Michael KreponThe Enduring Value of the CTBT

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is turning its attention to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty for the first time since 1999, when it held the briefest of hearings on the Treaty before fast-forwarding it to the Senate, which rebuked President Bill Clinton by denying its consent to ratification. The vote was mostly along party lines – only four Republican Senators voted yea back then – a preview of bitter partisan divides to follow.

One of these years, the SFRC will hold lengthy hearings on the CTBT, focusing on what has changed since the 1999 vote, what benefits the Treaty can provide, and what insurance policies could address lingering concerns. The two biggest and most important developments since the 1999 vote, as former Secretary of State George Shultz and others have noted, are the U.S. stockpile stewardship program and advancing capabilities to detect very low-yield, covert nuclear tests.

At the time of the 1999 vote, effective stockpile stewardship without explosive testing was a concept. Now it is a reality. The U.S. nuclear labs have figured out how to extend the longevity of existing warhead designs without explosive testing. Exceptional progress has also been made in detecting extremely low-yield tests – both by U.S. national technical means and by a parallel International Monitoring System built by the CTBT Preparatory Commission, based in Vienna. As a consequence, the two biggest concerns of CTBT skeptics have been satisfactorily addressed.

For these reasons alone, the CTBT deserves open-minded consideration in hearings informed by technical expertise. The Senate’s consent to ratification could do more than any other single step to reduce nuclear dangers in East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East, where continued or renewed testing would rattle allies and accelerate negative regional dynamics.

The Hearing scheduled for September 7th at 2:30 pm, at which I will be testifying, is a start, but Chairman Bob Corker’s declared interest is not to assess the pros and cons of the Treaty, but rather to focus on whether the Obama Administration is circumventing the Senate’s prerogatives of advice and consent. President Obama’s presumed offense is pursuing a treaty ratification end-around by means of a United Nations Security Council Resolution, along with a companion statement by the Security Council’s five permanent members reaffirming the CTBT.

The Obama Administration has declared that the resolution will be non-binding, that it will not invoke Chapter VII of the UN Charter, and that it will therefore not impose any new obligations on the United States. The Senate will be able to determine the truth of these assertions soon enough, when the resolution’s drafting process has been completed.

But why go to the bother of a UN Security Council resolution and an accompanying P-5 statement if it’s not an end-around of the Senate or a shortcut to entry-into-force?

The answers are simple and straightforward:

First, the Treaty and national moratoria are in need of reaffirmation. The Treaty has been in limbo for twenty years, and the last Republican President, George W. Bush, was not in favor of pursuing ratification and entry-into-force.

Second, the Treaty is central to the norm of nuclear non-proliferation. Nuclear testing facilitates horizontal and vertical proliferation; the absence of nuclear testing impedes advanced warhead designs.

Third, U.S. national and allied security is undermined by the resumption of nuclear testing, especially by Russia, China, and North Korea. If North Korea, the lone outlier that still tests, continues to do so, this resolution will facilitate additional penalties.

Fourth, there is considerable symbolic value in the absence of nuclear explosive testing, since every test is an advertisement of the utility of nuclear weapons. The United States, with the world’s best conventional military capabilities and stockpile-stewardship program, benefits the most from the absence of nuclear explosive testing by others.

And fifth, lingering concerns about verification and compliance can be addressed far better if the Treaty enters into force than if it remains in limbo. By opposing the Treaty, those who doubt whether extremely low-yield explosions can be detected also oppose mechanisms to monitor compliance, including the Treaty’s on-site inspections.

Given the CTBT’s enduring value, it deserves a boost by means of a rare UN Security Council resolution and a companion P-5 statement – especially on the 20th anniversary of the Treaty’s signing ceremony at the United Nations.

Note: The Stimson Center will convene a meeting on September 13, 2016 on the United States and the Future of the CTBT.


  1. Michael Krepon (History)

    Hearing on CTBT moved up to 10am on Wednesday.

  2. Marcus (History)

    I have never understood the US reluctance to ratify this treaty. We, and the other nuclear powers don’t have any use for more testing, and it might discourage others from testing. Seems like a simple decision to me.