Although all eyes are currently on the second Nuclear Security Summit happening today and tomorrow in Seoul, South Korea, a significant development on nuclear issues will also happen this Friday, when the U.S. National Academy of Sciences releases it long-awaited report on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The report, while technical, will have far-reaching political implications for nuclear arms control.
The report’s conclusions will be based upon the “Review and Update of Technical Issues Related to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty”, a project conducted by a high-level committee of scientific, military and policy experts tasked with taking into account the relevant technical changes that have occurred since the last report of its kind was released in 2002. Members assigned to the project were to consider whether the United States can maintain the safety and reliability of its nuclear stockpile under the continued conditions of a ban on nuclear explosive testing. They were also to assess, among other things, national and international nuclear explosion detection capabilities; consider other countries’ technological advances related to testing, including the ability to conceal nuclear weapons tests; and assess an international verification regime to ensure global compliance with the CTBT - ultimately so that no country would try to conduct nuclear explosive testing in order to advance a nuclear arsenal.
Senators in particular will be interested in the report’s conclusions as they may eventually be asked to vote on whether to ratify the treaty, a feat which requires two-thirds of the Senate and a hurdle that was not cleared the first time the CTBT was up for consideration in 1999. Back then, failure to win Senate approval was blamed on a combination of partisan posturing, and also on a short time frame that allowed for little preparation and education before the vote took place. Taking a lesson from the past, the Obama Administration has begun the process of sharing information and exchanging views about CTBT issues with current legislators.
The United States has maintained a moratorium on nuclear explosive testing since 1992. If the technical case is strengthened for maintaining the ban, and expectations are that it will, then policymakers will be left with deciding what other factors are important in making the decision to support the CTBT. There will be those who do not want the United States to approve any arms control treaty for fear that it will tie U.S. hands in an unpredictable future populated with countries unworthy of trust, no matter how strong the verification regime. Others may think that at the very least, the United States should hold out until other countries ratify the treaty first. The United States is currently keeping company with Egypt, Iran, Israel, India, Pakistan, China, and North Korea as the remaining countries required to ratify the treaty before it can enter into force. By comparison to the members of this group, the United States holds a far superior security position. From their perspectives, it may be hard to see why they should ratify the treaty if the United States is unwilling to do so.
From a U.S. perspective, ratifying the treaty would make those remaining holdouts further stand apart from the 157 countries that have already taken the step of ratification. If the United States signals that it will not ratify the treaty, U.S. international representatives will find it hard to explain to leaders from the vast majority of the rest of the world what should become of the treaty and, for example, the associated International Monitoring System (IMS) created to detect tests. The IMS needs financial support, which is unlikely to be sustained if the political commitment to the treaty languishes. On the other hand, U.S. ratification might rejuvenate the regime and spur other relevant countries to help convince the remaining holdouts that it is also in their interests to have a CTBT in force. In the spirit of the nuclear security summit, a ratification of the CTBT could be the most significant practical gift the United States could give to the international project to reduce global nuclear dangers.
These are the personal views of the author.