. deterrent cannot be maintained without testing or modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons. If modernization is not pursued, many experts believe testing will be needed to guarantee the weapons’ reliability.

Most significantly, the treaty’s perceived benefits toward enhancing nuclear nonproliferation are still debatable. Pro-CTBT voices have made several valid claims to consider. They argue that without the CTBT the nuclear arms race will continue, especially in Asia, with more states hedging their capabilities to be able to assemble a nuclear weapon quickly. Treaty advocates are quick to point out that the United States has already received a benefit for pursuing ratification—the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995. The NPT, which divides the world into five nuclear-weapon states (NWS) and the rest as non-NWS, is up for review in May 2010. The non-NWS are likely going to insist on CTBT ratification in exchange for nonproliferation cooperation.

These arguments still do not explain how the CTBT will be good for nonproliferation. For one, the existence of a nuclear arms race (outside India and Pakistan) is suspect, given the fact that the United States and Russia are reducing their nuclear stockpiles. Nuclear hedging is a problem to be tackled by IAEA monitoring, not by attempting to ban nuclear tests (the NPT already does this for non-NWS). Though the non-nuclears may insist on forcibly entering the CTBT, there is little reason to believe they will take tougher actions against Pyongyang and Tehran once the United States ratifies it. If unilaterally and bilaterally reducing nuclear arsenals and not testing for 17 years have done nothing to convince non-NWS of U.S. leadership, why will the CTBT?

The CTBT is simply not in the U.S. national interest. The United States would not be guaranteed a seat on the Executive Council, which geographically would be unfriendly to Washington. Since it requires North Korean, Pakistani, and Egyptian ratification (to name a few), the United States would be binding itself to a treaty unlikely to ever enter into force. Though there would be a growing ability to detect nuclear tests, there would be no effective way to enforce the treaty. The U.S. stockpile would continue to atrophy as explosive testing for reliability would be prohibited, which could spur proliferation. The CTBT needs to be rewritten to mitigate these drawbacks, not “immediately and aggressively” (President Obama’s words) brought before the U.S. Senate.

Sean Varner

Sean Varner

Sean Varner is a former student fellow with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College and a current graduate student at Missouri State University’s Department of Defense and Strategic Studies in Fairfax, VA.

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