America's long history as a driving force in the world's effort to contain weapons of mass destruction has taken an abrupt change in direction with the Senate's rejection of the nuclear test ban treaty.
A pact first proposed by President Eisenhower is suddenly geopolitical adrift. That makes it less likely that emerging nuclear nations such as India, Pakistan, and North Korea will ever sign on - raising the probability of regional arms races in the next century, experts say.
The fact that these nuclear newcomers have refused to rein in their programs is precisely the point, say many Republican senators who voted against the treaty. Stressing self-reliance over global cooperation, they say the United States must not bind itself with a flawed treaty that others will flout.
With this in mind, they brought about a break with internationalism more decisive than any since the US Senate defeated the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
"[This] will be a vote heard around the world to the detriment of the United States," warned Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania on the Senate floor, making a last-minute plea for GOP Senate leaders to call off Wednesday's vote.
In the end, the Senate rejected ratification of the treaty in a 51-to-48 vote mainly along party lines, with no Democrats voting in opposition.
President Clinton and Senate Democrats vowed to continue pushing the treaty, which the Senate can vote on repeatedly. But backers say there is virtually no chance it will be brought up again until 2001 at the earliest, after the presidential election.
The US is now the first nuclear power to explicitly reject the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), completed in 1996. Along with China and Russia, the United States is one of 26 nuclear states - of a total of 44 - that still must ratify the pact before it can take force.
The treaty would ban all nuclear explosions in the air, space, or underground, set up an international monitoring system to detect violations, and allow for on-site inspections when necessary.
The treaty's foundation
The CTBT builds upon the 1969 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in which the five major nuclear powers agreed to engage in disarmament discussions in return for a promise by nonnuclear states not to acquire nuclear weapons.
Now, experts say, that's open to question. "The CTBT has for 30 years been considered the litmus test of the sincerity of the nuclear-weapons states in living up to their part of the bargain," says Thomas Graham, former special representative to the president on arms control.
Critics of the agreement - which was 40 years in the making and is the first arms-control treaty ever voted down by the Senate - concede that the step is likely to draw international fire in the short run. But they contend the treaty, which the US was the first to sign in 1996, was flawed from the beginning. …