Politics and the Test Ban Treaty, By George F. Will, Newsweek, 20 October 1999

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President Clinton, whose cynicism never loses its power to astonish, put on a long face and, with that tone of sincerity that betokens his tendentiousness, lamented that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty had become tangled in politics. Indeed it had, but long before last week.

The treaty purports to ban all nuclear explosions. But the treaty does not even define prescribed nuclear tests. As Sen. Richard Lugar said in his lethal analysis of the treaty, Russia believes hydro-nuclear activities and sub-critical experiments are permitted under the treaty. The U.S. believes sub-critical experiments are permitted but hydro-nuclear tests are not. Other states believe both are illegal. U.S. negotiators might have been able to hold out for elimination of such dangerous ambiguity, but they were under pressure to produce a treaty in time for a United Nations signing ceremony before the 1996 election. The ceremony was 42 days before the election.

But now, at long last, the spell cast by arms control has been broken. The Senate did no more than its constitutional duty. The Senate opponents, all Republicans, acted after prolonged tutoring by experts, one of the most persuasive of whom was a Democrat, James Schlesinger. He was one of six former secretaries of Defense, and other former high officials, including two CIA directors appointed by Clinton, who urged rejection of the treaty. The 51 senators (17 more than the number necessary to defeat a treaty) who voted no, acted on their politically hazardous conclusion that the treaty is unverifiable, unenforceable and incompatible with the security of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Rejection of this treaty may improve future treaties by stiffening the spines of U.S. negotiators, who will know that there are things the Senate will not swallow just because they bear the label arms control.

Lugar, whose reputation as a supporter of arms control lent special power to his shredding of this treaty, noted that verification would be problematic because the United States cannot detect explosions below a few kilotons of yield; nations can use new mining technologies and existing geologic formations to mask tests; requests for on-site inspections must be approved by at least 30 of the 51 members of the treaty’s executive council, and even then the country to be inspected can declare a 50-square-kilometer area off-limits to inspectors.

Regarding enforcement, Lugar asked: Given that multinational sanctions against Iraq are ineffectual and difficult to maintain, would sanctions be enforced against a nation–say, India–of large commercial importance? As for the cockeyed notion that the treaty would have established inhibiting norms, the nations whose nuclear ambitions are particularly alarming–e.g. Iran, Iraq, North Korea–are distinguished by their contempt for such norms and for diplomats who think such norms inhibit. And as Harry Truman said: If you can’t trust a man’s word, it won’t help much to have it in writing.

Regarding the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Lugar, noting the unilateral U.S. moratorium on testing since 1992, says the nation really needs an honest discussion of whether we should commence limited testing and continue such a program with consistency and certainty. As nuclear weapons age, their materials and components degrade in unpredictable ways. In 1985 the United States had 30 types of nuclear warheads. Today it has just nine, so a single problem with one type could affect a large fraction of the nuclear arsenal. As for the plan to rely on computer modeling and simulations rather than tests, Lugar said the Senate was being asked to trust the security of our country to a program that is unproven and unlikely to be fully operational until perhaps 2010. He endorsed a nuclear scientist’s comparison of the challenge of maintaining a reliable stockpile without testing to walking an obstacle course in the dark when your last glimpse of light was a flash of lightning back in 1992.

More preposterous than the treaty is the mentality of its proponents, such as the president, who said Senate rejection would give a green light to every other country in the world to develop nuclear weapons. Can anyone who has not slept through the 20th century, or who has any comprehension of any other century, believe that nations contemplating the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the deterrent power and diplomatic weight that comes with them, will allow themselves to be controlled by red, amber or green lights from the United States?

Clinton said that every year of delay in ratifying the treaty increases the probability that nuclear weapons will spread to regions with intense national rivalries and to rogue leaders and perhaps even to terrorists. Think about that. The most high-stakes decisions of nations, and the most dangerous desires of the likes of Saddam Hussein, can be controlled by a U.S. decision never again to test nuclear weapons? Such delusional thinking carries national hubris to new heights.

Referring to opposition to the treaty, Clinton said, This whole thing is about politics. Actually, opponents of the treaty committed a Washington rarity, taking a stand in opposition to public opinion. Affixing the label arms control to any measure guarantees its popularity with a public not given to noticing much else about such measures.

People who believe arms control agreements can tame the world are placing faith in, and would base national security on, parchment barriers to the dark furies of history. For ardent believers, arms control is a superstition, impervious to evidence of its futility. Meaningful arms control is almost a contradiction in terms. Nations will shape their arsenals to suit their ambitions and perceived interests; aggressive nations will negotiate only innocuous limits; unaggressive nations have unthreatening arsenals. Hence, more often than not, arms control is impossible until it is unimportant.

Center for Security Policy

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