Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

Should the US ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty?

Posted by sanityinjection on April 17, 2009

You don’t hear that much about the nuclear test ban treaty these days, but two big names were in Rome this week urging the US to get on board with the treaty. One is Mikhail Gorbachev, which is no surprise since nuclear agreements with the US were the chief accomplishment of his career. The other  is George Shultz, former Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan. Shultz’ involvement is significant because he enjoys some influence with Senate Republicans, who have opposed the treaty in the past. Ratification would require a two-thirds vote of the Senate, so although the Obama Administration has indicated it will push for ratification and Democrats will support it, it cannot succeed without at least some Republican support.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is a multipolar international agreement negotiated in 1996. The terms of the treaty state that all nuclear powers have to ratify the treaty before it can go into effect. To date, the US and 8 other nuclear nations, including China, have not ratified it. The US Senate defeated ratification on a party line vote in 1999.

There is a lot of misinformation that gets spread about regarding the CTBT. First of all, many people do not realize that there is already an international agreement signed in 1963 banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, oceans, and space. The CTBT would expand that to include any testing of nuclear weapons including underground testing which is the method generally used today.

Second, some argue that the CTBT would be a step to combat nuclear proliferation. In fact, the CTBT does nothing to address nuclear proliferation.

It has been questioned whether the US nuclear arsenal can be maintained without nuclear testing. Some say it can, others say it cannot. The US has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992.

The biggest problem with the CTBT is that it is impossible to enforce. The same countries (Iran, North Korea) who have defied international agreements on nuclear proliferation will not hesitate to defy the CTBT.  The most successful nuclear agreements have been bilateral treaties between the US and the Soviet Union/Russia to reduce stockpiles of missiles and warheads; “worldwide” agreements such as the moribund Nuclear Proliferation Treaty have failed badly. The simple fact is that the knowledge that the US maintains an operational nuclear capability has kept any major nation from attacking us for over half a century. That is not a deterrent that we should be eager to allow to evaporate.  As much as we may abhor the idea of engaging in a  nuclear conflict, we should abhor more the prospect of being dragged into one without the armaments to fight it.

Thus, despite advances in technology which allow nuclear tests to be detected from outside a nation’s borders, I still believe it would be a bad idea to ratify the CTBT. I am reminded of the treaty that established the League of Nations after World War I. The US never ratified the treaty and never joined the League. It suffered nothing by refusing to do so, even as the League quickly proved to be a failure in preventing conflicts.

There is no way to unmake nuclear weapons. Like guns, restrictions on them never seem to deter the rogues we fear but only tie the hands of the responsible citizens of the world. While we can certainly try to avoid producing unnecessary numbers of them and pointing them at each other threateningly, we will never see a world rid of them until and unless some new technology makes them obsolete. That is why a functional missile defense system has to be a priority for the US.


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