A UN Security Council Resolution on Nuclear Testing Would Not Bypass the Senate

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By Michael Krepon:

Will the debate over the Obama administration’s proposed U.N. Security Council resolution reaffirming the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty’s ban on nuclear testing be fact-based or fact-free?
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial on August 4th raises the alarm that the Obama administration may usurp the Senate’s constitutional treaty powers with an end-run to the U.N.,” by means of a Security Council resolution on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The headline of an opinion piece by Josh Rogin in the Washington Post, “Obama will bypass Congress, seek U.N. resolution on nuclear testing,” treats this as fact.
Here are the facts: The Obama administration will seek a U.N. Security Council resolution reaffirming global commitment to a world without nuclear testing. A U.N. Security Council resolution will not add new legally binding obligations with regard to nuclear testing, nor will it supersede or circumvent the Senate’s prerogatives to provide advice and consent to treaty ratification.
A U.N. Security Council resolution will serve three important purposes. First, it will strengthen national moratoria on nuclear testing. Only one outlier now tests nuclear explosive devices – North Korea. This resolution provides an opportunity for the Permanent Five members of the Security Council to reaffirm a global ban on testing. It also provides an opportunity for India, Pakistan, and Israel to reaffirm their national moratoria on testing. And it will reaffirm North Korea’s isolation, which, in turn, can facilitate additional steps deemed necessary in the event of its continued testing.
Second, the resolution will reaffirm national commitments in support of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty’s entry into force. Reaffirmation is necessary because the Treaty has been in limbo for twenty years. As a result of a generously funded stockpile stewardship program, and due to extreme diligence by the U.S. nuclear laboratories, the United States does not need to test nuclear weapons. U.S. national and international security is strengthened by the absence of nuclear testing by others, and weakened by the resumption of testing by others. Reaffirmation of support for the CTBT’s entry into force by means of a U.N. Security Council resolution is clearly in the interest of the United States and our allies.
Third, a U.N. Security Council Resolution will recommit states to supporting the Test Ban Treaty’s international monitoring system that identifies covert, low-yield testing while providing a global early warning system for tsunamis. Detection and disaster relief are worth investing in. Support for compliance requires support for treaty monitoring. Holding funds for treaty monitoring hostage damages U.S. national security.
Fact: Nothing in this resolution would infringe on the Senate’s prerogatives with regard to advice and consent to treaty ratification. The Senate and the nation would be well served by exhaustive, fact-based hearings where the pros and cons for consenting to ratification can be weighed. A fact-based hearings process will conclude that the U.S. stockpile stewardship program is a notable success story, and that detection of very low yield, covert testing is possible by U.S. national technical means and by the Test Ban Treaty Organization’s international monitoring system. Both are necessary because one remains closed while the other is open.
A fact free debate can lead us astray. The opening paragraph of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial dwells on presumed motivation, not fact:

With his time in office winding down, President Obama plans to make a valedictory round of changes to U.S. nuclear weapons policy. The aim is to cement his cherished “Prague agenda,” named for the Czech city where in 2009 he set out his vision for a nuclear-free world. The moves would more likely cement his legacy for arms-control illusions that are producing a new era of nuclear proliferation.

What “new era of nuclear proliferation” are we living in? Iran’s capabilities to make nuclear weapons have been greatly downsized, thanks to an agreement the Journal’s editorial board virulently opposed. Intrusive monitoring allows early warning of Iranian noncompliance. If those who oppose the deal, like the editorial board of the Journal, can be prevented from blowing up implementation, Iran will not get the Bomb for the duration of the agreement, if not indefinitely.
Yes, there’s plenty to worry about when it comes to nuclear weapons, but we are living in a rare period in which no new country seeks to follow in Iran’s previous footsteps. This period is of uncertain duration. One way to extend it is to raise the bar against the resumption of nuclear testing. A U.N. Security Council resolution can help raise this bar.

If there were to be a “new era” of proliferation, it would be fueled by renewed nuclear testing.
As for the “cherished” Prague Agenda of a world without nuclear weapons, President Obama has referenced this during his trip to Hiroshima. How could he not? Otherwise, his references to a world without nuclear weapons have been as fleeting and as infrequent as every other U.S. president who has endorsed this distant goal. And every president has endorsed this goal because it is embedded in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is the foundational document for preventing “a new era of proliferation.” A permanent ban on nuclear testing is an essential way to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
What, then, are the “arms control illusions” that the Obama administration appears wedded to? The “illusion” of seeking safety through further strategic arms reductions extends back a long way, including President Reagan. The “illusion” that U.S. national security can be advanced through an end to nuclear testing stretches back to President Eisenhower.
The Journal’s editorial goes on to say:

Mr. Obama’s Prague agenda has consisted mostly of shrinking and weakening the U.S. nuclear arsenal, as he did by signing the 2010 New Start Treaty with Russia and deferring modernization of aging nuclear platforms. This gives America’s friends reason to doubt its nuclear umbrella, while giving adversaries greater incentive to grow their arsenals.

Here are the facts: The Obama administration has charted a path to replace all three legs of the nuclear triad, at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of approximately one trillion dollars over the next three decades. We can and will debate these particulars, but this will be a sterile exercise if a one trillion dollar strategic modernization program is equated with “shrinking and weakening” the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Facts matter. They are being lost amidst wild suppositions. Let’s not jump to conclusions about the Obama administration’s proposed Security Council resolution on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. 
Michael Krepon is Co-founder of the Stimson Center.

Photo credit: rocbolt via Flickr
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