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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 40, September - October 1999


International Implications of the US Senate Vote
by Patricia M. Lewis


The US Senate vote against ratification of the CTBT, although a deep disappointment and worrying development, would have come as no big surprise to observers of multilateral arms control. Ever since the negotiation of the CTBT, arms control treaties have been an easy and consistent target for the right-wing of the US polity. The 1998 debate over US ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the consequent reservations heralded a period of ascendancy of anti-arms controllers in the US Senate and was a clear precursor of the CTBT struggle. As one wry observer noted at the time, "the Republicans have tasted blood in the CWC debate: next time [the CTBT] they will hunger for flesh".

Despite, or perhaps because of, worsening relations between the President and Congress, the Clinton Administration has been extraordinarily concerned over recent months about trying to carry the hard-line Republicans along with its arms control policies and approaches. So much so that in Geneva talks about possible talks about talks on nuclear disarmament and the re-establishment of an ad-hoc committee on preventing an arms race in outer space (PAROS) have proved elusive dreams. The three-year deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) owes as much to shifting goal posts in the US as it does to shifting sands in the Rajasthan desert.

Similar trends can be seen, too, in the Ad-Hoc Working Group of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). Long gone are the days of US enthusiasm for a strong approach to verification and confidence-building. The concern in the BTWC negotiations seems to be whether it would be better to weaken the verification Protocol - thus keeping the US in - or would it be wiser to negotiate a stronger Protocol which would leave the US out, whilst still keeping the door open for them to join at a later date when this hostility to arms control has passed. For those who were involved in the Ottawa process, this debate will feel all too familiar.

The unilateral decisions being taken by the US on the development and eventual deployment of national and regional ballistic missile defence systems are also symptoms of a deepening malaise within the thinking on arms control and disarmament in the US. There are a number of serious analysts in the US who believed that the price for CTBT ratification was a combination of a well-funded Stockpile Stewardship Programme and the acquiescence of the Clinton Administration to ballistic missile defence (BMD) development. It would seem that they were duped. In the knowledge that they could, senators were encouraged to trample all over tacit agreements and hammer another nail into the coffin of arms control.

A New Turning Point?

The coffin lid, however, is not yet shut. It could be that the US Senate's failure to ratify the CTBT marks a turning point in international efforts in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. In the days following the vote, both China and Russia said that they intend to put the Treaty up for ratification and that they expect successful ratification.

At a recent meeting with French President Jacques Chirac, Chinese President Jiang Zemin said: "Our aim is to get the ratification of the treaty".1 A few days earlier on October 21 Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said that, "The [Senate] decision caused deep disappointment in Moscow", adding that, "We will ask the Duma, under the name of the President, to ratify this important agreement".2

However, whether China and Russia will follow through with these pledges is yet to be seen. There is evidence of considerable and growing anxiety in the Russian Duma about ratification of the CTBT. Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy Officials have pursued a programme of hydrodynamic experiments, including sub-critical tests at Novaya Zemlya, designed to review the functioning of a limited number of nuclear warheads. However, according to Rady Ilkaev, Director of the Federal Nuclear Center, the results have not been satisfactory: "We have always believed that nuclear tests alone can guarantee the safety and reliability of our nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, we agreed with politicians, who insisted that we had to try to solve this problem without nuclear tests. We dare say that we will manage to tackle it. But if we fail, we will have to resume nuclear tests".3

In addition, many other countries, including those of the European Union, have expressed dismay and concern about the Senate vote and have asked them to reconsider.

US Non-Proliferation Policy On The Line

One of the biggest problems that now faces the international community is the credibility of US nuclear non-proliferation policy. Following the vote, US Secretary of State for Energy Bill Richardson again called on India to adhere to the CTBT and show nuclear restraint in the run up to President Clinton's forthcoming visit. Although Bill Richardson referred to the Republican senators as "short-sighted", there are some players in India who will interpret his calls as arrogant and discriminatory, and question the grounds on which Secretary Richardson feels he can now make such requests. How can the US demand that India and Pakistan ratify the Treaty when the US administration cannot deliver the same? Indeed, there are those who will try to use the opportunity to push for more nuclear tests in India, using the military coup in Pakistan as further justification for resumed weapons testing. At the very best, the US non-proliferation approach will be severely weakened, at worst it will be considered hollow and ignored.

Constructive Engagement

The international community could respond to the vote and these other trends in a number of ways. The most constructive approach would be for the states strongly dedicated to nuclear disarmament - the vast majority - to take stock of the situation and act urgently and forcefully. The Tokyo Forum Report issued in July 1999 drew attention to the nuclear dangers now facing the world. In blunt language the report stated that "the fabric of international security is showing signs of unravelling", that "not all countries share the view that the usefulness of nuclear weapons is declining" and that "unless concerted action is taken, and taken soon, to reverse these dangerous trends, non-proliferation and disarmament treaties could become hollow instruments". The Tokyo Forum called on all parties to the NPT to reaffirm the core bargain of that Treaty, to eliminate nuclear weapons and to bring the CTBT into force. Since the US Senate vote, the realistic approach contained within the Tokyo Forum report has assumed a stronger salience and deserves careful attention.

Another possible outcome is that the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) approach could receive more support as a result of the crisis in the CTBT. Whilst it is unlikely that the First Committee of the General Assembly will see any major changes in voting patterns, a deeper rumbling of concern among NATO allies can be detected. In addition, the misgivings of some within the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) over the nuclear weapon states' (NWS) true commitment to nuclear disarmament have been further vindicated and their analysis of the trends in nuclear disarmament might find more support.

However, a sense of malaise could prevail in which there would be deepening feelings of betrayal by supporters of the 1995 NPT indefinite extension decision. Governmental and non-governmental advocates of nuclear disarmament could give up and feel powerless in the face of entrenched opposition within the world's strongest military power. The trends are not good. Not only are the CTBT and the NPT in trouble, but bilateral nuclear disarmament is still floundering and the ABM Treaty is about to be shaken to its core.

Missile Defence Systems

Perhaps the heart of the problem is to be found within the debate on BMD. Whether designed against a few missiles from a small despotic, desperate state or against an accidental launch by a large, chaotic state, it could be argued that, in deciding to go ahead with the development of a national missile defence (NMD) system, the United States has given up on arms control. No longer feeling it possible to prevent the spread of missile technology, or to prevent the technical capability to design deliverable nuclear warheads, the United States seems to have decided that the only way to protect itself is through military might. This analysis could explain the US posture with the BTWC Protocol negotiations, the reservations placed on the CWC ratification decision, and the difficulties faced by the US within the CD and the CTBT ratification vote. It could also explain the thinking in Japan over the regional missile threat. Japan, too, may feel that without strong US support arms control processes will not succeed and, rather than build its own counter missile force - which certainly would be destabilizing - the country might be better served by a regional BMD system.

The deep flaw contained within this thinking seems obvious from the outside. Whilst increased military might for national defence can temporarily offer a sense of security, to others it can appear as a threat. This threat perception in turn will lead to increased military capabilities in other countries and can further destabilize turbulent regions.

However, if this is the US position, a pragmatic and creative approach towards arms control and disarmament is unlikely to flourish there in the foreseeable future. It may be that the international community will just have to wait for a major shift in domestic politics before the United States will be in any position to take further steps towards multilateral nuclear disarmament. It may be possible that the bilateral process between the US and Russia could lead to further missile and warhead reductions - for example going down to 1,000 strategic warheads on each side - as well as codifying and verifying the unilateral tactical nuclear weapons withdrawals.

On the other hand, the Russian Duma may well refuse to play the bilateral reductions game if the US deploys a NMD system. Indeed, recent reports suggest that not only could further reductions be unlikely, but that Russia - finances willing - is considering redeploying tactical nuclear weapons at its borders and would like to deploy more MIRVed (Multiple Re-Entry Vehicles) nuclear weapons to increase its chances of overcoming US national defences. Similarly, China has recently been reported as developing a second strike capability in order to counter US missile defences, and its regional concerns over theatre missile defences (TMD) have been stated unequivocally in recent months.

However, it is possible that Russia and China could take the moral high ground and ratify the test ban. Such courage would make it more difficult for the hard-liners in the US Senate to vote down the Treaty at its next hearing and it would pave the way for a much more constructive and interesting international dialogue.

Arms Control in 2000

It is, however, very difficult to predict what could happen in the CD and in the NPT Review Conference next year. On the one hand, there could be renewed efforts by both the US and its allies to counter the effects of the Senate vote. Although it did not put enough long-term effort into increasing the chances of Senate ratification, the Clinton Administration is committed to the CTBT. It is also committed to negotiating a fissile material cut-off. Uncertainties abound, however, as to whether the US will still attempt to reflect Republican Party opposition to arms control in its international stances, and whether other countries will have enough faith in the ability of the US to bring its policy machinery along.

The question that might be asked is: is there any point in beginning negotiations on fissile material controls when the US cannot even deliver on the 1996 CTBT? The answer to this question has to be "yes". Years of useful work could still be carried out within the CD so that the negotiations would be in a position to capitalize on changed circumstances if and when there is a policy shift in the US. In addition, it is important not to allow a handful of senators and a minority opinion in the US to become the determining factor in disarmament negotiations.

Similarly for the NPT Review Conference: the review of the past five years will not yield high marks for progress. The one big beacon of light - the CTBT - is now dimmed and other important progressive steps such as the Additional Protocol for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and the trilateral initiative for safeguarding nuclear material taken from surplus military stocks do not inspire the international community in quite the same way. It is likely that there will be strong recriminations expressed at the NPT Review Conference. Not just because of the CTBT. And not just because of the nuclear tests carried out by India and Pakistan in 1998. But also because the window of opportunity that was opened at the end of the Cold War is now firmly shut.

Very little use was made of that open window. Prising it open again will take some time, it may not even be possible, and other openings will have to be tried. Certainly the eventual deployment of BMD systems will have major repercussions for global and regional security. It is an issue that needs multilateral debate and that debate needs to consider all of the possible ramifications of deployment. If the US decides to sacrifice the ABM Treaty then the significance of the 1999 CTBT ratification vote in the Senate will pale in comparison, and Herculean efforts would have to be made to simply prevent the Treaty and security architecture built up in the last few decades from completely crumbling.

Not all is lost. It is possible that the Senate vote will stir the embers of the international peace movement. Strong protest from civil society is sorely needed if there is to be nuclear disarmament. With the notable exceptions of civil society in Japan, India and Pakistan, peace groups were strangely absent when India and Pakistan carried out their nuclear tests in 1998. Perhaps the events of October 1999 will serve as a reminder that far from having dissipated, the threat posed by nuclear weapons is still alive and kicking. Responsible and concerned states could also be galvanized into action and discussions or negotiations could continue without waiting for the full support of the United States - or of any other state. People understand the full horror of the humanitarian disaster that would ensue if a country or terrorist group used nuclear weapons, and for that reason alone the nuclear dangers we face at the end of the twentieth century have to be eliminated with all urgency.

Notes & References

1. "Russia To Send Nuclear Test Treaty To Duma-Ivanov", Los Angeles Times, October 21, 1999.

2. "Jiang Says China Wants to Ratify Nuclear Pact", Reuters, October 24, 1999.

3. "The US Refusal to Ratify the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Marks the Beginning of Another Stage of the Nuclear Arms Race", Dmitry Gornostaev and Sergey Sokut, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 15, 1999.

Patricia M. Lewis is Director of the United Nations Institute of Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) in Geneva.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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