This Week – State of the Union: an opportunity to take the next step

President Barack Obama has a golden opportunity in his State of the Union address tomorrow to advance his disarmament agenda by highlighting the benefits to U.S. security in the entry into force of the global treaty banning nuclear weapons tests. This requires the new Senate to ratify it.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was rejected by the Senate in 1999 under President Bill Clinton, in a rushed and botched process which bypassed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then headed by Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Conventional wisdom has it that even though the new Senate is still controlled by the Democrats, obtaining the 67 votes needed for ratification would be well nigh impossible given the difficulties in achieving ratification of the New START treaty at the end of last year. Senator Jon Kyl, who was instrumental in the defeat of the CTBT in 1999 and voted against New START, has already begun mobilizing for another fight on CTBT.

However Sen. Kyl is not invincible. He was unable to muster enough No votes to scupper New START, which passed with 71 votes in favor. His arguments on the need to ensure a safe, secure and reliable nuclear arsenal, which would be critical in any CTBT debate, were dealt with during the START hearings in detail and answered by a promised billion for the weapons labs. Sen. Kyl’s verification and monitoring concerns voiced in 1999 have been addressed since that time by a massive expansion in global capability through the establishment of a complex and impressive array of monitoring sites and deployment of cutting-edge technology.

The President has American public opinion on his side, with most Americans believing that nuclear testing is already illegal. It is hard to imagine support for ending the moratorium on nuclear testing gaining traction with U.S. voters. Which Senator would hold up his or her hand in support of the resumption of testing in their state?

Finally, there is the argument that the U.S. needs to show leadership in curbing the spread of nuclear weapons. The CTBT is a critical instrument for preventing nuclear states from developing new weapons or non-nuclear states from testing a bomb.

America’s allies, most of whom ratified the treaty after it was opened for signing in 1996, have been patient, knowing how dangerous it is to appear to be attempting to influence Senate decisions. But they are no less passionate to see progress. It is to be hoped that President Obama will be encouraged by the momentum gained from the START ratification to invest more political capital in ensuring the early entry into force of a global test ban. He showed political courage on START and has already gone into the history books as the first Democratic president to negotiate and ratify an arms control treaty with Moscow. Identifying the CTBT as one of his administration’s priorities in 2011 would be welcomed by U.S. allies and by those Americans who want a safer world – on both sides of the aisle.


These are the personal views of the author.

Anne Penketh is BASIC’s program director, based in Washington. She leads on BASIC’s work with the U.S. Government and Congress, as well as BASIC’s Middle East WMD-free zone project. She was foreign correspondent and chief diplomatic editor at the Independent before joining BASIC in 2009.


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