Why the U.S. Must Ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

To strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime, the United States should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which aims to eliminate nuclear test explosions for civilian and military purposes,opened for signature in 1996 after adoption by the United Nations General Assembly. Former President Clinton, the first signatory, deemed the treaty “[t]he hardest sought, hardest fought prize in arms control history.” Fifteen years since the CTBT’s adoption, the treaty has still not entered into force. Article XIV of the treaty mandates that forty-four states, known as Annex Two States, ratify the CTBT before it activates. The United States, a key Annex Two State, has signed but not ratified the CTBT after the Senate’s rejection in 1999. Despite strong commitment by the Obama administration, progress is stagnant. The United States’ ratification would galvanize oth- er key states to ratify the treaty, thereby bolstering nonproliferation efforts and subsequently international security. 


Opponents of U.S. ratification have three main criticisms of the CTBT: it threatens the United States’ stockpile, it does not further nonproliferation efforts, and it is not enforceable or verifiable. The United States has exercised a self-enforced nuclear testing moratorium since 1992 while still ensuring the reliability of its stockpile. Reliability is achieved through the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP), which conducts supercomputer simulations to test the functionality of the stockpile. For FY2012, the SSP has a budget of $7.6 billion. The weapons stockpile and infrastructure for FY2011-2020 is projected to be $85 billion.7 Furthermore, a 2009 study from the JASON’s group, comprised of expert scientists, concluded that the stockpile could be extended for decades without testing. The CTBT does strengthen nonproliferation efforts. Former United States National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft argued that once ratified “…the CTBT will expedite agreement on more rigorous export controls… and measures to discourage the spread of enrichment and reprocessing facilities.” Beyond setting a precedent for stringent regulations, developing a sophisticated nuclear stockpile requires testing. After United States’ratification of the CTBT, other Annex Two States would feel pressure to ratify the CTBT, therefore relinquishing their testing abilities. Critics of the CTBT argue that other nonproliferation treaties, such as the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT), are more important to limiting nuclear proliferation. The FMCT would advance nonproliferation efforts by increasing constraints on nuclear weapons useable fissile material, but the treaty exists in a nascent stage due internal disagreements about the specifics of the treaty. Because the CTBT has been negotiated and stands ready for ratification, its political feasibility exceeds that of the FMCT. 

Lastly, while the CTBT does not have a formal enforcement mechanism, it does create a global norm that could result in political and economic ramifications if violated. The CTBT contains a verification mechanism, the International Monitoring System, consisting of 321 stations worldwide monitoring for nuclear explosions.10 This monitoring system increases transparency between member states through intensive on-site inspections. 

Next Steps 

Honoring its commitment to enhance nonproliferation, the Obama administration should call for a bipartisan effort to review the CTBT. National laboratories and other science experts who can discredit spurious information about the treaty should step forward to relate the treaty’s merits. Furthermore, the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference should prioritize ratification by the United States. Prominent security documents, like the Defense Strategic Guidance, which is facilitated through the Department of Defense, should incorporate United States’ ratification into its vision for national security. While the CTBT does not provide a panacea to all nonproliferation threats, its ratification would significantly increase international security and breathe life anew into the nonproliferation regime.

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