Twenty years ago, the United States took a leading role in negotiations to ban the practice of conducting nuclear-weapon test explosions, which enables states to prove new and more deadly nuclear-warhead designs. The result was the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was opened for signature on September 24, 1996.
Since then, treaty has been signed by 183 states and has established a powerful taboo against nuclear testing. Only one country—North Korea—has conducted nuclear-weapon test explosions in this century.
But the door to the resumption of nuclear testing remains open because eight key states, including the United States, must still ratify the treaty in order to trigger its formal entry into force.
In the meantime, it is clearly in the interests of the United States to seek ways to reinforce the global norm against nuclear testing and make it more difficult for other states, including China, Iran and Russia, from conducting nuclear test explosions in the future.
That is why President Barack Obama is pursuing UN Security Council support for a resolution to reinforce the norm against nuclear testing. The proposed resolution, now under discussion with other council member states, would also support ongoing efforts to maintain the monitoring system established to detect and deter clandestine testing.
Unfortunately, some Republicans in the Senate, including Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) erroneously allege that the initiative would "cede the Senate’s constitutional role” on advice and consent of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). They are flat out wrong.
"The Obama administration is not—and I repeat not—proposing or supporting a UN Security Council Resolution that would impose any legally binding prohibition on nuclear explosive testing," Rose Gottemoeller, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told Politico on August 10.
In fact, the initiative being pursued by the administration would, as other UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions have already done several times before, exhort states to take the steps necessary to ratify the treaty so that it can enter into force.
Unless, Sen. Corker wants to make it easier for other states to conduct nuclear test explosions, he and other Senators should support efforts to reinforce the existing, but fragile, legal norm against testing that already exists.
Corker and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) also make the hyperbolic charge that Obama’s test moratorium initiative would “impose” a ban on nuclear testing that will give “both our enemies and our allies reason to question the credibility of our nuclear deterrent.” Wrong again.
The United States’ ability to ensure the reliability of its nuclear stockpile is in no way limited by the treaty’s prohibition on nuclear test explosions or our ongoing, twenty-four-year long voluntary test moratorium. The three U.S. nuclear weapons lab directors report that they are in a better position to maintain the arsenal today than they were during the era of nuclear weapons test explosions. No ally or foe questions the lethal power of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
While the United States no longer needs or wants nuclear weapons testing, other states could use nuclear testing to create more sophisticated arsenals.
To close the door on nuclear test explosions, U.S. ratification of the CTBT is essential. In 1999, the Senate rejected the treaty after a brief and highly partisan debate, and questions about the still unproven stockpile stewardship program and the unfinished global test ban monitoring system.
A decade and a half later, those programs are fully functioning and have been proven effective. As former Secretary of State George Shultz has said, “Republican senators might have been right voting against [the CTBT] some years ago, but they would be right voting for it now.”
Bringing the CTBT back to the Senate for another vote requires a lengthy, intensive educational and outreach campaign by the executive branch to present the new information, answer detailed questions, and dispel old myths and misconceptions. Unfortunately, the Senate has shown it is not yet prepared for a serious discussion of the CTBT.
When the United States does eventually ratify the treaty, it will put pressure on other hold out states to ratify, including China, India, Israel, Iran, and Pakistan. Until then, it is prudent to reduce the risk that other nations might some day resume testing to improve their nuclear capabilities in ways that threaten U.S. and global security.
Daryl G. Kimball is the executive director of the independent, nonpartisan Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C.
Image: “Ivy Mike (yield 10.4 mt) - an atmospheric nuclear test conducted by the U.S. at Enewetak Atoll on 1 November 1952. It was the world's first successful hydrogen bomb.” Photo via Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization.