Michael KreponThe Most Consequential Step

Diversion of the week:

I strongly recommend the movie “Heart and Souls” (1993) starring a very young Robert Downey, Jr., the great Alfre Woodard, the under-appreciated straight man, Charles Grodin, Kyra Sedgwick and Tom Sizemore. We usually settle for one, movie-ending feel good moment. Guys: think of the having-a-catch-with-Dad scene in “Field of Dreams.” Gets me every time. Romantics: think of the scene where, despite setbacks, misdirection plays, bad choices, sheer pigheadedness, etc., the couple that was meant to get together gets together. Well, now contemplate a movie where there are five – count ‘em – five feel good scenes. And as a bonus (pure joy), there is a cameo by B.B. King, resplendent in blue sequins.

Being home bound can help with clarity or do funny things with the mind. Lately I’ve been thinking about the single most useful step the United States could take to retard negative trend lines regarding nuclear dangers. It’s obvious, really.

No, I’m not thinking about extending New START and its inspection regime. That would clearly be positive and necessary to facilitate next steps. But I’m thinking bigger.  Blame it on social distancing, if you will.

The single most impactful step to reduce nuclear dangers that the Executive Branch and the Senate could take would be to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And then challenge Beijing to do the same, and then challenge New Delhi to do the same, and then challenge Islamabad/Rawalpindi to do the same. Four for the price of one. A grand slam. (Moscow has already consented to ratify the CTBT.)

Those who argue that it is necessary to bring China into the nuclear danger reduction business are correct. The question is how to do this smartly. Ratifying the CTBT is one concrete way to begin.

There’s another important reason for moving forward with the CTBT. The most dynamic and dangerous triangular nuclear competition at present, at least in my view, is the “lesser” of the two competitive triangles. China, India and Pakistan are competing hard. Their nuclear capabilities are growing, and they have no channels to modulate this competition. The next border clashes between India and Pakistan, and between China and India are coming, sooner or later. A formalized ban on testing that replaces the current moratoria would serve everyone’s interests.

The Senate’s consent to ratify the CTBT requires the acknowledgement of a central reality: The United States is not going to resume nuclear testing after a 28-year moratorium. The Stockpile Stewardship program is a major success story. Its continued bipartisan support is assured. The nuclear labs have answered the questions that Senators like John Warner (R-VA) and Dick Lugar (R-IN) had at its inception, leading them to conclude that it was premature to vote for ratification in 1999.

Twenty years later, we have the answers Senators Warner and Lugar were looking for. If the Nevada test site isn’t going to be shaking Las Vegas again, we might as well bring China, India and Pakistan into the fold.

Two decades later, every significant qualm about the CTBT has been answered. The last lingering concern relates to whispers of tests at Russian and Chinese test sites. If you are concerned about this issue, then ratify the CTBT and carry out inspections and place new instrumentation at test sites. The way to invoke inspections is for the Treaty to enter into force.

How long will it take for enough Republican Senators to see the wisdom of ratification? It took 50 years for the Senate to consent to ratify the 1925 Geneva Protocol. We can get this done sooner. Perhaps as soon as a Republican President can get behind this move.


  1. Phil Tanny (History)

    Thinking bigger would involve the understanding that even if nuclear arms control were a complete success resulting in the elimination of all nuclear weapons that doesn’t solve the problem, because the problem is not weapons, it’s people.

    If nuclear weapons were removed from the face of the Earth the same human factors that brought nuclear weapons in to existence would then find expression in some other technology. I’m sure somewhere in the world right now there are smart evil people wondering if it is possible to genetically engineer lethal viruses which can be targeted at specific populations.

    Experts are not really interested in thinking bigger, but in recycling the information which establishes them as experts.

  2. Alan Tomlinson (History)

    “How long will it take for enough Republican Senators to see the wisdom of ratification?” Never, tragically. Never fucking ever; because they are completely overwhelmed with their terror and are unable to transcend it. I don’t write this lightly-of course I hope I’m wrong-but I do not believe that the Republican party as it is currently established is interested in anything other than, “I’ve got mine. Fuck you.” I know that sounds absurdly glib; but I have seen almost no nuance from the GOP since perhaps the early 80s.


    Alan Tomlinson

  3. alice slater (History)

    Despite your call for the ratification of the The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, that treaty is a hollow promise as it isn’t comprehensive and it doesn’t ban tests.The US has performed more than 90 underground subcritical nuclear tests at the Nevada test site since1992 when Clinton signed the treaty. https://thebulletin.org/2012/12/subcritical-experiments/

    Plutonium is blown up with chemicals in explosions that do not cause nuclear fission. Because of this sub-criticality, Clinton argued they weren’t nuclear tests! Clinton made this Faustian bargain with the Dr. Srangeloves at the nuclear weapons labs where he promised them a “stockpile stewardship” program at the time that enabled them to continue designing nuclear weapons with hi-tech computer simulations and sub-critical tests. It was the reason India, followed by Pakistan started full scale nuclear testing, not wanting to be left behind in the arms race, when their objections to the loophole in the CTBT were ignored at the UN despite the rule of consensus! White man’s colonialist style of law and order! The loophole in the CTBT was the precedent for the gross excesses of the Obama administration to kowtow to the weapons labs, when in return for the modest treaty with Medveyev he promised the weaponeers about a trillion dollars over the next ten years, to build two new bomb factories and keep designing new nuclear weapons, missiles, submarines and airplanes to deliver them.

    The call now should be for a moratorium on any new weapons design, testing, development, and beginning negotiations for treaties that would create what Russia and China urge as “strategic stability” including taking up their proposals to negotiate treaties to ban space weapons (instead of establishing a new Space Force) as well as cyberwarfare. There’s so much more that civil society can urge on the US government and the other nuclear weapons states, than a meaningless ratification of the badly damaged CTBT which has been impotent in its ability to curb new weapons development as was envisaged when hundreds of thousands of people around the world campaigned for it to be realized.

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