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


R. James Woolsey

In 1999, Pres. Bill Clinton submitted the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to the U.S. Senate for advice and consent. It was soundly rejected. Pres. George W. Bush opposed the treaty, so it lay dormant during his two terms. But the Obama administration announced early in its tenure that it would resubmit the same CTBT to the Senate.

In anticipation of this renewed effort to secure Senate ratification of CTBT, the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States (of which both authors of this article were members), in its May 2009 report, called for a “net assessment” of CTBT before the Senate’s renewed consideration of the treaty. The question of U.S. ratification of the CTBT was the only significant pertinent subject on which the Congressional Commission could not reach a consensus position; in fact, the Commission was about evenly divided between those for and those against CTBT ratification.

As the administration now begins to promote CTBT ratification, it is useful to elaborate further the case made by those members of the Congressional Commission opposed to ratification.

The primary argument made by CTBT supporters is that the treaty would inspire the international community to rally with the United States in support of nuclear nonproliferation, strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and thereby help keep nuclear weapons out of terrorist hands. There are many reasons to question the hope that the gesture of U.S. ratification will have these profound symbolic, diplomatic, and psychological effects.

For example, Russia in particular values highly its continued possession and modernization of nuclear weapons. It views them as critically important to overcoming U.S. and Chinese conventional-force advantages. It would be naïve to expect otherwise, given Russia’s security concerns and its deficiencies in conventional forces. This emphasis on the continuing importance of modern nuclear arms may explain why Russia apparently has continued to test nuclear weapons at very low yields, despite its commitment not to do so.

In addition, under international law, U.S. ratification of the CTBT would legally bind the United States indefinitely to its restrictions, but would not bring the treaty into effect globally. To do so would necessitate that numerous additional countries also sign and ratify the treaty, including North Korea and Iran. In such cases, U.S. ratification would not likely inspire similar action. On the contrary, it could give North Korea an additional opportunity to play its favored game of extorting the international community. How much might we have to pay for North Korea’s favor in this regard, if such favor is even possible?

Even if, by an unexpected stroke, U.S. CTBT ratification were to inspire the rest of the world to bring the treaty into force, it could not prevent further nuclear proliferation. Nuclear testing is not necessary for the development of primitive nuclear weapons. It never has been. The United States did not test the uranium-based “Little Boy” atomic bomb before dropping it on Hiroshima in 1945 (though it did test the plutonium-based “Fat Man” bomb, which was dropped on Nagasaki).

What’s more, the argument that U.S. agreement to forgo nuclear testing would rally the world against nuclear proliferation is contrary to available evidence. The United States stopped all nuclear testing in 1992. Since then, China, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and apparently Russia have conducted nuclear tests, and several nuclear-weapon states (e.g., Russia, China, and France) have modernized their nuclear arsenals, while other states (e.g., India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran) have demonstrated or developed nuclear-weapon technologies. If the end of U.S. nuclear testing actually is the key to rallying international opposition against proliferation, we have little evidence of it after almost two decades of no U.S. testing.