Secretary of State John Kerry wants to “reopen” and “reenergize” the “conversation” in Congress about the need to formally ban the United States from ever explosively testing nuclear weapons. The United States has not exploded a nuclear weapon since the Congress passed and President George H.W. Bush signed a bill enforcing a moratorium in 1992. Surely, Mr. Kerry knows this arms control treaty stands no chance in the Republican Senate, especially in the wake of the administration’s circumventing the Senate to impose the unpopular Iran deal. Still, policymakers and active citizens should take notice. After the Senate rightfully rejected the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1999, President Bill Clinton said the “fight is far from over.” If Hillary Clinton becomes the next President, especially if Democrats gain more Senate seats, she could start the next round, along with other measures to restrict U.S. nuclear preparedness.
During the Democrat Presidential debate, Secretary Clinton had the opportunity to distance herself from President Obama’s foreign policies. She did not seize on it. With the slight exception of her position on Syria (she does support a no-fly zone) she has not offered much critique of President Obama’s policies. In fact, during the debate she said the biggest national security threat to the United States was “nuclear proliferation.” This answer is vague and, at first glance, innocuous. But we should be wary. It harkens back to one of President Obama’s hallmark speeches and unless she clarifies what she intends to do about “nuclear proliferation” we are left to assume she agrees with the President’s methods to curb it.
In 2009 President Obama laid out in a speech in the Czech Republic what can be called the “Prague Agenda.” It is a foreign policy agenda based on the idea that nuclear conflict will be avoided through the power of arms control, that is: treaties and agreements. Moreover, the United States would nobly lead a global disarmament effort by limiting its own weapons in spite of the reality that the number of nuclear weapons states continues to increase all the while the United States has been decreasing and limiting its force.
Hillary Clinton was a key player in implementing a major piece of the President’s Prague Agenda. While Secretary of State, she helped the United States secure the New START Treaty with Russia. Recall the gaffe when Mrs. Clinton presented a giant fake reset button to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, thinking it had the Russian word for “reset” on it. But it was the wrong translation. Instead it said “overcharged,” which we now can see foreshadowed the increased volatility of the relationship.
President Obama and Hillary Clinton really seem to believe that through arms control the United States could improve its frosty relationship with foes, in particular, Russia; only, in order for arms control to be effective, among other criteria, there must be a means to verify compliance and a willingness to enforce it. Now more than four years since the treaty’s ratification, Russia has ended what is called the “cooperative threat reduction” that enabled the United States to aid Russia in protecting its stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, has ramped up its nuclear modernization program, and is still threatening to employ the kinds of nuclear weapons that Russia refused to include in the New START Treaty. Additionally, Russia is in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty without meaningful consequence. If the world is safer now that the U.S. has agreed via a treaty to shrink its nuclear force and, unlike what we can expect from Russia, will scrupulously abide by the treaty, overwhelming evidence points to the contrary.
In addition to passing New START, President Obama listed ratification of the CTBT as one of the goals in implementing the agenda. The aim of the treaty is to ban explosive testing of nuclear weapons across the globe. 183 countries have signed the treaty and 164 have ratified it. Nuclear states India, Pakistan and North Korea have refused to sign the agreement, and in addition to the United States, the other nuclear capable countries that have signed but not ratified are China, Egypt, Iran, and Israel. All nuclear capable countries must ratify the treaty for it to “go into force” (it is utterly unenforceable).
The CTBT has many other serious flaws. For example, it does not define what constitutes an explosive test and different countries have different definitions. Perhaps most troublesome, the United States is behind in nuclear modernization and during the Obama administration, has placed unilateral limits on the kinds of weapons it can build. The Nuclear Posture Review, for instance, says “The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads.… Life Extension Programs will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.” It is quite reasonable to assume that in order to maintain a credible and safe nuclear deterrent, the United States might in fact need to conduct another explosive test at some point in the future. In the meantime, it is safe to say the testing moratorium will be in place, regardless of who is in the White House. Still, there have always been individuals in the arms control community who have advocated for the United States to permanently hamstring itself.
The 2009 bipartisan Perry-Schlesinger Commission published a report in which its members found broad consensus on many areas of U.S. strategic policy. On one matter, the ratification of the CTBT, there was no consensus. In the words of those who opposed its ratification, “passage of the treaty would confer no substantive benefits for the country’s nuclear posture and would pose security risks.”
Properly understood, effective arms control is a means to an end, the end being the actual slowing down of global nuclear proliferation in order to help avoid a nuclear conflict. If an arms control agreement is not verifiable and if the United States is unwilling to enforce violations, the only country impeded by the agreement is the rule-follower(s), and that means, the United States of America. If Mr. Kerry wants the Congress to talk about the CTBT, fine. But let the conversation lead to the Senate once again opposing the CTBT and every other treaty that bargains away U.S. strategic advantage.