The CTBT debate begins again

By Hugh Gusterson | June 1, 2009

North Korea’s nuclear test on May 25 has increased the urgency of the nuclear test ban cause but also raised further questions about the feasibility of achieving a truly universal ban. President Barack Obama has promised to seek “aggressive” and “immediate” ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Signed by Washington in 1996, the CTBT was brought before the Senate for ratification once before in 1999. At that time, voted down by 51 to 48, it didn’t win a simple majority, let alone the two-thirds majority needed for ratification.

On May 13, a small audience was treated to a preview of some of the arguments we will surely hear in ratification hearings when the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) staged a debate for and against the CTBT. Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, was for the treaty, and Stephen Rademaker, a former staffer for Sen. Bill Frist who was the Bush administration’s lead representative to the infamous 2005 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, was against it.

If arms control experts give Congress different numbers for the CTBT’s threshold of verification, they will discover that, when experts disagree, senators fly in all directions.”

Rademaker began his remarks by saying that it wasn’t enough for those in favor of the CTBT to refute the arguments against ratification; they also would have to show that there was a strong case that ratification would affirmatively increase the security of the United States. “I didn’t marry my wife because I couldn’t think of anything wrong with her,” he said. “I married her because of what’s right about her. The same burden should rest upon the Senate.”

Setting out to make such a case, Kimball argued that the CTBT would prevent countries such as China, India, and Pakistan from progressing beyond their relatively vanilla nuclear weapons by developing neutron bombs or miniaturized hydrogen bombs that would allow each of their missiles a multiple-strike capability. Kimball also suggested that doubts about the U.S. ability to maintain its nuclear stockpile without testing and questions about its ability to detect cheating–doubts and questions that helped kill ratification in 1999–now have been largely allayed as the Stockpile Stewardship Program has matured and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization’s monitoring system has improved. “The United States loses nothing and gains much” by ratifying the treaty, he argued.

Like many arms control experts, Kimball is concerned that the global nonproliferation regime is growing increasingly rickety as more countries acquire–thanks to their nuclear energy infrastructure–a potential breakout capability from the NPT. Kimball argued that, against a backdrop of international complaints that the United States isn’t serious about disarmament, CTBT ratification would restore the country’s arms control credentials and thus, its ability to hold the line on proliferation, while helping to isolate countries such as Iran.

Rademaker replied that other countries don’t do what Washington wants because they think we’ve been “nice,” and that the United States shouldn’t do things that violate its national interests in the illusory hope of gaining diplomatic leverage. Seeking to turn around Kimball’s argument about the CTBT as a way to isolate Iran, he argued that Iran would “have an enormous club” with which to beat the international community if it were the only country preventing the treaty from entering into force. “They can say, give us a free pass at Natanz or you can forget your CTBT,” he said.

Rademaker also made the claim that the CTBT actually provoked the Indians into testing in 1998 because they wanted to test their weapons before the CTBT entered into force. It would be interesting to see the evidence for this claim.

Rademaker’s three main arguments against ratification were that the treaty couldn’t be reliably verified, its entry into force provisions are fatally flawed, and its language created an ambiguity that has enabled the Russians to conduct tests that, according to the U.S. interpretation of the treaty, constitute cheating.

On verification, Rademaker said that everyone agrees that it isn’t possible to verify compliance with the test ban down to the zero-yield threshold in the treaty. The only question is how small an explosion could be reliably detected. According to Rademaker, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) put that number at 2 kilotons. Kimball responded by reading this passage from the NAS report: “Underground nuclear explosions can be reliably detected and can be identified as explosions, using [international monitoring system] data down to a yield of 0.1 kilotons (100 tons) in hard rock if conducted anywhere in Europe, Asia, North Africa, and North America.” Although Rademaker didn’t return to his claim about verification difficulties in this debate, we can expect to hear the claim repeated by treaty opponents in coming months.

Regarding entry into force, at the eleventh hour in the treaty negotiations, the British inserted a clause that the treaty wouldn’t enter into force until all 44 countries with a potential nuclear weapons capability had ratified it. At the time, some in the nongovernmental organization community and the Clinton administration saw this as a poison-pill clause. But it survived, and it now poses a very high bar obstructing entry into force of the treaty. Nine countries (the United States, China, Indonesia, North Korea, Iran, India, Pakistan, Israel, and Egypt) still haven’t ratified the treaty, and most are hard cases. Rademaker argued that only China and Indonesia would be likely to follow the U.S. lead on ratification in the near future, and pointed out that Egypt has said it won’t ratify the treaty until there is peace in the Middle East–a challenging requirement to say the least.

Kimball acknowledged that entry into force would be a problem and suggested that some sort of provisional entry into force might have to be negotiated once the holdout countries had been reduced to a smaller rump. Rademaker’s response: If the entry-into-force clause is to be renegotiated, we should take the opportunity before ratification to renegotiate other clauses in the treaty that are problematic. (However, as one presumes Rademaker well knows, once this particular black box is opened, it will be very hard to close it again.)

But Rademaker’s main argument concerned an alleged difference in interpretation of “zero” between the Americans and the Russians. Rademaker said that he was constrained by secrecy laws from talking about what he knew from his time in government, but he pointed repeatedly to language in the recently released, “America’s Strategic Posture: The Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States,” (by those commission members against the CTBT) saying that the Russians have done experiments with very low nuclear yield since signing the CTBT, and he claimed that the Russians had publicly said they had a different interpretation than Washington of what zero nuclear yield meant. He attached great significance to the fact that those commission members making the case for the CTBT in the strategic posture report never denied this charge. Clearly prepared for this point, Kimball read a statement from the lead Russian negotiator of the CTBT saying that Russia shared the U.S. interpretation of zero yield. He also asked, if the Russians were cheating, why did the Bush administration never mention it?

Rademaker repeated his charge of “Russian cheating” over and over, like a bulldog refusing to let go of someone’s pants cuff. Circulating through the crowd after the event, I found one nongovernmental organization official who worried that the Russians had at one point been doing secret hydronuclear tests. But I also found a former government official who had had access to the intelligence on this issue and felt the evidence for low-yield Russian tests was flimsy in the extreme. Some felt that Rademaker had behaved like Dick Cheney in the run-up to the Iraq War, when he endlessly repeated claims of a Saddam Hussein/Al Qaeda link for which there was no strong evidence. Nonetheless, it was an effective debating tactic.

What lessons can be learned from this preliminary skirmish in the CTBT ratification struggles? First, we can almost certainly expect a lot more allegations of Russian cheating and, even if they’re wrong, it will be hard to refute them because of the secrecy that shrouds this issue. The more the Obama administration can declassify about this issue, the harder it will be for CTBT opponents to hide false insinuations behind the skirts of secrecy. It also would help if the Strategic Posture Commission could clarify its members’ positions before their partial statements are stretched beyond their framers’ intent. Nor would further clarification from the Russians hurt.

Second, CTBT ratification will be in trouble if each side is wheeling out experts giving different estimates of the threshold down to which a ban can be verified. In the mid-1990s the weapons labs failed in their drive to exempt small tests from the test ban treaty because different lab scientists gave Congress different numbers for the size of explosion needed to assure the continued safety and reliability of the stockpile. If arms control experts now give Congress different numbers for the CTBT’s threshold of verification, they too will discover that, when experts disagree, senators fly in all directions. The onus is on test-ban proponents to demonstrate a strong technical consensus on the verification issue. In this regard, North Korea actually may have helped, since its relatively small tests were easily detected in a real-world test of the CTBT monitoring system.

Third, Rademaker is right that the entry-into-force provisions of the treaty create a real problem. It’s hard to imagine an easy path to ratification by Israel, India, and Pakistan–the three countries that refused to sign the NPT–and by North Korea–the country that unsigned the NPT and then tested two nuclear weapons. Senators who haven’t yet made up their minds on ratification will presumably await a compelling narrative from treaty proponents about mechanisms for solving this problem.

Finally, in his closing statement, Rademaker said, “We’re a nuclear weapons state, and we intend to be one for the foreseeable future. The right, the ability to test those weapons for their safety and reliability is an important right. . . . I don’t want to give up that right, and I certainly don’t want to give it up if everyone else in the world doesn’t give it up, too.” Rademaker and senators who share his worldview will be more comfortable giving up that “right” if the lab directors tell them it is safe to do so. In the 1999 hearings, the lab directors, damning the CTBT with faint praise, played a vital role in its demise. They hardly figured in the CSIS debate, but they can be expected to figure prominently in any hearings in the Senate. Presumably, someone in the White House is thinking about that already.

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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