LOOKING BACK: Learning from the 1999 Vote on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

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When President Bill Clinton described the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) as "the longest-sought, hardest fought prize in arms control history," he was not exaggerating. In the face of international outrage over their rapid-fire pace of Cold War testing, U.S. and Soviet leaders attempted in 1958-1959 and again in 1963 to negotiate a comprehensive ban on all nuclear test explosions. They came close but were unable to agree on the details for inspections and had to settle for the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited atmospheric testing. The United States, Russia, and other states conducted hundreds more nuclear tests underground, which enabled further arms racing and proliferation.

Not until the end of the Cold War three decades later did Moscow (in 1991) and Washington (in 1992) manage to halt testing, unilaterally. In 1994 the two countries launched multilateral negotiations on a treaty banning all nuclear weapons test explosions in all environments.

The CTBT is crucial to disarmament and nonproliferation. By prohibiting all nuclear test explosions, it impedes the ability of states possessing nuclear weapons to field new and more deadly types of warheads, while helping to prevent the emergence of new nuclear-armed states. Moving forward on the CTBT remains an essential step toward restoring confidence in the beleaguered nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime. The nuclear-weapon states' commitment to achieve the CTBT was a crucial part of the bargain that won the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 and the 2000 NPT Review Conference document.

Since it was opened for signature on September 24, 1996, 181 countries have signed the CTBT, and 150 countries have ratified it. The roster of ratifiers includes three of the five NPT nuclear-weapon states: France, Russia, and the United Kingdom. The other two, China and the United States, have signed but not ratified the CTBT. Under the treaty's Annex 2, 44 specified countries must ratify the treaty to bring it into force. The United States is on that list and is one of nine such countries that have not ratified the treaty.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate's brief debate and 51-48 vote against CTBT ratification on October 13, 1999, coupled with the Bush administration's opposition to the treaty, has slowed the momentum toward the pact's formal entry into force. Consequently, 13 years after the CTBT was opened for signature and exactly a decade after the Senate's first vote on the treaty, the goal of CTBT entry into force remains unfulfilled and U.S. test ban policy remains in a state of limbo.

The situation is self-defeating and counterproductive. Given the U.S. signature of the CTBT and the Bush administration policy to maintain the U.S. nuclear test moratorium, the United States bears most CTBT-related responsibilities. There is neither technical need nor any political support for the renewal of U.S. nuclear testing. At the same time, it is vital to reduce the risk that other countries might conduct nuclear tests that could improve their nuclear capabilities. Yet, the U.S. failure to ratify the CTBT has diminished Washington's ability to prod other nations to join the treaty and improve its ability to detect and deter clandestine nuclear testing.

There is cause for optimism. The prospects for U.S. ratification are better than they ever have been. Technical developments since 1999 have strengthened the arguments of treaty proponents, and the political alignment in the Senate has changed significantly. One key factor, though certainly not the only one, is that President Barack Obama pledged in his April 5 nuclear weapons speech in Prague that his administration "will immediately and aggressively" pursue U.S. ratification of the CTBT. In May, Gary Samore, the top White House adviser on arms control and proliferation, said the administration is "moving very deliberately in terms of doing the necessary technical and intelligence work to look at the important questions of verification, questions of American stockpile stewardship. …