Holding the CTBT Hostage in the Senate: The 'Stealth' Strategy of Helms and Lott

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In the present climate of partisan political conflict that seems to pervade every foreign and security policy issue before Congress, two powerful Senate leaders are actively blocking consideration of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)-the longest-sought nuclear arms control goal since the dawn of the nuclear age. In the months following President Bill Clinton's September 1997 transmittal of the agreement to the Senate for its advice and consent to ratification, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC), with the full support of Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), has refused to hold a single formal committee hearing on the pact. Although their opposition to the CTBT is out of step with the vast majority of the American people and a growing majority of senators, including all Democrats as well as other Republicans, their blocking actions will almost certainly push the CTBT debate into 1999 and perhaps beyond. Further delay carries high risks.

Senate inaction on the CTBT threatens to undermine the U.S. leadership role in ending nuclear testing and curbing nuclear proliferation around the globe, especially in South Asia. The May test explosions by India and Pakistan have shaken the nonproliferation regime and threaten a nuclear arms race on the subcontinent unless both nations accede-at the earliest possible time-to a de jure ban on further tests and agree to freeze their nuclear weapons programs. The already difficult effort to secure India's and Pakistan's accession to the test ban, which has now been signed by 150 states, will be undermined as long as Lott and Helms hold the CTBT hostage.

At the end of July, only 17 countries have ratified the treaty, including nine of the 44 states which must ratify the accord to trigger its entry into force. U.S. ratification and leadership on the CTBT is needed to secure ratification by other key nations, including Russia, China, Israel as well as India and Pakistan. Many signatories are no doubt waiting for the United States, Russia and China to act on the treaty (Britain and France ratified in April), as the accord's provisions are primarily intended to halt further improvements and developments in the programs of the five nuclear-weapon states.

Moreover, failure on the part of the Senate to promptly approve the CTBT risks the possibility that the United States will not be a state-party to the treaty when the first significant CTBT "deadline" arrives next year, possibly as early as September. Under the provisions of the treaty, if the test ban has not entered into force three years after it opened for signature, a special conference of states-parties could be convened to help expedite entry into force.

As a signatory, the United States would be able to attend the conference as an observer, but it could be limited in its ability to influence the necessary consensus decision.

Finally, if the United States, Russia and China have not ratified the CTBT by 2000, the next review conference on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) scheduled for that year may produce further challenges to that treaty's credibility and authority. Indeed, the commitment by the nuclear-weapon states to achieve a comprehensive test ban in 1996 was a major reason why the non-nuclear-weapon states agreed to the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995.

Ingredients for Success

Presidents and congressional leaders can act on major legislation and treaties expeditiously-when they choose to do so. Thirty-five years ago this September, President John F. Kennedy, backed by strong anti-nuclear sentiment, secured Senate approval of the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) only seven weeks after it was signed in Moscow, and a mere three weeks after he transmitted the treaty to the Senate for its approval. In 1972, only 10 weeks after President Richard Nixon signed the ABM Treaty, the Senate approved it by an overwhelming vote of 88-2.

The records of the 1963 LTBT ratification debate and other Senate arms control treaty debates, including the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which was approved only last year, demonstrate that securing the support of two-thirds of the Senate requires several key ingredients and some fortuitous timing. …