Even as the Trump administration continued to struggle to contain the coronavirus in mid-May, White House officials preoccupied themselves with manufacturing a wholly unnecessary threat. On May 15, senior national security officials at an interagency meeting reportedly discussed the possibility of abandoning the longstanding U.S. moratorium on nuclear-weapons testing that has been in place for nearly three decades and is now accepted by the entire world, even North Korea. According to a May 22 report in the Washington Post, the proponents of ending the moratorium argued in the meeting that the United States should resume testing because Russia and China were conducting low-level nuclear-weapons tests, allegations that appear to be based on no evidence.

Such tests would bring no military or strategic benefit to the United States. Instead, they would undermine the foundational global agreement that has curbed the spread of nuclear weapons worldwide for more than 50 years, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Such low-level tests would be of little military benefit to Russia and China either, as there is scant information for them to gain that they do not already possess. Thus, even if such tests occurred, they would not represent any kind of significant security threat to the United States. The only conceivable benefit for the United States of resuming a nuclear-weapons testing program would be to create an opportunity for President Donald Trump to somehow distort the value of it and use it as another meaningless political ploy to bolster his campaign for re-election in November.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s likely Democratic challenger, said, “The possibility that the Trump administration may resume nuclear explosive weapons testing in Nevada is as reckless as it is dangerous.” Nevada’s answer to the possibility of resuming nuclear testing, which would take place on – or rather under – its soil, was articulated in an editorial in the state’s leading newspaper, the Las Vegas Sun: “No. Hell no. Not now. Not ever.”

Historic Efforts to Curb the Spread of Nuclear Weapons

During the Cold War, the United States built more than 70,000 nuclear weapons and the Soviet Union around 55,000. At the peak of the arms race, the United States had some 32,500 of these warheads in its nuclear stockpile, the Soviet Union in the range of 45,000 (in each case, the stockpile peak is different from the total produced due to deterioration and some being destroyed as obsolete). There was a widely understood risk that the weapons might spread across the globe. France and Great Britain were conducting tests, and Sweden and Switzerland showed interest in doing so.

In 1961, the United Nations unanimously passed the “Irish” Resolution (introduced by Ireland), which called on all states to conclude an international agreement prohibiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional countries. In 1965, another resolution was passed by the U.N. General Assembly calling on nations to negotiate an international treaty to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons, which became the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). China had just completed an initial nuclear-weapons test program, bringing the number of declared nuclear weapon states to five: the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China.

This new treaty would be based on five principles, among them a commitment to ultimately abolish nuclear weapons and, in the interim, a balance of obligations among the five nuclear-weapons states and other state parties that thus far had no nuclear weapons. This balance required interim steps toward nuclear disarmament, short of elimination — seen in the depths of the Cold War as a distant objective — in exchange for a commitment that all parties would be permitted to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The principal interim step was considered to be the worldwide termination of nuclear-weapons tests. (Although the Limited Test Ban Treaty had been negotiated in 1962, led by President John F. Kennedy, and nuclear-weapon tests were prohibited everywhere except underground, by 1968, many tests were being conducted underground.)

The NPT was signed in 1968. It was to last for 25 years, after which on a one-time basis, the parties would decide by majority vote how much longer it would exist. The non-nuclear-weapons states in the treaty negotiations had urged the inclusion of a reference to interim steps in the agreement, especially an accord to ban nuclear testing, which became the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). The CTBT was looked upon by the non-nuclear-weapons states as the price to be paid by the five states holding nuclear weapons for the others giving up their rights to develop such armaments.

Thus, a ban on nuclear testing was essential to the strategic bargain of the NPT. The United States and the Soviet Union would not agree to any interim step in the text of the NPT, with one exception: a reference to the CTBT in the preamble. The two nations also promised that interim steps, including the CTBT, would be negotiated at the treaty review conferences that were required under the agreement every five years.

At the first four review conferences after the NPT entered into force in 1970, the United States and the Soviet Union blocked any progress whatsoever on the CTBT. In 1995, the NPT came up for the agreed renewal. At the strong urging of the United States, a plenipotentiary conference of the parties held that year in place of the review conference made the NPT permanent, extending it indefinitely by consensus. The principal quid for this quo was the same as the one at the signing of the NPT in 1968—a CTBT, only this time the commitment was to complete it in one year.

U.S. Commitments and Obligations

The United States took this commitment seriously. It already had placed a moratorium on nuclear testing in 1992, prompting most of the world to do the same, essentially adopting an informal global moratorium on nuclear-weapon tests beginning in 1993. The negotiating conference in Geneva agreed to a CTBT within the one-year timeframe. The treaty was adopted by the United Nations in 1996 by a vote of 158-3, and it was opened for signature in September.

U.S. President Bill Clinton was the first to sign, and ultimately, the CTBT was signed by 184 states, of which 168 have ratified it. But the Treaty requires that all 44 of those states that had nuclear facilities of any kind on their territories in 1996, called Annex 2 states, must ratify the treaty before it enters into force. Of these Annex 2 states, 36 have ratified—states such as Germany, Japan, Britain, France, and Russia. The eight that have not ratified are the United States and seven others that are more or less waiting for the United States to move forward.

Despite having led the negotiations, the United States has been unable to ratify the treaty. The reason is that the Republican Party turned against arms control and disarmament and, ultimately, against peace and diplomacy themselves. This from a party that once stood at the forefront of arms control and disarmament, with major initiatives such as President Ronald Reagan agreeing with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik to eliminate all nuclear weapons and President George H.W. Bush concluding four such agreements, more than any other president.

The Clinton administration submitted the CTBT to the Senate for advice and consent to ratification in 1997. Two years later, in 1999, it was rejected by the Republican-led Senate—led by two senators from the right—Senators Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ). Ever since, Republicans in the Senate have blocked ratification, but the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations informally observed the treaty’s terms.

The United States also has abided by Article 18 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which obligates a state not to defeat the object and purpose of a treaty that it has signed and that is pending ratification unless and until such state has made its intention clear not to become a party. The United States is not a party to the convention, but has recognized its authority. Thus, it is obligated not to do nuclear-weapons testing of any kind unless it clearly states its intention not to ratify. Doing such a test would certainly defeat the object and purpose of the CTBT, and the United States has made no indication that it intends never to ratify the CTBT.

Republican Party, Once Leading on Arms Control, Backs Away

In the last decade, elements in the Republican Party have tried to promote the elimination of this obligation and reopen the door to an underground nuclear-weapons testing program. First, Republicans made an argument for years that the United States was observing a CTBT standard of not testing weapons of any yield even though Russia and China never agreed to do the same. But the negotiating record showed Russia and China stating clearly that they recognize the CTBT is a “zero-yield treaty,” and the strength of that record wore down this argument.

Then last year, in a public statement at the Hudson Institute, Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr., the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), implicitly admitted that Russia had accepted the zero-yield standard. But he asserted that it was carrying out low-yield nuclear tests inconsistent with this commitment, while the United States is adhering to this limit. However, when challenged on this, the DIA director could cite no evidence of Russian testing or even that any evidence existed. He instead said only that Russia had the “capability” to do this, which is true of many states. Tim Morrison, then a senior director at the National Security Council, left the question unclear in a follow-up panel, saying only, “We believe that Russia has taken actions to improve its nuclear-weapons capability that run contrary to the scope of its obligations under the treaty.”

Now Republicans are back again with a similar argument, only this time adding China. They allege — once again without evidence — that both Russia and China are doing low-level nuclear-weapons tests and benefiting from doing so. Perhaps someone will also bring up again the non-argument that Russia and China have the capability to do this. Apparently one senior official at the recent White House meeting asserted that a demonstration by the United States that it could “rapid test” could be useful in a trilateral nuclear negotiation with Russia and China, a seemingly fruitless position that Trump is trying to pursue in withholding an extension of the New START agreement between the United States and Russia that expires early next year. China has made it clear that it will not participate in such a negotiation. Biden found the idea “delusional.”

Notably, the reaction to the report that the Trump administration is considering a resumption of testing was not positive in significant domestic circles either. In its editorial, the Las Vegas Sun also said, “The state endured four decades of nuclear tests – more than 1,000 in all, before testing ceased in 1992 via an international moratorium. We and our downwind neighbors in Utah endured nuclear fallout in above-ground tests during the 1950s and 1960s, and our desert remains irradiated by underground tests conducted later.

“We will fight any effort to reopen the door to that dark era…”

It is difficult to imagine a greater threat to U.S. national security than for the United States to pursue a nuclear-weapons test program at the present time. Such action would defeat the object and purpose of the CTBT, which means the United States would be turning its back on the essential glue that holds the NPT together.

The likely result would be that the NPT would gradually come apart. Other states such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Turkey, and Egypt would use the U.S. tests as an excuse to develop their own test programs and to acquire nuclear weapons for a national arsenal. Eventually, in an era when many countries may feel less and less secure as climate change erodes their remaining national assets such as arable land and fresh water, they might see nuclear weapons as more and more attractive. Once the door kept closed by the NPT is opened, we would enter a nightmare world, a risk foreseen by past American statesmen.

IMAGE: First CTBT on-site inspection activity at the former Nevada Test on May 18, 2016, at Climax Mine at the Nevada National Security Site, location of historical underground nuclear explosions, to learn about observables resulting from testing in hard granite. (Photo: CTBTO on Flickr)