Learning from the 1999 Vote on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Part 3

Learning from the 1999 Vote on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Part 3

by Daryl Kimball

This article is re-printed with permission of the author.

Opposition Tinged With Regret

Even as they prepared to vote against the CTBT, many Republicans were clearly disturbed by the politically charged nature of the debate and frustrated with the situation presented to them by the leadership.

As Hagel observed on the opening morning of the Senate floor debate, “We are trapped in a political swamp as we attempt to compress a very important debate on a very important issue. My goodness, is that any way to responsibly deal with what may, in fact, be the most critical and important vote any of us in this chamber ever make? It is not.”

Even as he outlined his reasons for voting against the treaty, an anguished Lugar acknowledged that, “under the current agreement, a process that normally would take many months has been reduced to a few days. Many senators know little about this treaty. Even for those of us on national security committees, this has been an issue floating on the periphery of our concerns.”

Recognizing that the opportunity for give-and-take was absent and that the votes needed for ratification were not there, 62 senators wrote to the leadership on October 12 “in support of putting off final consideration until the next Congress.” Prominent Republicans, including Lawrence Eagleburger, who served as secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, argued that “if the Senate cannot bring itself to do the right thing and approve the treaty, then senators should do the next best thing and pull it off the table.”

Agreeing to postpone the vote required the same kind of “unanimous consent” agreement needed to schedule the vote, and some CTBT opponents had publicly said they opposed any such agreement. On the eve of the vote, Lott and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) were on the verge of an agreement to postpone the vote; but Senators Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), Helms, James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Kyl, and Bob Smith (R-N.H.) reportedly raced to the majority leader’s office to tell him that they were prepared to block any new agreement that would postpone the vote. These senators appear to have been motivated as much by their political instincts as their discomfort with the CTBT.

Smith argued in an October 12 floor speech, “Postponing a vote on the CTBT will allow the White House to claim victory in saving the treaty, and will allow the White House to continue to spin the American people by blaming opponents for not ratifying the treaty. There is no conservative victory in that.” In the end, Lott was either unwilling or unable to persuade this small group of hard-liners to delay the vote.

By taking up the treaty in what Lugar called “an abrupt and truncated manner that is so highly politicized,” the Senate was unable to sort out the many issues relating to treaty ratification. Unlike previous Senate deliberations on arms control treaties, there was no negotiation or exchange of views concerning possible conditions that might assuage concerns and win the support of skeptical senators, such as Clinton’s proposed set of six CTBT “safeguards” (see sidebar). Without the time necessary to achieve clarity and political consensus, the doubts and questions raised about the CTBT effectively undercut potential support for the treaty.

Looking Forward

It will never be known whether it might have been possible to win the Senate’s approval with greater presidential leadership, a more collegial Senate culture, and a more effective presentation of the case for the treaty. The future of the CTBT, however, may well depend on the lessons that decision-makers and the public draw from the 1997-1999 period and how they apply those lessons in the coming year or two.

Although the outcome of any arms control treaty debate depends on politics as much as on hard-headed national security considerations, a first step toward repairing the damage from the October 1999 debate and building support for the CTBT should be a more thorough and substantive exchange of views between the executive branch and Congress on core technical issues concerning the treaty.

Winning over new, uncommitted senators and changing the minds of some who voted no in 1999 will require some time and new evidence that gives them reason to support the CTBT. Most importantly, the administration must address lingering Republican concerns about the verifiability of the CTBT by documenting how and why the International Monitoring System (IMS), on-site inspections, and transparency measures specified in the CTBT, combined with U.S. intelligence capabilities, can effectively detect and deter militarily significant cheating.

Advances in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) nuclear weapons Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) over the past decade have significantly increased confidence in the reliability of the existing U.S. arsenal. A 2002 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel, which included three former nuclear weapons laboratory directors, found that the current SSP provides the technical capabilities that are necessary to maintain confidence in the safety and reliability of the existing seven types of nuclear warheads in the active stockpile, “provided that adequate resources are made available…and are properly focused on this task.” According to the NAS panel, age-related defects, mainly related to non-nuclear components, can be expected, “but nuclear testing is not needed to discover these problems and is not likely to be needed to address them.”

Although the U.S. nuclear arsenal is aging, the aging process is better understood today than ever before, and confidence in the ability to maintain the warheads is increasing at a faster rate than the uncertainties. For example, in 2006 the Department of Energy announced that studies by Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories showed that the plutonium primaries, or pits, of most U.S. nuclear weapons “will have minimum lifetimes of at least 85 years,” which is about twice as long as previous official estimates.

Contrary to the allegations of some CTBT opponents in 1999, the cessation of nuclear explosion testing has not caused the laboratories to lose technical competence. Rather, significant advances have been achieved as researchers were able to study the physics underlying weapons performance in greater depth, undistracted by the demands of a nuclear weapons test explosion program.

According to weapons physicist Richard Garwin, the new evidence on the longevity of weapons plutonium “has removed any urgency to engineer and manufacture new design replacement warheads.” Garwin says the continued performance of legacy warheads can be more reliably certified than new ones.

Test ban monitoring and verification capabilities have also improved. As the July 2002 NAS panel report documents, with the combined capabilities of the IMS, national technical means, and civilian seismic networks, no potential CTBT v
iolator can be confident that a nuclear explosion of any military utility could escape detection. The IMS itself has more than doubled since 1999, with approximately 280 of the planned 321 global monitoring stations now built, including a new array of highly capable noble-gas monitoring stations that can detect minute amounts of the radioactive gases emitted by underground explosions into the atmosphere.

The developments over the past decade led George Shultz, secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, to say at an April 17 press briefing in Rome that his fellow Republicans “might have been right voting against it some years ago, but they would be right voting for it now, based on these new facts.”

Unlike the Clinton administration, which failed to commission a blue-ribbon review of technical issues before the 1999 vote, the Obama administration has already put into motion the studies and reviews necessary to establish the technical and policy basis for the Senate’s reconsideration and approval. These include a new intelligence community monitoring assessment of test ban monitoring capabilities, as well as an updated version of the 2002 NAS report. Both of these reviews are scheduled to be completed by early 2010.

In the final analysis, undecided senators will have to make a net benefit analysis. Given that the United States will need to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal for some time to come, given U.S. interest in detecting and deterring surreptitious nuclear test explosions, and given the importance of strengthening the beleaguered nuclear nonproliferation regime, is the United States more secure ratifying a treaty that bans an activity that is unnecessary for U.S. security but would help others improve their nuclear capabilities, or is it in the U.S. interest to stand outside the treaty?

Political Changes

The political environment has changed significantly since 1999. Most obviously, the Democrats will hold about 15 more seats for the upcoming CTBT vote than the 45 they had 10 years ago. Because they are in the majority now, the Democrats also have much greater control over the Senate calendar than they did before. Under Senate rules, however, the minority party and even individual senators can exert considerable influence over the chamber’s business.

Also, even though a base of 60 is far better than a base of 45, it still means that the Obama administration will need to win the support of at least seven Republicans, a difficult but attainable goal.  There are some encouraging signs. A growing array of Republican and Democratic national security opinion leaders recognizes the value of the CTBT and is calling for reconsideration. In 2007, former Republican Secretaries of State Shultz and Henry Kissinger, along with two Democrats, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn (Ga.), called on the Senate to initiate a bipartisan process “to achieve ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, taking advantage of recent technical advances, and working to secure ratification by other key states.” President George H. W. Bush’s national security adviser, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, and former NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks have also recently endorsed U.S. ratification of the CTBT. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Senator John McCain (Ariz.), who voted against the treaty in 1999, outlined a policy that included “taking another look” at the CTBT. He made similar comments earlier this year. Lugar also has indicated that he might vote differently this time.

Avoiding Political Ambushes

In spite of the changes since 1999, some of the potential pitfalls are similar. For example, the Obama administration must not allow CTBT opponents to sap support before the formal debate on the treaty even begins. The White House and the Department of State are now laying the groundwork in advance of formal reconsideration of the treaty, but opponents are also preparing.

One potential advantage CTBT opponents will have is that the Senate is expected to debate the forthcoming START follow-on agreement some time in the first quarter of 2010 and prior to the CTBT. Senate opponents of the CTBT, such as Kyl, have already declared their intent to condition their support for the START follow-on on the acceptance of a set of conditions that would shape and direct the administration’s future policies and budgets for support and “modernization” of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and stockpile. The administration and Senate CTBT supporters may need to provide such assurances about their commitment to maintain the stockpile to win the support of some Republicans for the CTBT.

If the administration’s fiscal year 2011 budget request includes major additional funding for weapons complex infrastructure investments and new-design warheads or if it allows nuclear weapons “modernization” conditions to be attached to the resolution of ratification for the START follow-on agreement, some potential Senate supporters of the CTBT may pocket that and fail to provide their support when the time comes to vote for the treaty itself.

Some senior administration officials are clearly alert to the challenge. “I think there are a lot of people that still hope for the return” of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, “and they are going to be sadly disappointed,” Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen O. Tauscher said in a recent interview.

Tauscher has correctly noted that new-design warhead approaches, such as the RRW plan advanced by the Bush administration and rejected by Congress, are less attractive than other measures, such as refurbishing existing warheads to maintain and modernize the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

Although some Republicans will push for new-design warheads, Tauscher said the administration would hold firm and would instead put forward a more robust stockpile management plan that increases the confidence in existing warheads and “negates the need” for the RRW program.


The next 12 to 18 months may represent the best opportunity for U.S. ratification of the CTBT in a generation. Moving forward and gaining the necessary 67 Senate votes in support of ratification will be a difficult but attainable task requiring favorable political conditions and a well-executed ratification campaign that draws on the lessons of the failed CTBT ratification effort in 1999. With sustained presidential leadership, bipartisan support from key senators and former test ban skeptics, and a realistic assessment of the significant improvements in the ability to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal and detect nuclear test explosions, the outcome of the Senate’s second vote on the CTBT can be different from the one 10 years ago. A Senate vote for the CTBT would repair the damage of 1999 and advance the global effort to reduce nuclear dangers.

Daryl G. Kimball has served as executive director of the Arms Control
since 2001. He previously was security programs director
for Physicians for Social Responsibility, where he helped lobby for the
nuclear test moratorium legislation of 1992 and negotiation of a
zero-yield Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Kimball was also
executive director of the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, where he
led a group of nongovernmental organizations in their efforts to win
support for U.S. CTBT ratification.

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