Issue No. 41, November 1999
Senate CTBT Rejection Not The End
By George Bunn and John B. Rhinelander The US Senate's rejection
of the CTBT in October does not free the United States from the
Treaty's norm against nuclear-weapon test explosions. Nor does it
mean that the Senate will never approve the Treaty. But it does
mean that the final US position on the Treaty almost certainly will
not be known until after the next US presidential election in
November 2000. Moreover, a debate to build domestic and
international support for US adherence to the Treaty's norm could
help to produce eventual Senate approval.
Many do not realize how hard it has been in this century to gain
the required two-thirds vote in the US Senate for treaties dealing
with international security. It is true that, until the Senate vote
on the CTBT it had rejected no such treaty since the Versailles
Treaty creating the League of Nations. Instead of rejection,
however, voting on important arms control treaties was sometimes
delayed until there were enough votes. For example, Senate action
on the Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibiting gas and germ warfare was
postponed from the 1920s to the mid 1970s when, after careful
reconsideration by the Republican administrations of presidents
Nixon and Ford as well as by the Senate, there were enough votes to
approve it. The 1968 NPT was negotiated during Democratic President
Johnson's tenure and was at first opposed by Republican
presidential candidate Nixon. Johnson therefore did not push for a
Senate vote. After he became president in 1969, Nixon changed his
mind, supported the Treaty and gained the votes to approve it.
Many important arms control treaties negotiated during
Republican administrations have passed the Senate, most recently
the CWC. But, after Senate consent in the 1940s to major post-World
War II treaties such as the UN Charter and the Washington Treaty on
NATO, we are not aware of any important international security
treaty which, after negotiation in a Democratic administration, was
approved by the Senate except the PTBT, negotiated during the
Kennedy Administration. In 1963, that treaty lacked two-thirds
support even in a Senate controlled by Democrats until two days
before the final vote when the then Senate Minority Leader,
Republican Everett Dirksen, announced his support.
Because of this history and because of the positions of
important Republican senators, we predicted two years ago that the
CTBT was unlikely to be approved by the Senate until after the
election in 2000.1 That conclusion was borne out by last
October's Senate action. While ample blame for the failure can be
placed on both President Clinton and Republican Senate leaders for
the Senate's rejection, there was little hope for the CTBT until
after the next US election in 2000.
What can be done? First, the United States has no present intent
to test nuclear weapons. And, many of the 155 countries that have
signed the CTBT, including Asian and European allies of the United
States, are committed to bringing it into force.
Ratifiers will likely continue to push India and Pakistan to
sign and ratify, as well as China, Russia and the United States.
They will also push the many other treaty signers that have not yet
ratified but intend to do so to get on with it. Fifty-one of the
155 signers have ratified. Continuing strong support for the treaty
would be shown if 100 or so could complete the process before the
next Special Conference to expedite entry into force takes place,
probably in 2000 or 2001.
Second, the United States remains a strong and active supporter
of the NPT. But its leadership has been weakened by Senates
rejection of the CTBT. At the 1995 Review Conference, which made
the NPT permanent, the five NWS that are permanent members of the
UN Security Council promised to conclude a CTBT by the end of 1996.
This promise was made because the NPT requires its members to
negotiate in good faith to halt the nuclear arms race, and a CTBT
has for 40 years been accepted as one of the key measures to do
that.2 Non-nuclear-weapon NPT parties, already under an
NPT obligation not to test, will see the Senate's action as a
frustration of the longstanding obligation of the United States and
four other NPT NWS to negotiate a CTBT. Any non-nuclear-weapon NPT
members that want to withdraw from the NPT for other reasons now
have a "tit-for-tat" excuse. Therefore, at the important five-year
NPT Review Conference scheduled for April-May 2000, new countries
will have to step forward and assume leadership roles.
Finally, it is more important than before that leaders in the
international community make a concerted effort to teach the United
States the importance they attach to treaties and the application
of the rule of law in international affairs. While venomous
domestic politics led to the Senate's rejection of the CTBT, only a
dozen or so Senate Republicans are irreconcilably opposed to treaty
limits on US military technology and weapons. It is worth
remembering that 62 senators, including 24 Republicans, voted to
delay consideration of the CTBT to another year. But given the
unanimous consent requirement for a change in the Senate's voting
schedule, they were not enough.
It is also worth remembering that, in 1997, the Senate approved
the CWC. That was negotiated in the administrations of Republican
presidents Reagan and Bush, and signed by President Bush, not by
President Clinton. To obtain the necessary votes, the Clinton
Administration negotiated (with Republican senators selected by
Senate Majority Leader Lott) nearly 30 conditions dealing with
interpretation and administration of the CWC by the United States.
At an outdoor White House ceremony, former Senator Robert Dole (who
had been the Republican candidate for president against Bill
Clinton in 1996) spoke in favour of what many called the "Bush
Treaty". Important members of the Bush Administration were present
to support the CWC. This effort overcame the opposition of a small
band of radical conservatives in the Senate, and the CWC was
approved by more than the necessary two-thirds.
With the right effort, this could happen to the CTBT in 2001.
But the moderate Republicans who would be likely to support the
CTBT under appropriate circumstances will need help from the next
administration and US friends and allies abroad to overcome the
band of radical conservatives in the Senate. The target of these
conservatives includes other treaty restraints on the United States
such as the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the treaty create an
International Criminal Court and even an agreement that would
recognise Russian succession to the Soviet Union as a party to the
Since World War II, at least five major treaties succeeded in
the US Senate because of bipartisan leadership that overcame
radical conservative or isolationist opposition: the UN Charter,
the Washington Treaty on NATO, the NPT, the ABM Treaty and the CWC.
These treaties would obviously not have come about without
co-operation, indeed leadership, from other countries. Can these
successes be replicated in the next century?
The United States will need leadership from both political
parties at home and from friends and allies abroad. Its founders
relied upon Grotius, Montesquieu and other "foreigners" in drafting
its Constitution. Two hundred years later, it needs help again to
teach it about the advantages of co-operation with other countries
in dealing with international security. Americans must somehow cage
the beast of unbridled sovereignty espoused by radical
conservatives and accept once again the idea in their Constitution
that treaties with other countries are the supreme law of the
The most challenging substantive debate in the United States
must be focused on the future role of nuclear weapons. If Americans
are not prepared to continue progress towards limiting nuclear
weapons with the goal of nuclear disarmament, they must accept that
many more countries will acquire nuclear weapons as time goes by.
Other countries will simply not accept forever the discrimination
the NPT now permits: five NPT members with nuclear weapons plus
India, Israel and Pakistan that have not joined the NPT, and the
rest of the world without. That dichotomy was foreseen and
addressed in 1968 by Article VI of the NPT, which requires all
parties to negotiate in good faith towards nuclear disarmament. The
Senate accepted that compromise in 1969 when it approved the NPT.
While senators may welcome obligations that burden other countries
more than the United States, they must be willing to accept the
responsibility of reciprocal obligations looking towards eventual
removal of such discriminations when they have agreed to that as
the price for obtaining agreement of others to the Treaty.
Which way the United States will go should be the subject of a
major debate, a debate for which Americans will need help from
abroad. What is achievable in the next century will depend on the
outcome of that debate.
Notes and references
1. "The Duma-Senate Logjam on Arms Control: What Can be
Done?", Bunn and Rhinelander, Non-Proliferation Review, p
72, Fall 1997.
2. See agenda agreed in 1968 after the NPT was signed. Report
to the UN General Assembly, August 28, 1968, ENDC/236.
George Bunn is consulting professor at Stanford
University's Center for International Security and Cooperation. He
was general counsel to the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency
and the US delegation that negotiated the NPT.
John B. Rhinelander is senior counsel in Shaw Pittman, a
Washington law firm. He was deputy legal adviser to the US State
Department and counsel to the US delegation that negotiated the ABM
© 1999 The Acronym Institute.
Return to top of page
Return to List of Contents
Return to Acronym Main Page