Reconsidering the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
It’s an ineffectual gesture that could do more harm than good.


R. James Woolsey

While the character of opponents’ nuclear and other highly lethal forces is not locked in, and would not be so under CTBT, it is unclear whether we would be able to design and produce the new types of capabilities we might need for future deterrence based solely on our past testing experience and extrapolations. Precluding our ability to test with an enduring legal instrument like the CTBT means taking the risk that we will not have the deterrent capabilities necessary to prevent a future war. Any future testing we might be compelled to undertake to help deter newly emerging threats would be burdened by delay and an extended prior period of intense internal review and argument. That delay and burden might have been survivable in prior centuries, when we enjoyed the luxury of time courtesy of the protection provided by vast oceans. It now would be a risk, unless the CTBT also could preclude the types of threat developments, some now unknown, that might compel us to test in the future. Unfortunately, however, the CTBT cannot prevent the development of new threats because it does little or nothing to make current and future enemies less hostile toward us, less able to reach us, or less able to attack us and our allies with primitive or modern nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.

CTBT is analogous to the 1972 ABM Treaty, which restricted U.S. development and deployment of any serious defenses against long-range offensive missiles and effectively constrained U.S. defenses against shorter-range missiles, but did nothing to reduce the development of offensive missile threats to us or our allies. It was based explicitly on the benign expectation that future offensive missile threats would be curtailed, and it precluded the development of defensive capabilities that would facilitate timely recovery if international relations proceeded in a darker direction. As history actually unfolded, missile threats to us and our allies expanded dramatically, and the need to withdraw from that treaty and deploy defenses became blatantly obvious — but the ABM Treaty remained an enormous legal impediment to doing so for years. If not for the shock of 9/11, it is doubtful that we would have withdrawn from the ABM Treaty as quickly as we did, and our capability to defend against even limited offensive missiles would now be far behind the need.

The moral here is useful when thinking about CTBT. The arguments in favor of CTBT are based on hope that the future would unfold in benign directions following U.S. ratification. To say that there is evidence contrary to this hope is an understatement. CTBT cannot stop the pace of lethal proliferation or the development of future threats that we may be compelled to confront, but its ratification could create a significant legal obstacle to our ability to counter new threats.

In short, U.S. ratification of the CTBT will do little to stop proliferation, but could harm U.S. security severely. This, of course, is the reverse of the image presented by CTBT proponents. We hope that all informed citizens — and particularly all members of the U.S. Senate — will heed these concerns. The promises made on behalf of the CTBT by its proponents represent the elevation of hopes and dreams over experience and prudence.

— R. James Woolsey is the chairman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and served as director of central intelligence during the Clinton administration. He also served as an adviser on the SALT I delegation 1969–70, as a delegate at large to the START and Defense in Space negotiations with the USSR 1983–86, and as the ambassador and chief negotiator for the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty 1989–91. Keith B. Payne is professor and head, graduate department of defense and strategic studies, Missouri State University, and served as deputy assistant secretary of defense during the George W. Bush administration. In that capacity he participated in the 2002 U.S.-Russian Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty and in 2003 served as head of U.S. delegation to U.S.-Russian discussions on missile-defense cooperation. This article is adapted from the author’ foreword to the 2011 study, The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: An Assessment of the Benefits, Costs and Risks.