Senate Decision Key to Future of Test Ban Treaty

(Jul. 18) -U.S. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), shown earlier this year, has indicated he continues to oppose ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Obama administration is preparing a new push to win congressional approval for the agreement (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images).
(Jul. 18) -U.S. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), shown earlier this year, has indicated he continues to oppose ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Obama administration is preparing a new push to win congressional approval for the agreement (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images).

Second in two-article series

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is preparing for a lobbying campaign that could determine the future of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (see GSN, July 15).

Administration officials have declared in recent months that they intend to follow through on their long-stated pledge to seek the U.S. Senate’s advice and consent on the accord. Still to be determined are when that will occur and whether the White House can overcome entrenched divisions on Capitol Hill to secure necessary Republican support for ratification.

The stakes are significant: U.S. approval could draw other holdout nations into the treaty regime, bringing it that much closer to becoming international law, proponents say. Failure would provide those states with continued reason to dismiss the pact -- though critics say they might do that anyway.

Before seeking a vote, the administration intends to carry out a program to educate lawmakers and the public on the value of the treaty, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher has said on multiple occasions this year (see GSN, May 11).

The effort would address issues likely to be debated in the Senate -- the viability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal without testing, whether all CTBT member states have accepted an absolute ban on any trial blasts, and the ability to catch any state that attempts to cheat.

“We continue a long, methodical process to lay the groundwork for Senate consideration of the CTBT,” the State Department said last month in a statement to Global Security Newswire. “Currently, we are in the process of engaging with members of the Senate and their staff on the importance of the CTBT.”

It added: “We are not moving for a Senate vote, don’t expect one anytime soon, and will not push for one until we have done the engagement work needed to secure approval.”

Several analysts agreed that the White House would not begin the fight until it felt secure the result would be an improvement on the last time a Democratic president tried to persuade the Senate to approve the treaty.

The United States signed the pact in 1996, but three years later the Clinton administration ratification effort ran into a brick wall of skeptical lawmakers. The Senate voted 51-48 against approval. A two-thirds affirmative vote would be required for the United States to become a full participant in the accord.

Washington is among 44 capitals that must ratify the test ban before it can enter into force. Thirty-five nations have taken that step, leaving only China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United States.

President Obama might wait to make his push until after publication of a new National Academy of Sciences report on the treaty, said arms control specialist Jeffrey Lewis. The follow-up to a 2002 academy study is expected to assess the effect that ratification would have on the U.S. capability to keep its nuclear weapons in working order without testing and on the capacity to identify atomic detonations in other nations.

The new report is undergoing classification review, which could take weeks or years, according to Lewis.

A classified National Intelligence Estimate on the matter was sent to Capitol Hill last August, but has not been seen by most lawmakers, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. The document is said to offer an updated, thorough assessment of the ability to detect secret nuclear tests, according to Kimball.

Senator Robert Casey (D-Pa.) suggested at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting in May that the Senate might not take up the treaty until after the 2012 election.

"In my judgment, we should act before the 2012 elections. I don't have a high degree of confidence that we will," the lawmaker said, echoing time line estimates from other observers.

“I don’t think [the Obama administration is], at least in the near term, serious about putting this to a vote,” said Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “I don’t think there’s a desire to have a vote if they think they’re going to lose, and I don’t think the votes are there yet.”

Only 41 lawmakers who considered the treaty in 1999 remain in the Senate, Kimball said in a recent issue brief. Newer senators must be briefed on the matter, while the chamber as a whole must be informed of technical developments since 1999 that would promote entry into force.

Politics plays a role in congressional policy debates and nuclear security will be a topic of discussion during the 2012 presidential election campaign, Kimball said. The White House is already taking heat over what Republicans say are inadequate attempts to rein in suspected proliferation activities in nations such as Iran and Syria (see GSN, March 30).

Still, the Senate’s ratification last year of the U.S.-Russian New START nuclear arms control pact is cause for optimism about the test ban’s chances on Capitol Hill, Kimball said. Thirteen GOP senators voted in favor of the bilateral agreement.

The two years it took Moscow and Washington to negotiate and approve New START “was relatively fast for a treaty,” according to Kimball. He said the administration should take whatever time is needed to see the test ban passed.

“I would hope that the issue of the test ban treaty does not become a partisan political football because there is strong Republican support for the test ban treaty out there,” Kimball said. “If the treaty is not seriously considered by the Senate until after 2012, that will be because it took that much time to sort through the issues and to develop enough support to go ahead with the final stages of the ratification effort.”

That plan, though, would hinge on Obama’s re-election. Should he be defeated next year, the pact would almost certainly remain frozen in place in Washington.

In arguing for ratification, the administration will be able to point to advancements since 1999, including the near-completion of the International Monitoring System for detecting nuclear blasts and supercomputing power used in modeling the workings of the weapons. Obama has also pledged $85 billion over the next decade for modernizing the nuclear complex.

“It’s not enough for the Obama administration to point to a really fast computer, there has to be a strategy” for persuading the Senate to endorse the treaty, Lewis said. “They did very well on New START, but I think this is going to be a little bit tougher.”

Rumblings so far from the GOP side have not favored ratification.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) led Senate opposition to the treaty 12 years ago and has remained an outspoken opponent of CTBT ratification (see GSN, March 29). The lawmaker, however, does not intend to run for re-election in 2012.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in recent years has also continued to stress that preserving the possibility of a return to testing would be necessary for ensuring the reliability and safety of the nation’s decades-old nuclear weapons.

Calls to both GOP lawmakers’ offices were not returned.

Baker Spring, a national security policy research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, played down the potential for a significant number of Republican senators to buck the party line in favor of the treaty. The test ban is rightfully seen by the party as more central than New START to the full U.S. strategic posture, he said.

Prospects for ratification are “unclear,” according to Spring.

“I think that a lot of it will depend on exactly how the administration balances the desires and fervent hopes of the arms control advocacy groups with members of the Senate on … the question of military viability” of the nuclear arsenal, he said.

Another longtime opponent of the accord expressed greater skepticism about its chances in the U.S. Senate.

“I believe the likelihood of ratification to be very low, given that the same deficiencies of the treaty persist” that existed in 1999, said former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Bailey, who co-authored a report this year on the potential for cheating and other issues with the CTBT regime. “Also, the risks associated with ratification are serious.”

Beyond Washington

For supporters, it is the danger of failing to bring the treaty into force that is cause for concern. If the regime worked as anticipated, any member state not already possessing nuclear weapons could be constrained in its capacity to produce such arms by forswearing the capacity to test those warheads. Nuclear-armed states could be similarly restricted from developing new weapons.

This restriction becomes increasingly important as more nations pursue atomic energy programs that could lead them to acquire the capacity to produce nuclear weapon-usable fuel, said Annika Thunborg, spokeswoman for the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. The compact would erect a clear barrier between that capability and actual weapons development, which would be a crucial measure as long as the international community faces a continued impasse in enacting a treaty specifically aimed at outlawing production of fissile material for weapons, she added.

“As long as we don’t have a fissile material cutoff treaty, which needs to clearly come into place … we have a treaty, the CTBT, that is the only multilateral treaty that puts a very, very clear limit on further weapons development,” according to Thunborg.

The United States and the other formal nuclear powers have voluntarily suspended nuclear test detonations for the better part of two decades, leaving such trials to a few other states -- India and Pakistan in 1998, and North Korea twice in the last six years.

“There is a de facto moratorium in place,” Thunborg acknowledged. “What is important is to take the final step and make sure this de facto international norm is put legally in place, firmly and legally in place. As long as you don’t have that norm … there is a chance it will break apart.”

Indonesia today is the only nation among the nine key nonratifying states to assert conclusively that it will sign off on the pact.

Treaty officials said they could not address the likelihood of success in the United States. However, they emphasized the importance of garnering Washington’s approval in driving the treaty toward implementation.

Lassina Zerbo, who heads the CTBT International Data Center, said he believes China would follow the United States in ratifying the pact, which could affect the thinking of neighboring governments in Islamabad and New Delhi.

“If the United States does ratify it will probably build more confidence in terms of the others to see one of the major players in terms of the world’s security embarking on the CTBT,” he said.

The CTBT officials and other treaty supporters acknowledge that frictions between antagonists in Asia and the Middle East would complicate the process of bringing the pact into force.

Membership by Egypt, Israel and Iran would be tied up by varying concerns about proliferation in the region. It is widely accepted that Jerusalem holds nuclear weapons, though the government does not publicly acknowledge the arsenal’s existence. Israel, the United States and other nations also suspect that Iran is pursuing a nuclear-weapon capability.

India and Pakistan have not conducted nuclear explosions for more than a decade, but they continue to develop their respective deterrent forces. Islamabad, in particular, appears to be moving briskly to enhance its stock of fissile material and weaponry (see GSN, July 1).

“Nations will do what is in their interests. They are not driven by wanting to follow ‘an example’ set by the U.S.,” Bailey told GSN by e-mail.

The only nation that seems likely in the near term to try another atomic blast, North Korea, might also be the least likely to join the treaty.

Pyongyang and Tehran “view the U.S. commitment to nuclear disarmament as a sign of weakness to be exploited,” Baker said in May in an issue memo posted on the Heritage website.

Skepticism that isolated and intransigent North Korea would join the treaty is so high that there have been suggestions of a test ban that simply ignores the nation (see GSN, June 4, 2009).

It is possible that member states could enact the pact provisionally when they reach the point at which there are only one or two holdouts, Kimball said.

Thunborg said, though, that the only acceptable regime is one that is ultimately all-inclusive.

“It is important that everyone is included, that not one country is left out of this,” she said.

July 18, 2011
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Second in two-article series