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Rough Path Ahead for Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty

October 24, 2015 (Photo Credit: National Nuclear Security Administration)

WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State John Kerry last week pledged to renew a push for the US to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, but the way forward appears rocky.

Speaking at an Oct. 21 event organized by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), Kerry pledged to spend his last year in office making the case for why the US should sign onto the CTBT.

"I am determined that, in the months to come, we're going to reopen and re-energize the conversation about the treaty on Capitol Hill and throughout our nation," Kerry said. "Because there should be no doubt that it is in the best interests of our country to join the treaty and to urge others not to wait, but to go ahead and do so themselves as soon as possible."

That may be easier said than done, however.

The last major push to ratify the CTBT came in 1999, when it failed in the Senate 51-48. Kerry believes concerns among senators about the US ability to do non-explosive testing and the question of whether the capability exists to make sure others are not violating the treaty are no longer valid, thanks to technological improvements.

"The factors that led some senators to oppose the treaty in 1999 have changed, and, so, choices should change as well," Kerry said.

Analysts, however, say there is a lot of work that needs to be done before the treaty has a chance.

Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association says there is a "pretty clear understanding that there aren't 67 votes in the Senate at the current moment for the agreement," something he and others blame, at least in part, on the lack of institutional knowledge about the issue. Less than a fifth of the Senate remains from the 1999 fight.

"Any future Senate vote will require a significant amount of groundwork to be laid, in terms of education and outreach," Reif said. "The administration, at least to this point in its tenure, has not launched the kind of effort necessary to ultimately achieve CTBT ratification. So it's very good to hear they are considering stepping up their engagement."

Talking on a panel before Kerry's speech, Brian P. McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said the Clinton administration needed to do more groundwork in the Senate before launching the CTBT fight, calling the timing "a little premature."

"The lesson is, we need to lay a lot of groundwork, both in the Senate and even in the executive branch," said McKeon, who was chief counsel for the Democrats on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations during the last CTBT fight.

"With any treaty, but particularly with an arms-control treaty or security treaty, there are so many more people paying attention closely in the Senate and in the broader public arena than is the case with most other treaties the Senate works on," McKeon added. "It really takes a major investment both in the executive branch and the Senate of time, energy, will. And, candidly, it was a little bit rushed, and I do not think we had that investment lined up in terms of preparation of the environment."

Adding to the challenge is a general sentiment in the Senate against signing large international agreements and treaties, something that was already underway during the Bush administration, which hit roadblocks on treaties such as the Law of the Sea.

"There is hostility to the president, but the bigger problem is the hostility to international treaties and agreements writ large," Reif said.

Another challenge is whether the Department of Defense would support a push for a new treaty. Franklin Miller, who held a number of top Pentagon roles during the original CTBT fight, said during the event that the Pentagon was "always skeptical about the CTBT."

"The fundamental question we will have to wrestle with at some point is, what is the treaty's purpose now?" Miller, now with the Scowcroft Group, said.

Developing trust with both DoD and Congress is key for any CTBT push, agreed Charles Curtis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"There is a continuing obligation on the Department [of Energy] and on NNSA to share with the Department of Defense the success of its work," Curtis said. "Trust in the Congress is probably the hardest to achieve of all of the important elements. It confounds the management of the laboratories, the lack of trust, and it confounds the civilian leadership in the department how to restore trust in the Congress in what has happened here."

Entry into the CTBT would legally prohibit the US from performing nuclear explosive tests, something the government has been doing on a de facto basis since 1992.

Of the 183 states that have signed the treaty, only 164 have ratified it. More important, out of the 44 nations designated as "nuclear-capable states," India, Pakistan and North Korea have refused to sign the agreement, and only 36 have voted to ratify the agreement.

For the agreement to go into force, the eight remaining nuclear-capable states — China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United States — must ratify the document.

Ratifying the agreement would not just be symbolic, argued Reif. Doing so would put pressure on China, India and Pakistan to ratify as well.

"That would be a significant step if all those countries ratified, because then you'd have all the P-5 countries on board," he said. "Both India and Pakistan have said they don't intend to resume testing but they haven't ratified the treaty. Doing so would ensure they can't increase the sophistication of their nuclear arsenals via nuclear testing."

Reif points to a security argument, as well. The US has a long history of nuclear testing in its back pocket, more than any other nation. Locking other nations out of doing live testing would ensure the US maintains a lead in nuclear knowledge

"US ratification would not prevent the US from maintaining or upgrading its warheads without testing, just as we've been doing for the last 20 years, but it would make it harder for other states to conduct nuclear tests and, thereby, improve their arsenals or develop more advanced weapons," Reif said. "And it would be far more difficult for countries to pursue new nuclear advances through evasive or clandestine testing with the CTBT in force."


Twitter: @AaronMehta

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