On Sept. 24, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on the first day he was eligible to do so.
Even though the treaty to ban nuclear weapons testing was never fully enacted, the anti-testing agenda has been successful. Since 1999, only North Korea has conducted nuclear tests.
Although North Korea’s ongoing behavior has, deservedly, been met with global outrage, ironically it may be recent actions taken by the Obama administration that most jeopardize the chance for a viable testing moratorium.
North Korea is testing, but not in a way that will lead others to test. President Obama, however, is proposing modernizing our nuclear weapons and that could spur new incentives to test, as well as other countries to follow suit.
At the same time, the president is trying to secure his anti-nuclear weapon legacy by pushing for U.N. Security Council action that may have the opposite effect of what is intended.
Since the CTBT was proposed 20 years ago, 164 countries have ratified it. The United States is not among them, though, as Republicans in the Senate voted down ratification in 1999, in part because of uncertainties over this complex treaty’s implications for maintaining the U.S. stockpile and verifying compliance by others.
Still, there is reason to celebrate the efforts to ban testing. The U.S. has not tested a nuclear weapon since 1992, even though it had conducted more than 1,000 tests following the end of World War II. And, since 1999, neither have any other nuclear states, sans North Korea.
Though the treaty is likely to never become official due to the reluctance to ratify of eight key countries – China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the U.S. each has incentives to minimize the meddling of international organizations into their (potential) nuclear-weapons programs – the international community has nonetheless maintained an unofficial moratorium on nuclear testing.
In essence, the nuclear powers have achieved an institutional equilibrium in which each nation expects each other to adhere to the ban on testing. The potential for reciprocity is a key driver for compliance with international law, even when that law has not been fully enacted.
These sorts of arrangements can quickly fall apart, however. If a nuclear state like the U.S. were to break the moratorium, it is likely other states would follow suit. Whatever the benefits of conducting a nuclear test – whether to test the fidelity of an aging stockpile or to demonstrate the viability of a new weapon design – they are potentially outweighed by the expectation that adversaries would then conduct – and benefit from – their own tests.
In this way, the Obama administration’s push for nuclear modernization – including the development of a warhead that can be used on both Minutemen and Trident missiles – carries great risk. If considerable resources are spent to develop a new warhead design, internal pressures will mount to test it.
Even Obama’s current pursuit of a United Nations Security Council resolution to ban testing – an end around to the CTBT – could dislodge the current equilibrium with little potential upside, given that any resolution surviving a veto from the U.S., Russia, China, UK or France would be sufficiently watered down as to be unenforceable in the event one of these states conducts a test.
And given the tendency of domestic politics to derail international cooperation, the U.S. commitment to a testing moratorium could easily weaken as critics of a testing ban become galvanized in their opposition to a potential UN resolution. Other nations could experience similar political pressures. When they no longer expect others will maintain testing restrictions, the equilibrium of compliance with the CTBT will dissolve.
If, years from now, the moratorium on testing outside of North Korea remains firm, Obama should consider thanking Kim Jong-un for helping the world associate nuclear testing with the actions of maniacal extortionists.
However, if nuclear testing eventually re-emerges as a reality of geopolitics, a look back might reveal that Obama’s nuclear legacy was directly contrary to what he had hoped.
Kyle Beardsley is an associate professor of political science at Duke University.