Latest posts by John Engle (see all)
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The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) outlaws the testing of nuclear weapons. So far, 183 countries signed the treaty, but it cannot become a binding international law until it has been ratified by all states capable of developing nuclear weapons, of which there are 44 specified in the treaty. Of these states, three (India, Pakistan, and North Korea) have not signed the treaty, and a further six (China, Egypt, Israel, Iran, and the United States) are yet to ratify it.
The United States signed the treaty in 1996, as soon as the language was agreed upon, but the Senate rejected it by a tiny margin. While the idea of the CTBT is quite simple, implementation is immensely complex. One of the greatest concerns of the treaty, and of the international community, is with monitoring countries so as to verify their compliance with the ban. To this end the treaty sets up the International Monitoring System (IMS), a network of hundreds of scientific facilities spread across the globe that monitor seismic activity, radioactive fallout, atmospheric noise and oceanic waves to pick up evidence of a nuclear explosion. If the IMS detects a suspected nuclear test then an on-site inspection can follow.
The treaty does not detail the action that would be taken against a state that has broken the treaty, but the Charter of the United Nations does empower the Security Council to take “appropriate steps”. Although the treaty has not yet come into force, most of the IMS is now in place and working.
President Obama has consistently stated that he is in favor of reducing nuclear proliferation. He even received the Nobel Peace Prize for his speeches on the matter. Yet he has done little to materially change America’s position on nuclear weapons. In a dangerous world, nuclear weapons are a necessary component of the American defense. However, it is also in America’s interest that the world’s supply of nuclear weapons be kept within controllable bounds.
It is time for Obama to pursue the CTBT. It is time for the Senate to ratify the treaty.
Nuclear weapons are the most destructive weapons ever created and it is right that they should be limited; something that the test ban treaty will be a step towards. An internationally ratified treaty comprehensively banning the testing of nuclear weapons would serve to hamper attempts by countries currently not in possession of nuclear weapons from acquiring them. This is particularly important in the cases of Iran and North Korea. Iran is getting closer and closer to having a working weapon and North Korea already have simple nuclear weapons. These countries’ possession of such weapons can only serve to diminish security in the world and the security of the United States.
Of course, a country could just develop a nuclear weapon without testing, but little faith can be put in a weapon that is entirely untested; all countries that currently possess nuclear weapons conducted tests. A comprehensive and internationally ratified treaty against testing would serve as an important signaling device to countries considering developing nuclear weapons. Just as a taboo has formed around the use of nuclear weapons due to international accords denouncing their use, so too would a ban on testing generate a norm against it.
Countries rely on their reputations in international relations; states will fear loss of credibility should they be seen flouting the ban, either by testing weapons themselves or by supplying materials to countries seeking to perform tests. Some politicians and commentators say that rogue nations do not care at all about how they are perceived. But all countries rely to some extent on reputation to engage in international affairs. Most states do not like being pariahs, especially when that status carries with it heavy political and economic sanctions. The United States could leverage international law in such a way as to further deter nuclear testing in potentially hostile countries.
Trust, But Verify
Scanning and detection technology has become so advanced in recent years that it is virtually impossible for a country to detonate a nuclear device without it being detected. Compliance with the treaty can be monitored through the means of seismology, hydroacoustics, infrasound, and radionuclide monitoring. The technologies are used to monitor the underground, the waters and the atmosphere for any sign of a nuclear explosion. The monitoring network consists of 337 facilities located across the world. The system is so sensitive that it was able to detect the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia. Furthermore, the treaty’s system of inspection will reveal any suspicious activity regarding testing.
Clearly, efficacy in terms of determining who might be testing weapons is not an issue. When countries are found to be violating the CTBT, heavy political and economic sanctions can be imposed that will serve to force countries back into compliance with the treaty. A ratified CTBT gives a greater power to the world’s democratic powers, the United States in particular, to take action against those states that would develop nuclear weapons. Ratification would give a much greater moral justification to a decision to take economic or political action against
Securing America’s Interests
Some countries have been reticent to sign the CTBT for fear it would limit their ability to either expand or to begin their nuclear arsenals. The United States stands as one of the only such non-ratifiers, in the company of such countries as Iran, China, and North Korea. The United States fears the limiting of the ability for it to defend itself with nuclear armament. However, in reality the United States will benefit politically and militarily by ratifying, and the world will be benefited by a greater chance for peace without nuclear proliferation.
American accession would benefit the United States politically by increasing its credibility as a responsible international player with a respect for international law. Often America is viewed by the rest of the world as a cowboy pursuing its own aims and only paying lip service to the international community’s opinion. If the United States were to show a degree of respect to international law, particularly through signing CTBT, it will be more able to gain support from other countries for its goals.
If the Senate ratifies the treaty, it will encourage other states to sign, such as China, which has said that its signature is contingent upon that of America. American involvement in the CTBT, and the Chinese involvement expected to follow from it, will give the treaty far greater weight, and will generate greater obedience to it, as countries recognize that it is binding on all states, not just the weak.
Nothing to Lose
From a military standpoint, the United States has nothing to lose from signing as it may still retain its present nuclear stockpiles, as well as to develop new delivery and guidance systems, provided they are not tested with live nuclear warheads. Also, it has much to gain, as the ratification of the treaty will prevent other states from developing nuclear weapons, keeping the club of nuclear powers small and influential. Clearly, it is in the interest of the United States to sign the treaty, in order to benefit not only itself, but also the international community.
As Barack Obama’s presidency approaches its final decline, he should be considering what he can call his legacy. Fulfilling the mission for which he was prematurely given the Nobel Prize might go some way to restoring him in the eyes of history. And maybe that gold medal could be placed on his mantelpiece without shame.