The Test Ban Test: US Rejection has Scuttled the CTBT
16 October 1999
The Times of India
The Test Ban Test
US Rejection has Scuttled the CTBT
By SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN
BY rejecting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the United States Senate has effectively scuttled what was intended by President Bill Clinton to be one of the most important international instruments for ensuring US military dominance in the next century. How could the Senate -- which is controlled by the Republicans -- have done such a thing? The traditional cleavages of domestic politics provide only part of the answer. More important, perhaps, are the fears many senators have that abandoning forever the right to conduct explosive nuclear tests will undermine the hegemonic position of the US. The world is virtually unipolar today and they would like to keep it that way.
The irony is that President Bill Clinton wants the CTBT for precisely the same reason. For all his administration's propaganda about disarmament, the CTBT is intended to lock in to place the technological lead the US has over other nuclear weapon states in terms of weapon designs and delivery systems. Ever since the end of the Cold War, preserving unipolarity by ensuring that no other rival emerges has been Washington's overriding strategic goal and counter-proliferation has been the principal policy thrust intended to achieve that end. Not only must the spread of weapons of mass destruction be stopped and, if possible, reversed, but the ability of other states to threaten the US has to be curtailed and, if possible, eliminated. Multilateral arms control to curb proliferation, and theatre and ballistic missile defence systems to protect the US and its allies, are the twin tracks on which Washington has been proceeding for the past few years.
A test ban treaty would prevent so-called `rogue' states from going nuclear but there is no reason why a proliferator would find the CTBT more daunting to violate than the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The true value of the CTBT is obviously that it would prevent China, considered the principal future adversary of the US, from working on the kind of miniaturised warheads Washington considers so central to its nuclear posture. The multi-billion dollar Stockpile Stewardship Programme and institutions like the National Ignition Facility have been created to allow the US to continue designing and refining weapons without explosive testing. China, on the other hand, was assumed until recently to not be in a position to design new warheads through non-explosive means.
The US had no problem with the international conventions outlawing chemical and biological weapons since any potential adversary armed with these could always be overwhelmed by nuclear weapons. As for the CTBT, Washington intended it to kill three birds with one stone. First, it would ensure that India and Pakistan gave up their nuclear option by default even though they remained outside the NPT. Second, it would prevent the vertical proliferation and technological refinement of existing arsenals by the other four nuclear weapons states. Of these, it was really China that most concerned the Clinton administration. Third, through some deft diplomatic footwork, the US managed to convince the world that it was reluctantly agreeing to initiate work on the CTBT as the price for the unconditional and indefinite extension of the NPT. In truth, the US wanted both the unconditional NPT extension and a rapidly negotiated CTBT.
Unfortunately for the Clinton administration, this plan came unstuck. First, India chose to read the CTBT's entry-into-force clause as a coded threat and decided to test its nuclear weapons in May 1998. Pakistan followed immediately. After an initial shock, the US took these developments in its stride. Both countries were already known to possess nuclear weapons. If the tests meant they would come on board the CTBT, this would make the treaty that much easier to sell. Not just to the rest of the world but to those sections of domestic opinion which remained unconvinced that a ban on explosive testing held the key to US hegemony in the 21st century.
However, even as the negotiations over India's accession to the CTBT dragged on, the possibility that China might have acquired US nuclear warhead designs imparted an entirely new dimension to the debate in Washington. That the US had to maintain its technological lead over others in terms of nuclear weaponry was not really in dispute. But now there was the possibility that this lead might already have been compromised.
This question, in turn, revolved around the twin issues of verifiability and the superiority of weapon design. To assuage the Senate's fears on verification, the Clinton administration sought to deny that the second round of India's tests last year had been successful because to say otherwise would be to concede that the US ability to detect low yield tests -- which are the kind the its military establishment fears the most -- was not particularly robust.
As for the superiority of weapon design, the claim that Beijing might have stolen US blueprints -- a claim that was subsequently amplified by the Cox Report -- made the Republicans in the Senate suspect that the US lead was not very secure. A Chinese-American scientist working at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory was thought to have engaged in espionage and was dismissed. However, the fact that no charges have been brought against him suggests that the espionage issue has been blown out of proportion by the Republicans or by those sections of the US military establishment anxious to kill the CTBT.
Another tantalising possibility is that China itself might have encouraged speculation about it having stolen weapon designs from the US so as to ensure that the Senate scuttled the CTBT. Certainly, its claims about possessing neutron bombs were not intended to pacify the Republican-dominated Senate. Even if the Chinese were not far behind the US in technological terms, the fact that Washington is proceeding with research and development of a missile defence system means it will have to continue research on more effective missiles and warheads.
The Senate vote might well have killed the CTBT -- Russian and Chinese ratification is bound to be delayed and India will not be in a hurry to sign -- but it is unlikely immediately to lead to a new round of nuclear testing. Mr Clinton insists that his government will stick to its moratorium on testing and both China and India have said they will also abide by their respective declarations not to test any further. But in the long-term, unless the US and other nuclear weapon states start taking their disarmament obligations seriously -- and the US abandons work on offensive `defensive' systems like missile defence -- the present hiatus is bound to give way.