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National Security

Obama Administration Readying to Make Case for Test Ban Treaty

photo of Martin Matishak
May 11, 2011

This article originally appeared in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group whose mission is preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration will soon launch its campaign to win U.S. Senate approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a senior State Department official said on Tuesday (see GSN, May 6).

"I cannot predict ... when the president will make a choice to send the treaty to a vote but I will tell you that we intend to win that vote," according to Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher.

Acknowledging that the pact is likely to face stiff opposition in the Senate, Tauscher said the administration is preparing an "education campaign" that will inform lawmakers as well as the public on the matter to a point where voters -- en masse -- can influence an ultimate decision.

 

"Whatever it takes to win that argument and however long it takes to make that argument, the president is committed to do that," Tauscher told the audience at the annual meeting of the Arms Control Association.

She said the case for the test ban treaty would consist of three main arguments: that the United States no longer needs to conduct explosive tests to ensure the viability of its nuclear arsenal; that the agreement, once it has entered into force, would obligate all member states not to test; and that the international organization that supports the treaty has a greater ability to catch nations that cheat than it did when the Senate last considered the pact in 1999.

Yet a major proponent of the legally binding prohibition on Tuesday expressed doubt the chamber would act anytime soon.

"In my judgment, we should act before the 2012 elections. I don't have a high degree of confidence that we will," Senator Robert Casey (D-Pa.) told the audience earlier in the day.

The ongoing engagement process with the Senate over the treaty "could intensify in the coming months," according to a State Department official, who spoke on background because the formal effort has not yet begun.

"There’s no specific time line for a vote. We just want to closely consult with senators before making any choices. We see this as a marathon, not a sprint or even a middle-distance event," the official told Global Security Newswire on Wednesday by e-mail.

A State Department source told Foreign Policy that formal Senate consideration and a decision on the treaty was not expected before the 2012 election.

Casey also speculated that winning the necessary 67 votes for ratification would prove more difficult than during the New START debate.

The U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control treaty was approved in a 71-26 vote of the Senate last December, with 13 Republicans favoring ratification. The agreement entered into force in February.

"I don't think any of us can overlay the votes from New START on this vote. It's going to be a different debate in some ways and, frankly, a more difficult debate," according to Casey, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He referenced the shifting attitudes by members of Congress toward security legislation as a reason why the ratification could prove more perilous.

President Barack Obama shortly after taking office signaled he would seek to ratify the test ban treaty once the New START agreement was finalized; however, the White House has shied away from establishing a time line for winning Senate approval, particularly in the wake of heated Republican opposition to the arms control deal.

Tauscher said Obama could personally help in the push for ratification, as he did with New START, but that administration officials were not counting on his involvement.

The United Nations in 1996 adopted the prohibition on nuclear test explosions, which now has 182 signatory states. Supporters say the pact would help prevent additional nations from developing nuclear weapons.

"Were the CTBT to enter into force, states interested in pursuing or advancing a nuclear weapons program would risk either deploying weapons that might not work" because they had not been fully vetted "or incur international condemnation and sanctions for testing," Tauscher said.

Washington has observed a self-imposed moratorium on atomic bomb blasts since 1992. It has signed but not ratified the test ban treaty.

The United States is one of 44 "Annex 2" countries that must ratify the treaty before it can enter into force. The other holdouts are China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan.

When the Senate took up the pact in 1999, opponents argued it would prohibit tests that might be necessary to verify the reliability of the U.S. stockpile. In March, retiring Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) reaffirmed his opposition to the agreement (see GSN, March 30).

"I'm not prepared to forever give up our right to [test] with the circumstances that exist in the world today," he said during a discussion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Nuclear Policy Conference.

Treaty skeptics have also questioned whether treaty states might be able to cheat and conduct low-yield nuclear tests in secret.

Tauscher responded to those concerns by highlighting U.S. detection capabilities and those put in place through the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The global lattice of CTBT detection sites is expected to be 90 percent complete before the start of 2013. Today, the network boasts 265 certified monitoring and laboratory installations.

"Taken together, these verification tools would make it difficult for any state to conduct nuclear tests that escape detection," the diplomat said.

She rejected the idea that last year's deliberations on New START hindered chances for CTBT ratification on Capitol Hill.

"I know that the conventional wisdom is that the ratification of New START has delayed or pushed aside consideration of the CTBT," according to Tauscher. "I take the opposite view."

She said that before debate began on the arms control deal "there was not a lot of muscle memory on treaties, especially nuclear treaties, in the Senate." Now, though, the chamber is better versed on such international pacts.

With New START ratified, the administration is "in a stronger position to make the case for the CTBT on its merits," Tauscher told the audience.

She praised the National Nuclear Security Administration's Stockpile Stewardship Program, which works without conducting test detonations to ensure the country's nuclear weapons would perform as expected.

Physicists and engineers inspect weapons in the arsenal to monitor the effects of aging, and carry out computer simulations to anticipate problems and devise fixes. They can then repair or remanufacture aging components without altering warhead design details.

"Our current efforts go a step beyond explosive testing by enabling the labs to anticipate problems in advance and reduce their potential impact on our arsenal -- something that nuclear testing could not do," according to Tauscher.

The diplomat also noted that the National Academies of Science is expected to soon release a separate assessment that many expect will support the pact's ratification.

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