Donald Trump: Get Congress to Pass (and Ratify) the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

Nuclear artillery being fired during a test

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is back in the limelight as President Trump gears up to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It's time for Trump to get it passed and signed.

There seems to be little that Americans can agree on. Poll after poll shows bleak prospects for achieving unity in the United States. The vast majority of Democrats and Republicans even report having few friends with differing political views. But there are still some bright spots in this age of polarization. New survey data, which I collected with Jonathon Baron, indicates that Americans of all persuasions strongly support Senate approval of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). As Washington and its allies stare down an aggressive North Korea, the treaty offers a rare opportunity for a cross-cutting political win for President Trump. By ratifying the test ban, Trump could succeed where his predecessors—most recently, President Obama—all failed.

At first glance, the CTBT may seem like “old news” on Capitol Hill. It has been almost twenty years since 1999, when the Senate voted against test ban ratification by a count of 51–48. Since then, the situation has changed in America’s favor. A 337-facility International Monitoring System is nearly 90 percent complete and successfully detected all six of Pyongyang’s provocative nuclear tests. The United States has also made massive investments in its national verification capabilities and Stockpile Stewardship Program to maintain its arsenal. The latter includes supercomputing simulations and laser physics experiments at the National Ignition Facility, popularly seen in “Star Trek: Into Darkness.”

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These investments have paid off. Every year since 1997, the heads of the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories have certified to the sitting president that preserving America’s nuclear deterrent doesn’t require explosive testing. A nonpartisan group of the nation’s top scientific experts also concluded that no country could carry out militarily significant cheating under the CTBT without getting caught. Absent testing, U.S. rivals will face limitations on their ability to develop new types of nuclear weapons. So long as there are nuclear-armed states around the globe, the ban effectively helps the United States to lock in its strategic superiority.

The Trump administration’s new Nuclear Posture Review continues down this path. It reaffirms U.S. support for the International Monitoring System and Vienna-based CTBT Organization Preparatory Commission. Further, it indicates that the U.S. moratorium on nuclear testing since 1992 will continue and encourages all states not to conduct tests. But the Nuclear Posture Review also states that the administration will not pursue test-ban ratification—with little explanation.

Despite this, the CTBT is back in the limelight as President Trump gears up to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. North Korea is, of course, the only country to have tested nuclear weapons since 1998. Many arms control advocates are thus encouraging treaty ratification as a confidence-building measure between the two sides. Ratification would formalize the U.S. testing moratorium and strengthen the administration’s credibility when dealing with Pyongyang. It would also apply pressure to other key test ban holdouts: China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel and Pakistan.