Senator Kyl and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

It is no secret that Jon Kyl, a Republican senator from Arizona who has served on the Senate since 1995, opposes the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). He opposed its ratification in 1999, and is now even more implacably opposed to Senate ratification than before.

In 1999, Senator Kyl was part of a small but vocal group of Republican senators who played a key role in the defeat of the ratification of the CTBT. As hearings on the CTBT were underway and it became clear that Senatorial support was insufficient for ratification, the Clinton Administration and Senate Democrats attempted to postpone the vote. The Democrats came close to working out a deal with the Republicans, in which the latter required that President Bill Clinton request the delay, and that the treaty not be brought before the Senate again for the remainder of his presidency.[1] Ultimately, the Democrats largely acquiesced to these demands, inserting only one exception clause that would allow the treaty to be brought forward for ratification should an extraordinary situation arise—an implicit reference to the tit-for-tat nuclear testing by India and Pakistan at the time. Senator Kyl and his small group of Republicans disapproved of a delay. They wanted a vote in order to defeat the treaty. They held disproportionate power because a delay required unanimous Senatorial consent.[2] So the motion to delay the vote on ratification failed, and the ratification of the CTBT subsequently failed as the Senate voted 51-48 (with one abstention) against ratification; 19 votes short of the 67 required to ratify the treaty.

Senator Kyl opposes the CTBT on national security grounds. His arguments are multifaceted, but his main accent is usually placed on what the CTBT would mean for the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which was the sole subject of an op-ed he co-wrote with Richard Perle in The Wall Street Journal in June 2009.[3] They argued that a permanent end to testing would ultimately play a role in the erosion of the reliability and viability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In particular, they worried that eventually the lives of existing nuclear warheads could not be extended any longer, and by the time that would happen, the infrastructure that had been painstakingly built up during the Cold War to design and produce new warheads will have been degraded to such an extent that, without any immediate move to prop up this infrastructure, the United States would be unilaterally disarmed of nuclear weapons by way of obsolescence. Although they felt that this problem was mostly a matter of funding for the complex, they also pointed out that the CTBT would forbid explosive nuclear testing of new designs, resulting in a possible decrease in knowledge about the reliability of those weapons, and ultimately resulting in pressure to keep more nuclear weapons operational just in case some would fail. The issue of reliability necessarily becomes more and more central as the numbers of nuclear weapons decreases, as the margin for error must shrink as well, according to Kyl and Perle.In that article and elsewhere,[4] Senator Kyl has argued that this trend would also place into doubt U.S. extended deterrence for its allies, which is a core strategic issue for at least some allied countries (such as South Korea). If extended deterrence weakens, nuclear proliferation may result as allies strive for nuclear weapons. Their enemies, thus feeling increasingly vulnerable, may also work toward nuclear arsenals as well. The gist of the extended deterrence argument is that a single, U.S., nuclear arsenal is preferable to a bevy of new national arsenals. Senator Kyl also fears that a dilapidating U.S. arsenal would result in rogue states trying to develop nuclear weapons to take advantage of that deteriorating state.

In another op-ed in October 2009, Senator Kyl rolled out other arguments.[5] His first point of opposition is that the treaty fails to define what a nuclear explosion actually is. The second plank of his argument is the issue of verification; he asserts that it was a decisive factor back in 1999 and remains so now.He holds that verification measures are inadequate to the purpose, as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) failed to detect and collect radioactive gasses and particulates in the aftermath of the North Korean nuclear tests to be able to confirm whether or not Pyongyang was indeed telling the truth when it announced that it had tested. (The CTBTO seismic stations, however, did detect the tests.) A third reason he opposes the CTBT is that the 51-nation executive council requires a majority of 30 to agree that an illegal test had taken place and then inspect the relevant facilities (to which their access could be barred by the host country anyway). He adds that most of this council is not friendly to the United States. The implication is that many illegal tests would not be identified as such and nothing would be done about them because they would be carried out by countries opposing the United States, therefore much of the council would be sympathetic to their actions.

Senator Kyl also took to task the CTBT’s proponents, who cite the importance of moral leadership. He is skeptical of this argument for a number of reasons. The United States has done more for arms control since the end of the Cold War than any other country, including the bilateral treaties with Russia, the Nunn-Lugar program to safely dispose of nuclear materials in the new post-Soviet states, a de facto moratorium on nuclear testing (since 1992), and taking the lead on both North Korea and Iran. No other country can compete with that record, so why would a symbolic gesture make any difference? If the United States does not have the moral leadership now to be able to achieve favorable results on North Korea and Iran, ratification of a single treaty will not change anything. If it does have the moral leadership, then just what is that leadership worth when so little progress is achieved vis-à-vis North Korea and Iran, and how would ratifying the CTBT change anything? How would the United States ratifying the CTBT even convince other states that have not yet ratified the CTBT to do so? Ultimately, Senator Kyl concludes that the United States should no longer expend effort on ratifying treaties that will have no direct and positive effect on those and other countries challenging the United States.

Twelve years after the defeat of CTBT’s ratification, two years after his pair of op-eds in The Wall Street Journal, and two years before he retires from the Senate, Kyl continues to oppose the CTBT, as evidenced by his keynote speech on the second day of the March 28-29 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference.[6] He decried nuclear disarmament for being unrealistic, and generally reiterated a number of the arguments already mentioned above, albeit in the wider context of global zero. He hypothesizes a nuclear-free world and rhetorically questions what happens when geopolitical tensions surface again.“How will nations settle their disputes? Through the United Nations? By relying on conventional arms? Or, would they begin a nuclear mobilization?”He went on: “Further treaties that take us closer to nuclear disarmament will not help address these threats and may likely exacerbate them. Instead, we need real, realistic policies including maintaining the stability of a strong nuclear deterrent.”Kyl left his audience in no doubt that he is more strongly opposed to the ratification of the CTBT now than he was in 1999.



[1] “Senate Rejects Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; Clinton Vows to Continue Moratorium,” Arms Control Today (Arms Control Association), September/October 1999,


[2] Jonathan Medalia, “Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban-Treaty: Background and Current Developments,” Congressional Research Service Report, December 7, 2010, made available online by the Federation of American Scientists,


[3] Jon Kyl and Richard Perle, “Our Decaying Nuclear Deterrent,” The Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2009,


[4] Senator Jon Kyl, floor speech, (under Defense Authorization), Congressional Record – Senate, October 24, 2007, pp. S13357-S13358,


[5] Jon Kyl, “Why We Need to Test Nuclear Weapons,” The Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2009,


[6] Senator Jon Kyl, excerpts of presentation before the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Washington, DC, March 29, 2011,




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