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Nuclear Reactionaries
Tim Francis-Wright

15 July 2001

Word came from Washington this week that the Bush administration sought either to remove the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty from consideration by the Senate, or to let the treaty remain unratified there. The United States has somehow managed to stay intact despite a moratorium on nuclear testing first enacted by President Bush's father in 1992. Backing away from the treaty signals that the Bush administration is considering the resumption of testing of nuclear weapons. Resumption of testing would put the lie to earlier declarations to end a reliance on nuclear arms. Many in the administration hold the belief that the treaty is a relic of the Cold War. In reality, the cold war relics are the Republicans in Washington.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, drafted in 1996, would prohibit all tests or demonstration explosions of nuclear weapons. In order for it to go into effect, all 44 nuclear-capable countries must sign and ratify it. Currently, 41 of those 44 countries have signed it. The holdouts are India, Pakistan, and North Korea. There are 11 holdouts for ratification among those 44 countries, including China, Israel, and the United States. Since 1996, all of the traditional nuclear weapons states have observed a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing. To ratify the treaty, the United States Senate must vote to do so with a two-thirds majority. When the treaty came to a vote in 1999, it voted 51-48 not to ratify the treaty, so the ratification process remains in limbo.

Abrogating the treaty now sends a wrongheaded message to the other nuclear weapons states and the states that seek to join that fraternity. Russia and China have not tested nuclear weapons since 1990 and 1996, respectively. In particular, China's testing program came to a halt because of the international agreement behind the test ban treaty. Resumption of American nuclear weapons testing would make it very likely that China would start nuclear testing all over again.

North Korea is one of the very few nuclear-capable countries not to sign the treaty. The United States is concerned, with some justification, that North Korea's missile program make it potentially dangerous to other countries in Asia. If the United States cannot justify remaining in the test ban regime, it loses any logical basis for encouraging North Korea not to develop nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. In 1998, when India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons within weeks of one another, the international community heaped scorn on both countries for doing so. The opprobrium helped to defuse a war of words between the two countries. If the United States cannot justify a test ban to itself, then it certainly would have no right to stop these two countries.

The test ban treaty is important to the international community both as a means and an end. It helps the nuclear weapons states in their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Under that treaty, the nuclear powers agreed to work toward eventual abolition of nuclear weapons, while other signatories agreed not to obtain or develop nuclear weapons. One reason that North Korea, Iraq, and Iran are "rogue" states in the estimation of both Republicans and Democrats is that they are working to develop nuclear weapons despite an international norm against doing so. Even on its own, however, the test ban treaty illustrates an important lesson from the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union often tested nuclear weapons not to learn how they worked or to test new warhead designs, but as political and military statements. Testing weapons implied that they could be used against an adversary. It also meant that the testers had enough weapons to waste them on those tests.

A new testing regime would not serve even the Pentagon's own interests. According to the authoritative Nuclear Notebook in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Pentagon's current nuclear weapons projects involve the upgrading of missiles, not new warheads. The START II reductions call for dismantling of MX missiles and their warheads. The administration's own public plans call for a reduction of 1000 warheads from the American nuclear arsenal in the next year. The only real reasons to test nuclear weapons again are the intangible messages that they would send to other countries.

The Bush administration has argued that the purpose of its missile defense plan is to replace nuclear deterrence with a more palatable strategic plan. Part of the plan is to reduce the number of American nuclear weapons to a minimum (here is a previous article on this issue). The planned reduction is not a bad idea, but missile defense is a flawed, expensive, and ineffective subsititute for deterrence. The technical difficulties are myriad, in spite of the successful test in the early morning of 15 July. (For starters, a nuclear missile launched in anger at the United States will not come with months of advance warning about the actual time and location.)

Despite the flaws of missile defense, the Bush administration could still work on its development without threatening immediate abrogation of our treaty commitments. The ABM treaty allows the United States two testing facilities, in New Mexico and at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, and one localized defensive deployment in North Dakota. The administration could argue that these locations are relics of the Cold War. If the administration were serious about building a system to protect against launches from a "rogue nation" like North Korea, it might negotiate with Russia to allow testing and limited deployment at the sites the Pentagon wants in Alaska. Alternatively, it could put its weight behind the test ban treaty and seek a wholesale revision of the ABM treaty to allow eventual deployment of a limited missile defense system. Simply threatening to walk away from both treaties is unlikely to engender good will toward the United States or toward its interests throughout the world.

The Republican party would prefer that the United States take the same position as North Korea on nuclear testing, rather than join the majority of industrialized nations in opposing it. On this issue, the Republican Party serves three benighted constituencies. It can't say no to the hawks who view nuclear weapons as signs of virility. It can't say no to the Panglossians in the White House, the Pentagon, and the defense industry who ignore the flaws inherent in missile defense. It can't say no to the isolationists who see treaties as inimical to the American spirit. The hawks relive the Cold War, but we now lack anything approaching an equivalent adversary. The technocrats resuscitate the Star Wars program, but we still have a system that would be useless against any real adversary. The isolationists revive the isolationist arguments against the arms control agreements of the 1970s, but we now can see that these agreements succeeded by keeping the Cold War in check. These camps, not the test ban treaty, are the real relics of the Cold War.

For more information on the CTBT, visit the web sites by the Acronym Institute and the Federation of American Scientists.

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