Think of what the world would be like if Russia, the United States, China, India and Pakistan were testing nuclear weapons. They are not because of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which is responsible for shutting down nuclear testing by major and regional powers for more than two decades. Walking away from the CTBT would be extraordinarily dumb and dangerous, but the Trump administration has taken a step in this direction.
The CTBT was negotiated in 1996, but it isn’t solidly in place. While Russia has signed and ratified it, Senate Republicans rejected it in 1999. China, like the United States, has signed but not ratified. There are other holdouts, including India and Pakistan. And yet none of these states has tested nuclear weapons since 1998. When a treaty is negotiated, it’s common diplomatic practice not to undercut its objectives while awaiting its entry into force. Hence the two-decades-long moratorium on testing by every nuclear-armed state except North Korea.
How long this can this situation last? The answer is in doubt now that the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr., has declared at a public forum that the “United States believes that Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium.” The Treaty sets a “zero yield” obligation: states aren’t supposed to test even with the slightest yields. The State Department defines this as any explosion “that produce a self-sustaining, supercritical chain reaction.” In other words, you can conduct experiments, but the experiments should not produce any seismic activity.
As a result of General Ashley’s statement, it’s now open season against the CTBT for those who want to trash another treaty. Critics of arms control have begun to call on Donald Trump to “unsign” the CTBT, just as he has walked away from the Iran nuclear deal and the Arms Trade Treaty. (Trump also announced withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but in this case, evidence of Russian noncompliance is compelling.) By “unsigning” the CTBT, Trump would tell the world that the United States is no longer bound to respect the Treaty’s obligation not to test nuclear weapons.
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Michael Krepon is co-founder of Stimson.