The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) — the international agreement governing use of nuclear weapons — turned 25 in September. The anniversary, ordinarily a time to celebrate the careful diplomacy that led to such an achievement, was tempered by the continued refusal of the U.S. government to accede to a document that it negotiated. The resulting void created by this lack of leadership threatens to overturn a decades-long period of relative nuclear peace. There is only one option to hem in the dangerous proliferation of nuclear weapons that has led nations such as Iran and North Korea to the precipice of nuclear power: Ratify the CTBT and ensure it enters into force.
This starts with rectifying the misconceptions that led to the treaty’s 1999 failure in the Senate. That vote, which failed to achieve the required two-thirds majority, was taken when the stability of the nation’s nuclear stockpile was thought to rely upon constant testing. With the technology of 1999, that may well have been the case. Today, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s use of fusion experimentation and supercomputer-aided simulations guarantees a level of reliability for every part of the nuclear arsenal that likely surpasses what could be gained through detonations.
Even if it does allow for some additional data collection, testing carries immense costs. There is, of course, the obvious monetary figure associated with planning, building and executing a nuclear detonation. However, it also has come with an unseen price tag — cancer clusters among “downwinders” living in the American Southwest and Marshall Islands, miscarriages and congenital conditions in the children of those near test sites, and environmental contamination from the release of radioactive chemicals into the atmosphere.
While these are compelling reasons alone, ratification would allow the newly-empowered CTBT and its accompanying oversight organization to benefit from the consent of the world’s most powerful government in creating an international norm against nuclear testing. Currently, nations such as Russia — which is party to the CTBT — face little substantial backlash for their detonations. After all, they can easily point to the United States’s refusal to accede to the treaty as proof of the validity of their own actions. These excuses would lose their power after ratification, with future actions against those nations’ international commitments subject to pushback through the full power of the nearly 200 CTBT signatories marshaled by the United States.
To fully enter force, the CTBT also must be signed by seven nations — China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan — aside from the United States. Achieving this would be a difficult diplomatic effort, but it is possible. These nations’ refusals to sign are largely based on a geopolitical rival’s — India with Pakistan, and vice versa, for example — failure to sign and ratify the document. This presents an opportunity for American foreign policy to work at its best by bringing these pairs of nations to the bargaining table concurrently to hash out any testing-related difficulties. It may be unreasonable to assume that all of the states are willing to do so, but the reduction in geopolitical tensions and chance of nuclear mishaps from even a single additional state pledging not to test nuclear weapons would be substantial. Of course, this can only happen after the United States ratifies the document and commits to support its tenets in the international arena.
During a time of increased partisan polarization in Congress, a domestic and international priority such as the CTBT provides a gateway for politicians from both parties to focus on what matters to the American people: ensuring that nuclear threats do not dominate the 21st century like they did in the latter half of the 20th century. It would send a strong signal to the rest of the world that our political elite can still collaborate to ensure that America remains a defining member of the international community after years of disengagement. If nothing else, it would ensure that time and money can be spent on today’s true priorities — among them, cybersecurity, climate change and infrastructure development — rather than those of the past.
Hart Rapaport is a research assistant at Columbia’s Center for Nuclear Studies.