In an April 5 speech in Prague, President Barack Obama
reiterated his campaign commitment to "seek the peace and security
of a world without nuclear weapons." Unfortunately, he also made
two completely incompatible pronouncements regarding the future of
the U.S. nuclear force.
First, President Obama stated, "As long as these [nuclear ]
weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and
effective arsenal to deter any adversary and guarantee that
defense to our allies--including the Czech Republic."
However, President Obama went on to state that "to achieve a
global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately
and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test
These two pronouncements are incompatible because the
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is a treaty of unlimited
duration that imposes a "zero yield" ban on the testing of nuclear
weapons. The ban on testing imposed by the treaty
prohibits the maintenance of an effective nuclear arsenal in the
context of a wide variety of changing circumstances. These include
the adoption of new strategies and postures for governing nuclear
weapons and changes in targeting requirements because of the
emergence of new targets that require new nuclear warheads or the
need for new delivery systems that also demand new warheads.
Put succinctly, the CTBT will prohibit--essentially forever--the
development of new nuclear weapons that are necessary to maintain
an effective nuclear force under changing circumstances.
The Clinton Administration's
Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship Program
The actions taken by the Clinton Administration in its failed
attempt to obtain Senate ratification of the CTBT demonstrate the
incompatibility of President Obama's Prague pronouncements. The
Clinton Administration, prior to Senate consideration of CTBT
ratification, explained how a Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship
(SBSS) program and an associated series of "safeguards" would
support the U.S. nuclear arsenal, stockpile, and weapons
infrastructure under all conceivable circumstances and that if some
unforeseen scenario called into question the "safety and
reliability" of nuclear weapons, the U.S. would withdraw from the
CTBT and resume explosive testing.
The SBSS program and the safeguards were designed to convince
the Senate that the entry into force of the CTBT for the U.S. would
not force U.S. nuclear disarmament or otherwise incur undue risks.
The Clinton Administration, however, also asserted only that the
SBSS program would preserve the safety and reliability of U.S.
nuclear weapons. It was careful neither to assert that the
SBSS program would assure the effectiveness of U.S. nuclear weapons
nor to indicate that a lack of effectiveness would institute future
withdrawal from the CTBT under the safeguards.
The Clinton Administration's omission likely resulted from a
well-grounded assessment that the U.S. could not maintain an
effective nuclear weapons force for an indefinite period of time
absent explosive testing. Thus, it essentially admitted that
establishing a clear standard of effectiveness under the SBSS
program was incompatible with U.S. entry into the CTBT.
The Senate Votes to Reject the
The CTBT suffers from a number of fatal flaws. Among them is the
fact--admitted by the Clinton Administration--that the CTBT is
incompatible with the maintenance of an effective nuclear arsenal
over the long term. The argument regarding the long-term
effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal under the CTBT raised
important questions about the wisdom of U.S. ratification the last
time the ban was considered.
In response to this concern, as well as others, the Senate voted
to reject the treaty on October 13, 1999. Leaving aside the fact that
Senate rejection of the CTBT represents its definitive judgment on
the issue of U.S. ratification, the questions regarding the
long-term effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal under the terms
of the treaty are at least as valid today as they were in 1999.
President Obama, as stated in his Prague speech, is now
insisting on a U.S. nuclear arsenal that is effective, as well as
safe and secure, for as long as nuclear weapons exist.
This insistence invalidates the SBSS program and the safeguards put
in place by the Clinton Administration to support CTBT
ratification. With it, President Obama has also invalidated his own
call for U.S. ratification.
Nuclear Weapons in the Post-Cold War
Today's real world circumstances have justified the Clinton
Administration's concerns. The world now presents a complex and
unpredictable array of potential strategic threats to the U.S. and
its allies from disparate sources that did not exist during the
Cold War. Yet the U.S. nuclear arsenal, although smaller,
essentially consists of the same weapons that existed during the
Cold War. As a result, the U.S. needs to modernize its nuclear
force, along with defensive and conventional forces, to adapt it to
Specifically, the U.S. needs to adopt a more defensive strategic
posture that strives to protect and defend the people, territories,
institutions, and infrastructure of the U.S. and its allies against
strategic attack--as opposed to relying on the kind of retaliatory
forces used to deter Soviet strategic attacks during the Cold
War. The current U.S. nuclear force is not
designed for this defensive strategy. In short, the U.S. nuclear
arsenal is not as effective as it should be for meeting today's
President Obama is right to insist on maintaining an effective
U.S. nuclear arsenal for as long as nuclear weapons exist, but he
also needs to acknowledge that the entry into force of the CTBT for
the U.S. is incompatible with this effectiveness standard--a truth
the Clinton Administration tacitly acknowledged in the 1990s.
Also, President Obama will be better served by recognizing that
the CTBT complicates, more than contributes to, his long-term
vision for nuclear disarmament. There is no direct route to nuclear
disarmament at this time. What President Obama should be focused on
is adapting U.S. strategic forces--nuclear and conventional,
offensive and defensive--to fulfilling the needs of a fundamentally
defensive strategic policy that is consistent with today's security
needs. Following the modernization of all U.S. strategic forces,
including the nuclear arsenal, to fulfill the requirements for this
defensive policy and posture, the U.S. is more likely to find
itself in a position to pursue nuclear disarmament directly. The
first priority, therefore, is to modernize U.S. strategic
The Senate, for procedural reasons, should acknowledge that its
decision in 1999 to reject the CTBT was its definitive judgment on
the treaty's shortcomings. Substantively, the Senate needs to
recognize that President Obama's stated policy of insisting on an
effective U.S. nuclear arsenal for as long as nuclear weapons exist
is incompatible with CTBT ratification and that both international
circumstances and the atrophy of U.S. nuclear forces since the end
of the Cold War have only increased the CTBT's incompatibility with
U.S. security requirements. Ultimately, the CTBT does not serve
U.S. security interests.
Spring is F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security
Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy
Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis
Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage