The Senate Rejects Junk Arms Control

Mackubin T. Owens

October 1, 1999

The rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by the Senate two weeks ago evoked a predictably angry response from the president and his spokesmen. The Senate Republican majority that voted down the treaty exhibited "reckless partisanship" that "threatens [US] national security" thundered President Clinton. Vice president Gore fulminated that "right-wing extremists" had engineered a "breathtakingly irresponsible" act by rejecting the pact. Both the president and vice president called the Senate’s rejection of the treaty a manifestation Republican isolationism

The amen chorus of the media, most notably the New York Times, has continued to echo the administration’s charge that the Republicans have become isolationists. The Times compared the defeat of the CTBT to the Senate’s rejection of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. But as Richard Perle, a former staffer for Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (dean of the pro-defense Democrats during the Carter-Reagan years) and later an Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan presidency, wrote in an op-ed for the Times, CTBT opponents were "neither isolationists nor fools."

The actions of the administration since the United States signed the CTBT in September 1996 belie the claim that the CTBT was an important foreign policy initiative. The president did not submit it to the Senate and make it a campaign issue during the 1996 election. When it was clear that Senate Democrats were going to push for a vote this fall, the president did not call Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott until it was too late. He preferred to demonize treaty opponents rather than adopting a bipartisan approach designed to bring the critics along, as the administration did with NAFTA, military operations in Bosnia, and NATO expansion.

President Clinton’s actions on behalf of the CTBT stand in stark contrast to the efforts of Woodrow Wilson to gain Senate consent to ratification of the Treaty of Versailles. Despite desperately poor health, Wilson toured the country touting the benefits of the treaty. Indeed, his exertions on behalf of the Treaty of Versailles contributed to his death. President Clinton, who is in excellent health, made no comparable effort to gain the Senate’s consent to the CTBT, a pact he now claims to be the cornerstone of future peace and international order.

But even if he had, the treaty deserved to be rejected on its merits. This is the reason such "right wing extremists" and "isolationists" in the Senate as Richard Lugar, Olympia Snowe, Thad Cochran, and Peter Dominici voted against the CTBT. Senator Lugar, a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a consistent supporter of arms control agreements, stated that this treaty not up to the standards of previous pacts submitted to the Senate.

Treaty opponents voted down the CTBT on the basis of four arguments. First, they concluded that the CTBT would stop neither proliferation nor testing by current nuclear states. The fact is that states may develop nuclear weapons without testing. North Korea is a case in point. Iran and Iraq may be close behind. The critics also rejected the claim that if only the US would set the example by ratifying the CTBT, other countries would stop testing as well. They noted that although the US has observed a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing since 1992, China, India, and Pakistan all subsequently tested nuclear weapons.

Second, they concluded that the CTBT could limit future US flexibility in the event that changed circumstances might require new technologies or weapons to deal with unforeseen threats. A case in point is the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which was signed with a country that no longer exists to deal with a problem that has been overtaken by events. This treaty took on a life of its own. 27 years after the ratification of the ABM Treaty, it still hinders the ability of the US to develop effective ballistic missile defenses in a world of rogue states that might be resistant to traditional deterrence.

If the ABM Treaty illustrates the folly of banning forever a particular approach or technology, the inter-war period illustrates the folly of believing that a scrap of paper will always limit the activities of states. Treaties are only as good as the governments that sign them, and governments change. The numerous arms control agreements signed in the 1920s were broken by the successor totalitarian governments a few years later to the disadvantage of the compliant democracies.

Third, treaty opponents concluded that the CTBT would have an adverse effect on the safety, reliability, and effectiveness of the US nuclear deterrent. While the nuclear weapons laboratories have undertaken a program of computer simulation in response to the testing moratorium, weapons designers contend that it will take at least a decade to determine if computer simulation can really replace actual testing of components. In the meantime, low yield tests are necessary to detect and correct the unexpected but chronic problems that have affected US nuclear warheads in the past.

The problem is that components of nuclear weapons degrade in unpredictable ways. This becomes a greater concern as the weapons age. The average age of the US nuclear arsenal is 14 years. Most of these weapons were designed to remain in service for 20 years, and were not manufactured to remain viable in a no-test environment. Computer simulations cannot always detect changes over time to exotic metals, chemicals, and highly radioactive materials. As James Schlesinger, President Carter’s Secretary of Defense and a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, testified two years ago, "In the past, the consistent process of replacement and testing of new designs gave assurances that weapons would not be subject to the effects of aging. But under this treaty, we would be vulnerable."

Finally, opponents were concerned about the verifiability of the CTBT and the ability of signatories to enforce compliance. To begin with, it is impossible to verify a zero-yield test ban. Despite the claims made by proponents, there is no way to reliably differentiate between low-yield nuclear explosions on the one hand and earthquakes, conventional explosions, or other "seismic events" on the other. During the run up to the CTBT vote, the CIA stated that it might not be able to detect "small" nuclear explosions. It is possible to muffle seismic shocks by a technique known as "decoupling," which enables a cheater to increase yields without getting caught. Secretary of Defense William Cohen (who opposed a comprehensive test ban when he was in the Senate) admitted that "we would not be able to detect every evasively conducted test."

The Cold War arms control experience demonstrates that even when violations are detected, there is pressure to wink at them or explain them away. The reason for this is that noncompliance requires a response, and those with a vested interest in the agreement will argue that such a response will interfere with further "dialogue." This was the case even during the Reagan presidency.

If noncompliance is confirmed, what then? The Senate noted that the administration did not sanction China for its transfer of M-11 missiles to Pakistan, or North Korea for its refusal to comply with a previous nuclear agreement. The Clinton administration’s record of coddling violators of international agreements clearly played a role in the Senate’s rejection of the CTBT.

The CTBT is junk arms control, an imprecise and badly drafted document. Had the Senate given its consent to ratification, its substantial flaws could not have been fixed since the terms of the treaty were not subject to amendment or reservation. It would have fatally enmeshed the US in an expansive multilateral regime that did little to inhibit determined proliferators while limiting US strategic flexibility in the future.

Opposition to the utopian fantasy that junk arms control agreements such as the CTBT can magically restrain the likes of North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and China is not isolationism. It is common sense.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI and an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University. He was director of legislative affairs for the nuclear weapons programs of the Department of Energy from 1985 to 1987.