Time for the Test Ban

The presidents of the United States and Russia have proclaimed that they will work for a world without nuclear weapons. Vice President Joe Biden reaffirmed that goal in a recent major policy speech. But the speech was more than that: Biden affirmed that a world without nuclear weapons would also be a compass by which the administration would steer current policy. He did so by announcing the administration’s strong support for increased funding for the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories. This was the same message that four champions of a world without nuclear weapons—George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry, and Sam Nunn—delivered last January in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

The essential point in these statements is that America’s real nuclear deterrent resides in the skills of its scientists and engineers, more than in the numbers and types of weapons that have been manufactured at any given time. That will remain true even if all of the world’s nuclear weapons have been eliminated.

The successes of American scientists and engineers have enabled the United States to maintain a safe and reliable stockpile of nuclear weapons despite the absence of any American nuclear test explosions since 1992. This has been fundamental for U.S. security and indeed for global security. Now, the United States can confidently embark on a campaign to enlist the world’s possessors of nuclear weapons in a long-term effort to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons.

For this same reason, the United States can safely work for the entry into force of a comprehensive, global ban on all explosive nuclear tests.

This will not be easy, for some nations will want to enjoy the freedom to test their newly designed nuclear weapons, unencumbered by a treaty banning their tests. The most threatening of those nations are not friendly toward the United States nor are they friends of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Currently, American diplomacy must work with one hand tied behind its back, because the U.S. Senate has not yet given its advice and consent to the ratification of a test ban treaty that lies before it. But without U.S. leadership on the Test Ban, a world free of nuclear weapons will not be perceived as realistic and efforts to strengthen the nonproliferation system will falter.

The Test Ban is an absolutely essential element in a network of barriers against proliferation—not a panacea in itself, but critical to the success of the whole project. The treaty would prevent advanced nuclear weapon states from making significant improvements in their weapons stockpiles and it would prevent non-nuclear weapon states from developing more sophisticated weapons useful for war-fighting.

What the nuclear powers do affects the decisions of other countries. One would think that is a truism but it is hotly debated. Some opponents of the Test Ban argue that whether the United States tests or develops new weapons has no effect on what the other nations do. But, in fact, expectations about the future are what motivate all governments. Explosive testing is perhaps the most visible of all nuclear weapons activities. A nuclear explosion amounts to an announcement that nuclear weapons are here to stay. That is what testing tells the world.

The United States has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992. The other four recognized nuclear weapons states Britain, France, Russia, and China–have also stopped testing. Why not just continue this informal arrangement? Well, the past ten years have shown how moratoriums work and how they don’t. One lesson is that instabilities are inherent. Since there are no agreed standards, there are bound to be doubts about whether there is a level playing-field among the countries. And there is no agreed way to remove doubts about other nations’ actions: no on-site inspections, no transparency at test sites. This is what the Test ban treaty would provide.

The United States has much to gain by outlawing nuclear tests, and the Senate should approve the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as soon as possible.

Ambassador James E. Goodby is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He was Deputy to General John Shalikashvili, the Special Advisor to the President and the Secretary of State for the CTBT, in 2000-2001. He is a member of BASIC’s Board of Directors. His views are his own.

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