Is the CTBT D.O.A.?

“The CTBT is in big, big trouble,” said Stephen Rademaker at an East West Institute roundtable on the ever-stalled Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty last Friday. The remark represented a rare area of consensus on what is otherwise a highly divisive issue.

The EWI discussion of the CTBT and its likelihood of ratification by Congress came as a complement to a recently published report by the institute on the subject. With Rademaker, former U.S. assistant secretary of state (2002-2006) and currently senior counsel for BGR Group’s Government Affairs division, and Ambassador Robert T. Grey, Jr., director of the Bipartisan Security Group, at the helm, the talk navigated attendees through the acronyms, speed bumps and technicalities of the CTBT debate.

According to the EWI report, a better case can now be made for the CTBT than in 1999, when Congress initially voted down the treaty, due to technological gains made since then. But as the roundtable discussion revealed, though these advances — including a more robust International Monitoring System (IMS) — are significant, ratification will still be complicated by geopolitics, semantics, and domestic issues.

According to both the EWI report and discussion participants, before the CTBT can ever move forward, it must be amended to better define what an “explosion” really is. Some nations, such as Russia, interpret the current definition to authorize small-scale tests that are not “militarily significant.” Others, such as the United States, believe the treaty allows no nuclear testing whatsoever — a zero-yield stance. “Divergence is a fatal flaw that needs to be corrected,” said Rademaker.

However, as EWI Senior Associate Jacqueline McLaren Miller pointed out, even if the treaty ultimately does explicitly adopt a zero-yield stance, the question will be, can available technology monitor militarily significant tests — and here, Miller says, the answers are much more favorable than 10 years ago. Still, concerns over cheating the monitoring systems are real for CTBT opponents, and Russia was mentioned as a power that may take liberties in this gray area if “cheating” cannot be proven.

The talk was heavily attended by U.N. Mission representatives from relevant CTBT countries — including Iran and Egypt (two of the nine signatures still needed among Annex II countries), as well as the United States and South Korea. The former two were both identified by Rademaker as governments that may try to use their ratification of the CTBT as a bargaining tool to make geopolitical gains — for Iran, as leverage in its ongoing nuclear tug of war; for Egypt, as pressure on the international community to push Israel to sign the NPT. “Egypt has a very similar game [to that of Iran] . . . They want to be holding the keys to the kingdom,” Rademaker said.

Just last month, President Barack Obama announced that spending for nuclear weapons and security would amount to more than $5 billion over the next five years. If, as the administration says, nonproliferation is the name of the game, why bulk up on arms when, according to the EWI report, the ones we have will suffice? Rademaker pointed to countries such as Japan and Taiwan that rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella as a security guarantee, arguing that, since nuclear warheads are man-made, they require maintenance. But Ambassador Grey did not share this logic. “This is not the way to walk into a new century,” said Grey. “Stockpiles are poison.”

With all of these seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way of treaty ratification and nuclear nonproliferation, why bother?

“Is it in our national interest to do so?” asked Ambassador Grey. “I think it is.”

And with a total of 151 countries having ratified the treaty to date, a majority of the world’s policymakers believe it’s in the international interest to do so as well. What remains to be seen is whether reports such as the one from EWI — as well as the Nuclear Posture Review due out on March 1 — will be enough to coax the necessary 67 votes from Congress to make the United States country no. 152.

Update: This post was edited for clarity.