FORTY countries, including Egypt, India, Iran, and Iraq, have
recently proposed an amendment to the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty,
which prohibits tests of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. They
want to turn it into a treaty banning all nuclear weapons testing.
This initiative presents the Bush administration with a diplomatic
challenge and a national security opportunity.
More than 100 countries have joined the treaty over its 26-year
life. But nuclear weapons testing by the United States and the
Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent by Britain, France, and China,
continues at a vigorous pace underground.
Such testing has been vigorously criticized by most countries. In
1987, 128 countries voted for a United Nations resolution advocating
the amendment that has just been formally proposed. Only the US,
France, and Britain opposed the resolution.
The Limited Test Ban Treaty's amendment clause specifies that a
conference to consider amendments must be convened if requested by
one-third of the parties. The US, Britain, and the USSR - the three
countries that drafted the treaty - are responsible for convening
such a conference. Those countries will each have only one vote at
the conference, but under the treaty each of them can veto any
The 40 countries that have now called for an amendment conference
are more than a third of the parties. These countries want an end to
underground as well as atmospheric testing. What should the US do?
In large part, the answer to this question depends on whether the
Bush administration thinks that continued testing is necessary, and,
if so, for how long. Until 1981, every American president since
Dwight Eisenhower had endorsed efforts to negotiate a comprehensive
test ban agreement. Reagan administration officials reversed this
longstanding policy, believing that nuclear weapons testing would be
necessary indefinitely to develop new types of nuclear weapons and
to make sure that the nuclear weapons already in the US stockpile
will work. President Reagan also canceled ongoing comprehensive test
ban negotiations. But President Bush may take a fresh look at this
There is reason to think that a ban on nuclear testing at this
time would enhance American national security. If the US and the
USSR stop testing, it will be more difficult for hard-liners in
third-world states to argue that their countries needed to test
nuclear weapons to acquire international prestige. …