Just a few weeks ago, the fate of the New Start nuclear arms treaty seemed to hang by a thread. But since last week, when the United States Senate ratified the treaty, which reduces the size of the American and Russian nuclear stockpiles, we can speak of a serious step forward for both countries. I hope this will energize efforts to take the next step to a world free of nuclear weapons: a ban on all nuclear testing.
In the final stretch, President Obama put his credibility and political capital on the line to achieve ratification. That a sufficient number of Republican senators put the interests of their nation’s security, and the world’s, above party politics is encouraging.
The success was not without cost. In return for the treaty’s ratification, Mr. Obama promised to allocate tens of billions of dollars in the next few years for modernizing the American nuclear weapons arsenal, which is hardly compatible with a nuclear-free world.
Missile defense remains contentious. During the ratification debate, many senators objected to the treaty’s language about the relationship between offensive and defensive arms, which the new agreement takes from the first Start treaty, signed in 1991. Others tried to scuttle ratification by complaining that New Start did not limit tactical nuclear weapons.
These attacks were fended off. Nevertheless, these problems clearly need to be discussed. There must be an agreement on missile defense. Tough negotiations are ahead on tactical nuclear weapons, and a realistic agreement is needed on the deployment of conventional forces in Europe. We shall see very soon whether all these issues were raised just for the sake of rhetoric, as a demagogical screen to maintain military superiority, or whether there is a real readiness to conclude agreements easing the military burden.
The priority now is to ratify the separate treaty banning nuclear testing. The stalemate on this agreement, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, has lasted more than a decade. I recall how hard it was in the second half of the 1980s to start moving in this direction. At the time, the Soviet Union declared a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing. However, when the United States continued to test, we had to respond.
Even so, we insisted on our position of principle, calling for a total ban on nuclear testing under strict international control, including the use of seismic monitoring and on-site inspections.
In 1996 the United Nations General Assembly finally opened the test ban treaty for signing and ratification. But this pact has a particularly stringent requirement for its entry into force: every one of the 44 “nuclear technology holder states” must sign and ratify it.
As of today, 35 have done so, including Russia, France and Britain. Still, the list of countries that have not ratified remains formidable: It includes the United States, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, India, North Korea and Pakistan (the final three have not even signed). Each “rejectionist” country has its arguments, but all are not equally responsible for the stalemate. The process of ratification stalled after the United States Senate voted in 1999 to reject the treaty, claiming that it was not verifiable and citing the need for “stockpile stewardship” to assure the reliability of American weapons. The real reason was doubtless the senators’ desire to keep testing.
Nevertheless, in the 21st century only one country, North Korea, has ventured to conduct nuclear explosions. There is, in effect, a multilateral moratorium on testing. It is increasingly obvious that for the international community nuclear explosions are unacceptable.
In the meantime the preparatory committee for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization has built up a strong verification regime. Nearly 250 monitoring stations — around 80 percent of the number needed to complete the system — are now in operation. And the system proved its effectiveness by detecting the relatively low-yield nuclear explosions conducted by North Korea.
So should we, perhaps, be content with the virtual moratorium on nuclear testing?
No, because commitments that are not legally binding can easily be violated. This would render futile any attempts to influence the behavior of countries that have been causing so many headaches for the United States and other nations. The American senators should give this serious thought. As George Shultz, secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan, has said, Republicans may have been right when they rejected the treaty in 1999, but they would be wrong to do so again.
It is fairly certain that once the Senate agreed to ratification, most of the countries still waiting would follow. No country wants to be a “rogue nation” forever, and we have seen that dialogue with even the most recalcitrant governments is possible. Yet dialogue can work only if the United States abandons the hypocritical position of telling others what they must not do while keeping its own options open.
Universal ratification of the test ban treaty would be a step toward creating a truly global community of nations, in which all share the responsibility for humankind’s future.
Mikhail Gorbachev, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the last president of the USSR.