Playing Politics With The Bomb

Treaty, schmeaty. What could be more deadly than a bunch of blowhard senators discussing "verification" and "stockpile stewardship"? Americans are focused on important matters, like's latest share price and why Donald Trump thinks it's yucky to shake hands with people. Public boredom with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would prohibit all nuclear test explosions worldwide, is depressing but comprehensible. After all, the cold war is over. The problem is that Senate Republicans don't recognize that fact, and they are playing with fire in the messy new 21st-century world. The debate over the treaty, first proposed by President Eisenhower and signed in 1996, tells us plenty about the rejection of the whole idea of diplomacy in favor of a new, highly partisan obtuseness in American foreign policy.

It's also payback time for Clinton-haters frustrated by the president's ability to outmaneuver Congress. The latest gambit is to turn treaties into pop quizzes. For 200 years, treaties have been brought up for Senate ratification within weeks or months of being signed. This one languished for more than two years, then the GOP leadership insisted on bringing it to the floor after exactly one day of Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings. The endorsement of the entire American scientific establishment (including 32 Nobel laureates), the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the heads of all the weapons labs apparently meant nothing. Rejection of the treaty--the first of a major pact since the League of Nations was turned down in 1920--still loomed as a possibility even after the leaders of Great Britain, France and Germany took the unprecedented step of urging ratification in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

Their views were deemed of no consequence by the GOP leadership, which took its cues from treaty opponents like Henry Kissinger who have never shown much interest in nonproliferation. When ratification appeared doomed, the Republicans tried to make Clinton write an abject letter of capitulation in exchange for not killing the treaty outright--just more pettiness on life-and-death issues.

But enough about political abominations. The key issue is: do India and Pakistan hate each other more than the United States and the Soviet Union hated each other during the cold war? I'd argue yes, which means that the chances of nuclear war are actually greater now than ever. "Should we turn this treaty down," Sen. Pat Moynihan said last week, "the forces in New Delhi and in Islamabad will say, 'You see, there are the Western imperialists demanding their own liberties to do anything they wish--tests, they have already had 1,030 tests--and they want now to deny them to us? No, that day is over'."

Sen. Richard Lugar, the treaty's most influential opponent, offers the old Reagan point: "Trust but verify." Some CIA experts now say that cheating with low-level underground nuclear explosions would be impossible to detect. That, and the obvious complexities of on-site inspections, make the comprehensive test ban mostly symbolic. Utopian treaties, Lugar suggests, do more harm than good.

That was certainly true during the cold war (though it was Ronald Reagan who at Reykjavik proposed the utopian idea of eliminating all nuclear weapons). But in a world where nukes can be carried in backpacks, the challenge has changed. "American security today is not based on nuclear deterrence," says Leon Sigal, author of "Disarming Strangers." "It's based on getting rid of nuclear material in Russia and elsewhere." Of course Russia will have no incentive to reduce its own nuclear arsenal if it watches the Senate reject a treaty that was America's own idea. Why would anyone in the world refrain from testing if the United States won't? Sometimes symbolism matters; such a vote would be a green light for ambitious regimes everywhere.

It's true, as experts testified last week, that the computer modeling the United States would use in place of nuclear tests--called stockpile stewardship--is not flawless. But if the heads of weapons labs someday decided that it was necessary to actually explode American nuclear weapons to see if they are safe and reliable, the treaty explicitly allows the United States to do so. If the treaty turns out to be abrogated by other countries refusing inspections, the United States is no longer bound by it.

The other objections don't hold up either. Lugar argues that countries like India and Pakistan are so commercially important that they would be hard to sanction economically if they don't comply with the test ban. But he underestimates the power of international norms. Most countries don't want to become pariahs like Iraq; they aren't "rogue" states. They might try to cheat a little, but if they do so beyond the level of exploding crude, low-yield devices, they know they'll get caught and be ostracized as international lawbreakers. That would make the condemnation of India and Pakistan last year--when there was no test ban--look mild by comparison. Who needs that?

Sen. Paul Coverdell, Georgia Republican, summarized his opposition to the treaty by quoting a sign he saw in Sen. Phil Gramm's office. "When the day comes that the lion lies down with the lamb, we better make damn sure we're the lion." Nice line, but it doesn't mean much if the lamb is packing nuclear heat. Adopting the test ban won't by itself prevent proliferation or reduce nuclear arsenals. But it would make it just a little harder for small powers to use big weapons.

Join the Discussion