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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 53, December 2000 - January 2001

The Bush Presidency: Reconsidering the CTBT

By Jack Mendelsohn


Shortly after the US Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in October 1999, President Clinton announced that the "United States will continue, under my presidency, the policy we have observed since 1992 of not conducting nuclear tests.... And I will continue to press the case that this treaty is in the interest of the American people.... When all is said and done, the United States will ratify the Test Ban Treaty." A week later, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright informed foreign ministers that "the United States will continue to act in accordance with its obligations as a signatory [of the CTBT] under international law..." Albright further noted that the United States "...will seek reconsideration of the treaty at a later date when conditions are better suited for ratification."1

It was clear at the time of these statements, however, given the political make-up of the Senate, the deep-seated antipathy for President Clinton and his political weakness after impeachment, that any request for "reconsideration" of the treaty would have to come from the next administration. That administration has now taken office amidst a good deal of speculation and concern about its future policy toward the CTBT.

During the 2000 campaign, President Bush agreed that "our nation should continue its moratorium on [nuclear] testing." But he opposed the CTBT itself, claiming that it "...does not stop proliferation, especially in renegade regimes. It is not verifiable. It is not enforceable. And it would stop us from ensuring the safety and reliability of our nation's deterrent, should the need arise."2 In October 1999, Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Secretary under President Ford and George W. Bush's nominee to run the Pentagon again, signed a letter, along with five other former Defense Secretaries, opposing the treaty. Rumsfeld reaffirmed this position during his recent confirmation, expressing, in response to written questions submitted by the Senate Armed Services Committee, his profound scepticism concerning, if not outright opposition to, the accord. He said his concerns were two-fold: "issues that were raised by people whose judgment I respect in the scientific community about the risks to the reliability and safety of the stockpile;" and "the difficulty of verification."3

Bush's Secretary of State General Colin Powell, on the other hand, endorsed the CTBT in 1998, along with three other former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), Generals John Shalikashvili and David Jones, and Admiral William Crowe, shortly after it was originally submitted to the Senate for its advice and consent.4 But , during his confirmation hearings, Powell indicated that he and the new administration "believe that there are still flaws with the treaty as it was voted down in 1999."5

Three Options

Campaign and confirmation rhetoric notwithstanding, the Bush administration has three basic options for dealing with the CTBT. First, it could renounce any intention of ratifying the CTBT. This would, of course, free the United States from the international legal and financial obligations of the treaty. On the other hand, rejecting the CTBT definitively - presumably this would only be done if the United States intended to resume nuclear tests - would provoke serious repercussions both here and abroad. It would place the entire nuclear non-proliferation regime - particularly the Non-Proliferation Treaty - in jeopardy, and leave the administration with a major foreign policy crisis on its hands. If, at the same time, the administration is also pursuing a vigorous national missile defence programme, the United States would then be backing away from two major international security agreements (the CTBT and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty) and breaking a commitment made under a third (the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).

For the time being, at least, renunciation does not appear to be the policy of the new administration. General Powell, in his confirmation hearings, seemed to suggest as much when he noted that "President-elect Bush has indicated he has no intention of resuming testing as part of our efforts. We do not see any such need for such testing in the foreseeable future."

A second option for the new administration would be to continue to pay the US share (25%) of the treaty's implementation costs and ignore the question of whether the United States intends eventually to ratify the agreement and make no effort to urge the Senate to reconsider its 1999 vote.

The potential drawbacks to this "do nothing" approach would lie mainly in the long term. The United States would, in effect, be abiding by the treaty without being able to take advantage of its verification and normative benefits. Moreover, the current unilateral test moratoria among the major nuclear powers (which have been observed by Russia, the UK and the United States since the early 1990's) might not be robust enough to survive indefinitely without a formal international obligation not to test.6 China may perceive a need to further modernise its arsenal (with more compact warheads) in response to a US NMD deployment. This would undoubtedly require a resumption of testing. Pressures could emerge within Russia, as well, to develop and test a new tactical nuclear weapon, particularly if NATO continues to expand and if it appears the CTBT will not enter into force for some time (if ever).

A third option open to the administration is to rethink its campaign stance and come to recognise and support the conclusion - shared by the four former JCS Chairmen noted above as well as former Secretary of Defense Perry7 - that the CTBT serves US national security interests. Such a marked reversal could only result, however, after a thorough review of the treaty, the institution of some important reforms in the management of the nation's enduring stockpile, increased allocation of resources for intelligence and monitoring, and the adoption - in close consultation with the Senate - of a series of "conditions" to ratification.8 These "conditions" would not be actual amendments to the treaty. Rather, they would be obligations on the United States - such as periodic ten-year reviews and reports to the Congress by the executive branch on the treaty's implementation and impact - intended to change the context within which the Senate would be debating the future of nuclear weapons tests.9

Changing the Context

The seeds for this change of context for the debate have already been sown by the recent (or imminent) release of several studies. These include General Shalikashvili's January 2001 report to the President with "Findings and Recommendations Concerning the CTBT"; a November 2000 Lawyers Alliance for World Security (LAWS) "White Paper on the CTBT" with chapters by a number of scientific and arms control experts; and a National Academy of Sciences study due out this spring.10 These studies contain serious responses to the technical, economic and political criticisms that arose during the US ratification debate, address President Bush's specific concerns about proliferation value, verifiability, enforceability, and confidence in the stockpile, and make recommendations to improve the likelihood of treaty ratification.

Stopping Proliferation

As regards the President's first criticism, it is obvious that the CTBT by itself can not "stop proliferation." But a CTBT is a crucial element of any overall nuclear non-proliferation strategy and it will prevent other nuclear-weapons states (read China and Russia) from testing or having confidence in radically new designs of nuclear weapons. Additionally, a CTBT can be verified with sufficient confidence to prevent any potential violators from developing thermonuclear weapons whether they already possess fission weapons or develop such weapons clandestinely.11


Despite President Bush's claim, a CTBT will be effectively verifiable. The International Monitoring System will provide data adequate to monitor underground explosions conducted without evasive measures to at least a magnitude of 4 on the Richter scale (corresponding to a yield of approximately 0.5 kilotons).12 In areas of special concern, like Russia's former test site on Novaya Zemlya, unclassified seismic arrays routinely monitor earthquakes and explosions down to about magnitude 2 to 2.5 (equivalent to about 10 tons (.01 kt) of well-coupled yield).13 It is worth noting that the 5-ton explosion that wracked the Russian submarine Kursk was recorded on seismometers 4,500 km away from the site of the sinking.14

This monitoring capability notwithstanding, General Shalikashvili recommends additional steps be taken, unilaterally or bilaterally, to increase transparency regarding the nature and purposes of activities at known test sites (where sub-critical nuclear experiments continue to take place).15 As for decoupling (i.e., muffling the intensity of a nuclear explosion by conducting it in a huge underground cavern) and other evasion techniques, professional geophysicists believe that "such technical scenarios are credible only for nations with extensive practical testing experience and only for yields of at most a few kilotons. Furthermore, no nation could rely upon successfully concealing a program of nuclear testing, even at low yields."16


No international arms control treaty, whether bilateral or multilateral, has any real enforcement provisions. In the first instance, there is no world government and therefore no world police force to enforce its rules. Moreover, the US Senate has never been willing - and would not now be prepared - to allow international enforcement provisions to apply to the United States. The lack of specific enforcement provisions has little bearing on the effectiveness of the treaty. If a CTBT were in force, however, nations violating the legal obligation not to test would be risking international condemnation and serious political economic - and perhaps military - repercussions.17

Safety and Reliability

Finally, a CTBT does not stop the United States from ensuring the safety and reliability of its deterrent. The Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP), instituted to ensure that the enduring arsenal remains reliable, effective and safe into the indefinite future, has operated quite successfully over the past five years and the national laboratory directors have certified that US weapons are meeting stated military requirements. Stanford physicist Sidney Drell notes that, as a result of the SSP, he actually has more confidence in the long-term credibility of the stockpile than was possible five years ago. As a matter of fact, he continues, "[t]he data being derived from the SSP... is far more important for understanding the enduring arsenal, and maintaining confidence in its performance, than continued underground, very low-yield testing."18

Despite the success of the science involved in the SSP, there are managerial and structural shortcomings in the programme that need to be addressed. Resources are being diverted from surveillance and other core missions of the SSP to large-scale science and computational projects. Additionally, the infrastructure of the existing nuclear weapons production complex has "been allowed to deteriorate to unacceptably low levels."19 By putting in place the managerial and programmatic reforms necessary to assure continued confidence in the stockpile, the Bush administration will also be helping to change the context of the debate over the treaty.

Quo Vadimus?

President-elect Bush stated during the campaign that one of his "...highest foreign policy priorities will be to check the contagious spread of weapons of mass destruction..." If that is indeed the case, then the first president of the new millennium would be wise to rethink his position on the CTBT.

Conventional wisdom in Washington has it that the new administration will do what President Bush (as reaffirmed by Secretary of State Powell) said he would do: preserve the moratorium on nuclear testing but do nothing to revive (or kill) the CTBT in the Senate in the near term (i.e., this session of Congress). Such a course would permit the administration to complete its defence and nuclear posture review in 2001 before deciding its policy direction on arms control and non-proliferation.

The danger with this course is that while the pressure on any President not to resume testing remains quite considerable at present, there is no guarantee that this will continue to be the case. There remains an entrenched constituency in the Defense Department for new nuclear weapons designs and a renewed testing programme. The Defense Department could conclude from its posture review that the United States should design and test a smaller yield, earth-penetrating nuclear weapon to attack the hardened underground hideouts of the leaders of "states of proliferation concern."

A more optimistic prediction is that the new administration, after due consideration of the treaty itself and the negative impact its earlier rejection has had and will continue to have on US interests, will come to recognise the contribution of the CTBT to US national security:

  • It codifies an international norm against nuclear testing;
  • It preserves the undisputed US advantage in nuclear weapons technology;
  • It reduces the likelihood that significant new threats will arise from proliferators;
  • It enhances the already formidable US monitoring capability; and
  • It strengthens US ability to persuade other nations to respect the obligations of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

As the most powerful nation on earth, the United States has everything to gain by placing limits on the testing of the only weapons that can threaten its national survival.

Notes and References

1. See "Still Bound" in the Jan/Feb issue of The Bulletin pf the Atomic Scientists, pp. 42-43.

2. September 2000 issue of Arms Control Today, pp. 3-7.

3. Transcript of the Hearing on the Nomination of Donald Rumsfeld for Secretary of Defense, January 11, 2001.

4. January 28, 1998. Available at http://www.clw.org/coalition/jcs0198.htm.

5. Opening Remarks of General Colin Powell, Secretary of State-designate, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Confirmation Hearing, January 17, 2001.

6. The last Soviet/Russian nuclear test was held on October 24, 1990. The last UK test was on November 26, 1991. Both nations have ratified the CTBT. The last US test was September 23, 1992.

7. See the Lawyers Alliance for World Security (LAWS) White Paper on the CTBT (available at http://www.lawscns.org), pp. 71-72.

8. It is instructive, if not dismaying, to contrast the effort expended by the administration on NATO expansion with that put forth on CTBT ratification. For a survey of the former, see George W. Grayson, 'Strange Bedfellows: NATO Marches East', University Press of America, 1999.

9. The ten-year review idea was initially put forward by former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird in a paper prepared for a LAWS/Stanford roundtable on the CTBT in July, 2000. It was also put forward in the January 2001report on the CTBT by General Shalikashvilil and in a New York Times op-ed by three former Secretaries of Defense (Brown, Laird and Perry) on January 7, 2001.

10. The Shalikashvili Report is available at http://www.state.gov/www/global/arms/ctbtpage/ctbt_report.html;see also this issue of Disarmament Diplomacy for extracts. Also worthy of mention is the Report of the Independent Commission on the Verifiability of the CTBT, established by the UK Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC) in October, 2000 (available at http://www.ctbtcommission.org); see Trevor Findlay, 'Verifiability of the CTBT; Report of the Independent Commission,' Disarmament Diplomacy No. 51, pp. 2-5.

11. LAWS White Paper, p. 49.

12. Ibid, pp. 33-41.

13. The Shalikashvili Report notes on p. 12 that "the IMS primary seismic system will provide three-station 90% detection thresholds below 500 tons on all continents and below 200 tons for all historic test sites in the northern hemisphere - with one or two station detection thresholds going even lower."

14. "Forensic Seismology and the Sinking of the Kursk," Professor Terry Wallace, University of Arizona.

15. Shalikasvili Report, Pp. 15-16.

16. Joint statement of the American Geophysical Union and the Seismological Society of America. Cited in the LAWS White Paper, p. 39.

17. LAWS White Paper, p. 63.

18. Ibid, p. 47.

19. Shaliksahvili Report, pp. 17-22.

Jack Mendelsohn, a former senior foreign service officer, Deputy Director of the Arms Control Association and Olin Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval Academy, is currently Vice-President and Executive Director of the Lawyers Alliance for World Security (LAWS) in Washington, D.C.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.