Taking Another Look at the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

By: Abigail Stowe-Thurston

After meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on June 20, Lassina Zerbo, the head of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) Preparatory Commission, reported that Israeli ratification of the treaty is a matter of “when, rather than if.” Netanyahu has been quoted saying that Israeli ratification “depends on the regional context,” suggesting that the country’s failure to ratify has less to do with an actual need to conduct nuclear tests than with showcasing a political stance. Out of the 44 “Annex II” states that must ratify the treaty in order for it to enter into force, eight states including Israel and the United States have yet to ratify. While Israeli ratification would constitute a significant step towards the treaty’s entry into force, the United States should demonstrate the same leadership as it did 1996 when it became the first nation to sign the treaty. The prospect of Israeli ratification is an opportunity for Congress to reconsider its own failure to ratify the CTBT.

The United States would be supportive of an Israeli decision to ratify the CTBT largely because of the significant regional and global implications it could have. First and foremost, it might encourage Iran and Egypt to ratify the treaty as well, and create momentum for a nuclear test-free zone in the Middle East. Israel’s ratification could also pressure other Annex II states that have not yet ratified the CTBT to do so, inching the treaty’s entry into force ever closer. But how credible is American support for Israel’s ratification if the United States has yet to ratify the treaty?

American ratification would not significantly change the status quo. The United States has de facto complied with the terms of the treaty for over two decades. The U.S. has enforced a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing since 1992, and the establishment of the science-based Stockpile Stewardship program in 1995 allows for the maintenance of the nuclear arsenal without testing. At the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the program Secretary of State John Kerry explained, “Through the Stockpile Stewardship Program…we now have the ability to simulate performance without explosive testing, which is obviously a benefit to our environment, a benefit to our security, and extremely helpful in the context of America’s global leadership.”

Opponents of the CTBT argue that the United States should keep the option of nuclear testing open in case it becomes necessary in the future, unfortunately ignoring the immense benefits that the CTBT would have for U.S. national security interests.    An in-force treaty would make it technically difficult for states that do not possess nuclear capabilities to acquire them, and for nuclear states to develop even more advanced technologies. Out of the approximately 2000 nuclear tests that have been conducted globally, the United States has conducted about 1000. The extensive data that the United States possesses as a result of these tests is used to maintain the nuclear arsenal through computer modeling. A test-free regime would create a non-competitive environment that would favor existing American expertise and hinder non-nuclear states from developing their own weapons.

American ratification of the CTBT would make a strong statement to the rest of the world – and especially to other states that have yet to ratify the treaty – that the United States is a committed leader of the non-proliferation regime. The United States’ ratification would build confidence that the CTBT would eventually enter into force, which could be crucial for the continued development and support of the International Monitoring System (IMS), which would be relied upon to monitor and verify compliance with the treaty.

The United States already financially supports and benefits from the global system of technologies established in the treaty to detect nuclear explosions. Despite initial concerns, the IMS is more than 85% operational and has proven to be very effective. Without an in-force treaty, other states could withdraw their support for the system, forfeiting the non-proliferation benefits of the monitoring regime by allowing it to deteriorate.

Talk of Israeli ratification provides an opportunity for the U.S. to reexamine its own stance on the CTBT. Given the ideological nature of much of the opposition the ratification process may be lengthy and intensive, but a successful campaign will begin with efforts to educate the public and members of the Senate on the merits of the treaty.