On June 10, 1963, in a commencement address at American University, President John F. Kennedy announced the launch of high-level talks in Moscow with the aim of reaching early agreement on a treaty first proposed by President Eisenhower to ban all nuclear explosions for all time. Thirty-three years later, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to adopt the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the United States became the first nation to sign.
At the time, the treaty enjoyed the support of America's top military leadership, the scientific community, and numerous domestic civic groups. Yet, the Senate delayed consideration of the treaty for two years and then rushed it to a vote on a two-week timetable. To be sure, there were serious questions pertaining to the Treaty - in particular, around maintaining a safe, reliable deterrent and monitoring a global test ban. But the hasty schedule proved insufficient for a thorough CTBT debate, and on October 13, 1999, largely along party lines, ratification was rejected 51-48, well short of the 67 votes needed for approval.
Fast forward 10 years, and nuclear proliferation's perils have only become more apparent. Pakistan, a new nuclear state, is facing an existential threat that could put its arsenal at risk. Terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda are actively seeking weapons of mass destruction and would not hesitate to use them. North Korea and Iran are pursuing dangerous nuclear programs for themselves, underscored by the May 25 North Korean nuclear test. The world is on the precipice of a new and perilous nuclear era. Threat reduction demands urgent action.
Let's be clear: we are not saying that if we set a shining example by ratifying the CTBT that Iran and North Korea will suddenly see the light and immediately abandon their nuclear programs. That is not our point. We do believe, however, that if the U.S. can move forward on CTBT it would help build and sustain the international cooperation required to apply pressure on nations like North Korea and Iran still seeking the nuclear option, enhance America's standing to argue that all nations should abide by global nonproliferation norms and rally the world to take other essential steps in preventing nuclear dangers.
Moreover, by outlawing testing, the CTBT would make it harder for aspiring nuclear weapons states to gain confidence that their weapon designs would work. In addition, it would limit the ability of current nuclear powers to develop new types of nuclear warheads. Finally, the Treaty also would bolster international monitoring of nuclear activities, clarifying the nature of suspicious (or benign) activities which might otherwise exacerbate regional tensions from South Asia to the Middle East.
That is why there have been bipartisan calls in the U.S. for adopting a process to finally bring the CTBT into effect. Last month, President Obama announced that his Administration would pursue U.S. ratification of the Treaty on a priority basis. A few days later, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he disagreed with the President's rush to ratify the Treaty. While both leaders spoke with great civility and respect, observers worry the stage is being set for another calamitous showdown - one that will set back not only America's national security but our leadership in a dangerous world. We have to build a bipartisan path forward on CTBT.
There is a precedent for such a process from one of the last arms control treaties the Senate ratified. In 1997, President Bill Clinton, Majority Leader Trent Lott, and Minority Leader Tom Daschle agreed on a framework for reviewing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), another controversial accord. The process convened a number of Senators from both parties and multiple Committees to participate actively in the CWC review and to develop over many weeks a resolution of ratification with 28 agreed conditions to address Senators' specific concerns.
A methodical and deliberate approach like this - involving hearings in the Foreign Relations, Armed Services, and Intelligence Committees - can not and should not be rushed. It must be conducted in a way that allows individual Senators to approach the issue of CTBT ratification with an open mind, and to reassess the pros and cons in light of developments over the past decade, such as progress in maintaining our nuclear deterrent through science-based stockpile stewardship and the ongoing deployment of new monitoring stations to detect any cheating. Moreover, it must be designed with time and space for concerns to be raised and creative solutions to emerge, not to push Senators of either party into a premature vote.
Senator John McCain has suggested we should take "another look at the CTBT to see what can be done to overcome the shortcomings that prevented it from entering into force." We believe Senator McCain is right: there needs to be an investment of time and trust-building to gain the support of key Senators, like Richard Lugar. And there are signs that such a process would bear fruit: former Secretary Shultz recently noted that Republicans "might have been right voting against it some years ago, but they would be right voting for it now, based on these new facts."
If the administration and the Senate can work across party lines to prevent a clash on Capitol Hill, the United States can lead again in reducing nuclear threats that imperil us. President Kennedy's words from 1963 call out to us still: "Our hopes must be tempered with the caution of history, but with our hopes go the hopes of mankind."
Samuel R. Berger was national security advisor from 1997-2001. He is co-chairman of Stonebridge International. Sam Nunn is co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and a former U.S. Senator. William J. Perry, a professor at Stanford University, is a former U.S. secretary of Defense.
In an op-ed in Politico, Sam Nunn, Bill Perry and Sandy Berger propose a plan for initiating a bipartisan process between the White House and the Senate to reconsider the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.