The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: In Arms Control's Worst

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The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: In Arms Control's Worst Tradition

October 7, 1999 17 min read
Baker Spring
Baker Spring
Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Baker is a former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

The United States Senate may soon vote on whether to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). If it does, the CTBT will permanently bar the United States from conducting explosive tests of nuclear weapons. Before the Senate votes on this treaty, its members should pause and review the history of America's arms control agreements. History will reveal that ill-conceived and overly ambitious notions of arms control often encourage adverse, if not unintended, outcomes. Conversely, when arms control is pursued according to strict standards and with recognition of its inherent limitations, it can add to the nation's security.

The question for the Senate is what kind of an arms control agreement is the CTBT? Is it the utopian version, with adverse and unintended consequences? Or is it the latter, more realistic version that enhances U.S. security?

Unfortunately, the answer is that it is the former. The CTBT fails every single test of what makes a good arms control agreement. It promises sweeping nuclear disarmament that will not only exceed its means, but also undermine national security. Once the CTBT is in force, the United States will be unable to maintain a safe, reliable, and effective nuclear arsenal without testing. Furthermore, as a treaty of unlimited duration, the CTBT will over time undermine the global stability guaranteed by the U.S. nuclear deterrent. America's allies, unable to depend on this nuclear deterrent for their security, will grow more insecure, and some may build their own nuclear arsenals. Lastly, the CTBT fails the most important arms control test of all: It is neither effectively verifiable nor enforceable.

Arms control that fails to meet any or all of these standards represents a tradition of arms control policies at their worst. The most prominent of these policies are the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the "Nuclear Freeze Resolution" of the early 1980s, the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), and the 1922 Five Power Naval Treaty of Washington. These policies either failed to deliver as promised or inadvertently made matters worse by weakening American resolve, fostering a sense of complacency regarding the security environment, jeopardizing the security relationship of the United States with U.S. allies, and emboldening its adversaries.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty falls within this tradition of failure. If enacted, it will, like the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the Nuclear Freeze Resolution, fail to deliver as promised or make matters far worse.


History teaches many valuable lessons on how arms-control efforts can go awry, despite the best intentions or, perhaps, because of them. These lessons are directly applicable to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and, therefore, are worth analyzing in the context of the Senate's impending decision on CTBT ratification. The lessons can be seen in the failure of five important arms-control policies of the 20th century. Individually, and together, the lessons demonstrate why the CTBT will make the United States more vulnerable.

An End in Itself: The Kellogg-Briand Pact

The 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, formally known as the "Pact of Paris," embodied the principle that agreements are the culmination of the "peace process." Informally named after the former U.S. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg and the French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand, who backed the proposal and encouraged other nations to approve it, the Pact's purpose was ambitious and, ultimately, unachievable. It declared in utopian grandeur that war was henceforth outlawed and its use forbidden as "an instrument of national policy." At the outset, 15 nations signed the Pact. Virtually every nation in existence at that time later approved it.

The common, central flaw in both the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the CTBT is that they confuse the ends with the means. The Kellogg-Briand Pact followed a premise that war itself, distinct from the purposes for which it is waged, is evil and thus can and should be outlawed. But, paradoxically, if war were truly outlawed, the means ultimately needed to enforce such a provision would be war itself.

The CTBT likewise attempts to label nuclear weapons, as distinct from the purposes for which they are used, as evil. But war and nuclear weapons are also means through which to fulfill national policy goals, from maintaining national security to subjugating another state. Both war as an instrument and nuclear weapons as tools lack moral content. The question of morality arises only in the context of their purpose.

The failure to appreciate this distinction doomed the Kellogg-Briand Pact. By the 1930s, it became clear to many states that the Kellogg-Briand Pact was utopian. The Japanese determined that war was a useful instrument of national policy in subjugating Manchuria and ultimately creating a puppet state. In 1932, Japan attacked the city of Shanghai. Its actions were a prelude to a cycle of rearmament and conflict in Asia and Europe that culminated in World War II. The United States did not recover from its period of unfounded faith in the Kellogg-Briand Pact until Japan attacked U.S. naval forces at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Only then was the American public convinced that only its own will to defend itself, and not the negotiated terms of an unrealistic treaty, would fulfill its aspirations for security.

This same lesson should be applied to the CTBT. The preamble of the CTBT states that its prohibition on nuclear testing "constitutes an effective measure of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation in all its aspects." The uninformed reader could easily assume that the purpose of the treaty is nuclear disarmament and that the United States will no longer need to field a nuclear deterrent because the treaty itself will expunge the nuclear threat. The CTBT thus promises the utopian goal of total nuclear disarmament in much the same way that the Kellogg-Briand Pact promised that war henceforth would no longer be "an instrument of national policy."

However, the CTBT will not result in universal nuclear disarmament because it will only disarm the states that honor it. Not all states will participate in the regime, and some of those that do will find ways to circumvent its requirements, just as Imperial Japan sidestepped the Kellogg-Briand Pact. The Clinton Administration, a strong proponent of the CTBT, denies that the treaty will result in U.S. nuclear disarmament. Nevertheless, nuclear disarmament is what the treaty promises--and nuclear disarmament of the United States will likely be the result. And a nuclear disarmed America would be a vulnerable and weak America.

Vulnerability as Delusional Deterrence: The ABM Treaty

The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty barred the United States and the Soviet Union from fielding defenses to protect their national territories against missile attack. As such, it sought to limit, both qualitatively and quantitatively, the level of armaments in both countries.1 The problem is that the treaty, despite these limitations, undermined strategic stability and increased the likelihood of conflict. It provided an incentive for the Soviet Union to achieve a first strike capability against which the United States could not respond. U.S. negotiators of the treaty had stated that the United States would withdraw if a circumstance of vulnerability arose.

Yet by the early 1980s, when it became clear that the ABM Treaty had opened a window of vulnerability that was considered destabilizing and dangerous, the United States failed to withdraw from the treaty. Hence, the ABM Treaty experience offers a valuable lesson: Purposeful vulnerability does not promote arms control; rather, increasing stability and reducing the risk of conflict are far more important considerations than limiting the quantity and quality of arms.

Unfortunately, this lesson was not learned. This same scenario is being repeated in Washington regarding the CTBT. The Clinton Administration has stated that the United States would withdraw from the CTBT if it undermines the U.S. nuclear deterrent, which is vital to fostering international stability and peace. But, as is the case with the ABM Treaty, it appears unlikely that this Administration will fulfill its stated intention.

The mistakes made in the ABM Treaty are on the verge of being repeated in the CTBT process. The Clinton Administration in September 1997 announced a list of "safeguards" regarding CTBT implementation (assuming ratification and entry into force).2 These safeguards include a possible future withdrawal from the CTBT that echoes statements made during negotiations of the ABM Treaty in 1972. In this case, the Clinton Administration accepts and understands that there is a risk arising from the prohibition on nuclear testing imposed by the CTBT, in that the lack of testing could undermine confidence in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The Administration also recognizes that such a loss of confidence could be profoundly destabilizing. Specifically, the Administration has stated that the United States will withdraw from the CTBT if the Secretaries of Defense and Energy cannot certify the safety and reliability of a nuclear weapon considered critical to the maintenance of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

Members of the Senate should ask themselves whether the Clinton Administration and future administrations will remain steadfast in limiting the risk of conflict by withdrawing from the CTBT if necessary. Can this Administration be more steadfast than the Carter Administration was regarding the ABM Treaty? If the Senate cannot answer this question with certainty, the effects of the CTBT's qualitative limitations on nuclear arms could well eclipse the higher goal of reducing the risk of conflict.

Compromising U.S. Commitments: The Nuclear Freeze Resolution

In the early 1980s, a coalition of arms control advocacy groups proposed what came to be called the "Nuclear Freeze Resolution." The proposal before Congress would have established an arms control policy based on negotiating an agreement with the Soviet Union to bar the further testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons. Although the Nuclear Freeze Resolution had many critical shortcomings, perhaps its most serious was its incompatibility with U.S. security commitments to its NATO allies.

An effective U.S. nuclear deterrent had always been at the core of U.S. security commitments to NATO. In recognition of this fact, NATO members agreed in 1979 to deploy throughout Europe by 1983 two types of intermediate-range nuclear missiles: the Ground-Launched Cruise missile (GLCM) and the Pershing II missile. Militarily, the deployment was designed to counter the Soviet deployments of a similar missile, the SS-20 Saber. Politically, it was designed to counter Soviet attempts to intimidate and coerce Western Europeans into breaking their security relationship with the United States under the NATO alliance. The Nuclear Freeze Resolution, its supporters hoped, would at least slow and ultimately stop, NATO's deployment of those missiles. As such, the Resolution represented a threat to the viability of NATO against the Soviet Union's pressure tactics.

The Nuclear Freeze Resolution and CTBT share an important flaw. The Nuclear Freeze Resolution would have undermined U.S. commitments to its allies by preventing the implementation of the decision to deploy the GLCM and Pershing II missiles. U.S. ratification of the CTBT would have the same effect on the United States' commitments to its allies by undermining the nuclear deterrent on which the allies' security still depends.

The Senate should take stock of its October 31, 1983, decision to reject the Nuclear Freeze Resolution. That decision upheld the essential principle of arms control--the United States would not enter into any agreement that undermines its own security or security commitments to its allies. Following that decision, deployment of GLCMs and Pershing IIs commenced in December 1983.

Ratification of the CTBT, by comparison, would mean the Senate is backing away from the sound principle of the United States not allowing arms control to weaken or undermine its security or its commitment to it alliances.

Trust But Do Not Verify: The Biological Weapons Convention

President Richard M. Nixon renounced the U.S. biological warfare program on November 25, 1969, and the federal government agreed to dispose of its existing stocks of biological agents and weapons. A similar announcement was made regarding toxins on February 14, 1970. President Nixon signed the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) banning the possession and stockpiling of biological weapons and weapons carrying toxins on April 10, 1972.3 The Ford Administration ratified the BWC on January 22, 1975. This treaty remains in force today.

The BWC contains a monumental flaw. It is unverifiable. It fails to provide a means to validate that participating states are complying with the prohibition on biological weapons. This omission in itself is an acknowledgment that it is relatively easy to build and maintain militarily significant stockpiles of biological weapons. There is no means to confirm that a participating state has destroyed its biological weapons stockpile or has not built one.

The CTBT, which bans nuclear test explosions no matter how small their yields, is also unverifiable. Low-yield underground tests are very difficult to detect with the seismic monitors used to verify compliance with the test ban. In past administrations, CTBT negotiations focused on fashioning an agreement that allowed explosions below a certain threshold because it is impossible to verify explosions below those levels. This was confirmed in recent articles in The Washington Post and The Washington Times, which reported on speculation in the intelligence community that Russia may have conducted a clandestine nuclear test on September 8, 1999.4 The inability of the intelligence community to make a determined judgment makes clear the impossibility of verifying adherence to the CTBT.

In understanding the implications of the CTBT's lack of verifiability, the Senate should consider the problems with verifying the BWC. Iraq, for example, not only built a biological arsenal in defiance of its BWC obligations, but years of intrusive inspections by the United Nations after Iraq's defeat in the Persian Gulf War failed to give a full accounting of Iraq's biological weapons programs.5 The lack of effective verification also allowed the Soviet Union to violate the BWC at will.6 Although Russian President Boris Yeltsin has renounced the biological weapons program Russia inherited from the Soviet Union in 1992, suspicions that Russia is continuing that program remain.7

Even the Clinton Administration, a fervent supporter of the BWC, acknowledges that the BWC is flawed. The 1997 annual report of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency noted, "Over the two decades since entry-into-force of the BWC, confidence in the effectiveness of the [BWC] has been undermined by instances of non-compliance, notably on the part of the former Soviet Union and Iraq."8

The "zero-yield" feature of the CTBT will compound the verification problems found in the BWC. As wrongheaded as the BWC is in terms of ignoring the standard of verifiability, at least it leaves no illusion that other countries could cheat. But the CTBT represents an attempt to deceive the American people and the Senate concerning verification because it includes an elaborate "verification" regime. The inherent lack of true verifiability in the CTBT is all but certain to result in cheating, which will undermine U.S. security just as Soviet and Iraqi cheating under the BWC jeopardizes U.S. security. In the CTBT's case, however, the problem is made much more severe because its "verification" regime will create the illusion that no violations occur because cheaters will be caught. The "absence of evidence" that a clandestine test has occurred will be treated as "evidence of [the] absence" of cheating.9

Illusion is a dangerous commodity in the area of national security. When it involves weapons as powerful as nuclear weapons, illusion can easily lead to widespread destruction.

Simply Unenforceable: The Five Power Naval Treaty of Washington

Following World War I, a spate of diplomatic activities sought to ensure that this war was "the war to end all wars." Some of these efforts included arms control. The 1922 Five Power Naval Treaty of Washington, for example, both capped and established a specific ratio for the number of ships (primarily battleships) that the major naval powers of the day could possess. This treaty failed because its terms were not honored and could not be enforced. The CTBT will suffer the same problems with enforcement, because the final enforcement powers will be left to the Security Council of the United Nations, in which China and Russia have an equal vote and can veto any enforcement efforts.

The Washington Naval Treaty offers Congress a lesson in bad arms control policies. In 1921, U.S. Secretary of State Charles E. Hughes invited eight select naval powers (Belgium, China, France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, and Portugal) to discuss security matters at a conference in Washington, D.C. In his opening remarks, Secretary Hughes outlined a proposed 10-year moratorium on the construction of capital ships and a ratio of 5-5-3 for ships already in the possession of the United States, Great Britain, and Japan, respectively. His proposal was popular in the United States. In negotiating the agreement, the United States made a concession to Japan that it would not fortify certain island possessions in the Pacific, including the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, and the Aleutians. After France and Italy joined the agreement, the final ratio of ships was 5 for the United States, 5 for Great Britain, 3 for Japan, 1.7 for France, and 1.7 for Italy. The agreement was signed on February 22, 1922.

The relative naval strengths established in the treaty were never enforced. The other naval powers continued building ships not expressly limited by the treaty, such as cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. The U.S. government had naïvely assumed that the ratio governing capital ships would be applied to these other ships as well. By 1930, in terms of overall naval power, the United States lost parity with Great Britain and its naval superiority over Japan. The relationship that was designed to maintain a balance of naval power and peace, particularly in the Pacific, was shattered. But few in America seemed concerned during the complacent period following the adoption of the Kellogg-Briand Pact.

Not so with the increasingly aggressive Japanese. By 1934, the Japanese formally renounced the Washington Naval Treaty. The cycle of rearmament and suspicion intensified. The United States continued to lag in this new naval arms race. Not until President Franklin Roosevelt requested a $1 billion appropriation for the U.S. Navy did the United States begin a serious naval rearmament effort. But this was late in the game. Japanese naval forces attacked Pearl Harbor three years later.

Enforcement proved to be the critical ingredient missing from the Washington Naval Treaty. Unfortunately, the United States is likely to be just as complacent about enforcement of the CTBT as it was with the naval treaty in the late 1920s. Under Article V of the CTBT, the ultimate authority for enforcing the prohibition on nuclear test explosions will rest with the U.N. Security Council. This "enforcement" provision is, in reality, a dead end. If China or Russia were caught cheating, for example, they could exercise their right in the Security Council to veto any enforcement resolution aimed at curtailing their activity. This Administration, rather than introduce such a resolution, which could jeopardize the CTBT, is more likely to try to resolve the problem by ineffectual quiet diplomacy.

The lack of means to enforce the CTBT's provisions will prove to be its Achilles' heel, just as it proved to be the Achilles' heel of the Washington Naval Treaty. Both treaties engender an attitude of complacency. Any enforcement action that confronts complacency, short of a direct threat to the people of the United States--such as the attack on Pearl Harbor--will be unpopular. Supporters of the CTBT are likely to charge that the United States, by taking effective steps to enforce the treaty, will instigate another arms race. But the United States should never allow itself to fall again into the enforcement trap that undermined the Washington Naval Treaty and jeopardized U.S. security, which will be the case if the CTBT is ratified.


Arms control will be a counterproductive tool of national security policy as long as rigorous standards learned from past experiences are not observed. The CTBT fails to satisfy even one of the five important lessons that the history of arms control teaches. In fact, all of the shortcomings in five of the most discredited arms control policies and treaties of the 20th century are embodied in this single treaty. Historians of the future will likely view the CTBT, if it is ratified and enters into force, as a national security disaster for the United States. The question that remains is whether the Senate, understanding the harmful repercussions ratifying the CTBT will have on U.S. security and U.S. alliances, will abandon it altogether.

Baker Spring is a Research Fellow in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

1. This is not to imply that the Soviet Union honored the terms of ABM Treaty. In fact, evidence exists that the Soviet Union violated the ABM Treaty from the outset. See William T. Lee, The ABM Treaty Charade: A Study in Elite Illusion and Delusion (Washington, D.C.: Council for Social and Economic Studies, 1997). Nevertheless, the Soviets would almost certainly have undertaken a more ambitious national missile defense program had the ABM Treaty not been in place.

2. The White House, "Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Safeguards," Fact Sheet, September 22, 1997.

3. Toxins are poisons produced by biological processes.

4. See Robert Suro, "CIA Is Unable to Precisely Track Testing," The Washington Post, October 3, 1999, p. 1, and Bill Gertz, "Russians May Have Tested Nuclear Device Underground," The Washington Times, September 15, 1999, p. A-3.

5. U.S. Department of Defense, "Proliferation: Threat and Response," November 25, 1997; available at

6. The White House, "Soviet Noncompliance with Arms Control Agreements," February 23, 1990, pp. 5-6.

7. U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, "1997 Annual Report to Congress: Threat Control Through Arms Control," July 7, 1998, pp. 92-93.

8. Ibid., p. 35.

9. A cliché in the intelligence community is the "absence of evidence should not be taken as evidence of absence." It reflects the commonsense notion that there are limits to knowledge and that these limits should be understood in analyzing intelligence findings, including those related to arms control verification.


Baker Spring
Baker Spring

Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy