Last week, Josh Rogin reported for the Washington Post that President Obama will seek a United Nations Security Council resolution that, at the very least, calls for an end to nuclear testing. According to Rogin, the president’s diplomatic gambit is to occur in September—around the 20th anniversary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which President Clinton signed but the U.S. Senate rejected during ratification.
By end-running the Senate at the UN, Obama hopes to make good on his promise, made over seven years ago in a major address in Prague, to “aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.” Unfortunately, the move is quintessentially Obama—contemptuous of Congress and utopian as policy. Just as bad, it confuses American solipsism for U.S. leadership.
In 1999, the Senate rejected the CTBT partially on the grounds that compliance could not be verified, especially when facing the type of low yield nuclear tests that China and Russia may have surreptitiously conducted in the past decade. To be sure, international monitoring capabilities have improved since then, but so have nuclear explosion containment techniques. This alone constitutes reasonable grounds for rejecting the CTBT, which the Senate would almost certainly do if the treaty were submitted for another vote. For President Obama, however, such objections are to be scorned to the point of bypassing the Senate altogether—despite the promise made last December by Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department’s top arms control official, that the Obama administration would not do so.
In fact, senators are right to be alarmed by the president’s move, and on more than just constitutional grounds. The United States has not conducted a nuclear weapons test in a quarter century, instead relying on advanced computer simulations to certify the reliability of our strategic weapons. But nuclear material is as dynamic as the international security environment. Absent testing, American confidence in the reliability of our nuclear weapons will deteriorate over time and diminish the trust of our non-nuclear allies in the American extended deterrent. Worse, it may embolden others to try and match our arsenal. In such a scenario, allies and enemies alike are incentivized to pursue their own nuclear weapons—a destabilizing development for world peace.
Of late, from the Baltic States to the South China Sea, our competitors have adopted a more aggressive posture despite the U.S. moratorium on nuclear testing. Russia has shifted from nuclear deterrence to outright nuclear coercion, adopting the euphemistically-named doctrine, “escalate to deescalate.” This policy allows for battlefield nuclear strikes as a means of bringing about de-escalation in local conflicts. Over the years, the Kremlin has employed its nuclear force provocatively and menacingly, including during its operations in Ukraine. It also interprets the CTBT as exempting low-yield nuclear tests. This sets up a pattern already plaguing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty: While the United States faithfully meets its obligations, less honorable competitors like Russia exploit treaty loopholes or outright cheat to get ahead.
Of course, there are no facts about the future, but we do know that Russia is modernizing its nuclear force, as are other nuclear powers. It is crucial that our own nuclear weapons are periodically modernized with the newest technologies to deter our adversaries and reassure our allies. At some point, this may require explosive testing.
At its core, President Obama’s drive for a test ban is the product of a deeply solipsistic view of America’s role in the world. Time and again, the president has suggested that the key to ending proliferation is to restrict our own arsenal—and, if possible, Russia’s. By taking such steps, so the argument goes, the U.S. sets an example for the world and strengthens international norms against the development and use of nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, the past quarter century has demonstrated that restraints on the American nuclear arsenal have had no tempering effects on proliferators whatsoever. In India, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, and Syria, would-be nuclear powers have proceeded with clandestine programs even as the U.S. limited its weapons systems. Today, a new era of regional proliferation is on a collision course with the abolitionist’s aspirations for nuclear zero—with the U.S. nuclear umbrella smashed in-between.
Now that the nuclear deal with Iran is on the books, the Obama administration is rallying the arms-control echo chamber to push the CTBT at the UN. Reportedly, it is also considering issuing a No First Use declaration, which could exacerbate the risk of conventional war, and an extension of the New START Treaty, a deeply flawed agreement. These initiatives are part and parcel of a utopian worldview whose dedication to arms control has clouded sound strategic practice. For the sake of our nuclear deterrent, the Obama administration should pause before it handcuffs future administrations to a nuclear test ban.