The Case for US Ratifying Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

  • AUTHORSamuel R. Berger, Sam Nunn and William J. Perry, POLITICO
  • Jun 2, 2009

Case for ratifying Nuclear Test Ban

By Sam Nunn, Samuel R. Berger and William J. Perry 06/02/09

On June 10, 1963, in a commencement address at American University, President John F. Kennedy announced the launch of high-level talks in Moscow with the aim of reaching early agreement on a treaty first proposed by President Eisenhower to ban all nuclear explosions for all time. Thirty-three years later, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to adopt the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the United States became the first nation to sign.

At the time, the treaty enjoyed the support of America's top military leadership, the scientific community, and numerous domestic civic groups. Yet, the Senate delayed consideration of the treaty for two years and then rushed it to a vote on a two-week timetable. To be sure, there were serious questions pertaining to the Treaty - in particular, around maintaining a safe, reliable deterrent and monitoring a global test ban. But the hasty schedule proved insufficient for a thorough CTBT debate, and on October 13, 1999, largely along party lines, ratification was rejected 51-48, well short of the 67 votes needed for approval.
Fast forward 10 years, and nuclear proliferation's perils have only become more apparent. Pakistan, a new nuclear state, is facing an existential threat that could put its arsenal at risk. Terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda are actively seeking weapons of mass destruction and would not hesitate to use them. North Korea and Iran are pursuing dangerous nuclear programs for themselves, underscored by the May 25 North Korean nuclear test. The world is on the precipice of a new and perilous nuclear era. Threat reduction demands urgent action.

Let's be clear: we are not saying that if we set a shining example by ratifying the CTBT that Iran and North Korea will suddenly see the light and immediately abandon their nuclear programs. That is not our point. We do believe, however, that if the U.S. can move forward on CTBT it would help build and sustain the international cooperation required to apply pressure on nations like North Korea and Iran still seeking the nuclear option, enhance America's standing to argue that all nations should abide by global nonproliferation norms and rally the world to take other essential steps in preventing nuclear dangers.

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Moreover, by outlawing testing, the CTBT would make it harder for aspiring nuclear weapons states to gain confidence that their weapon designs would work. In addition, it would limit the ability of current nuclear powers to develop new types of nuclear warheads. Finally, the Treaty also would bolster international monitoring of nuclear activities, clarifying the nature of suspicious (or benign) activities which might otherwise exacerbate regional tensions from South Asia to the Middle East.

That is why there have been bipartisan calls in the U.S. for adopting a process to finally bring the CTBT into effect. Last month, President Obama announced that his Administration would pursue U.S. ratification of the Treaty on a priority basis. A few days later, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he disagreed with the President's rush to ratify the Treaty. While both leaders spoke with great civility and respect, observers worry the stage is being set for another calamitous showdown - one that will set back not only America's national security but our leadership in a dangerous world. We have to build a bipartisan path forward on CTBT.

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