In failing to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the US Senate played partisan politics with an issue of utmost importance to the security of the US and the world. In observing the debates in the Senate on this issue, I was once again left with the impression that our Senators do not fully understand and do not particularly care that the rest of the world pays attention to what they say and do. Much of the world looks to the United States for leadership, but there is little to be found these days in the highest offices of our government.

In 1995 I attended the Review and Extension Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). It was and remains clearly in the interests of the United States and all other countries in the world to prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons. At that Treaty Conference the US was fighting for the indefinite extension of the Treaty. Many other countries were questioning, however, whether the Treaty should be extended indefinitely since the US and other nuclear weapons states had not kept their promise for good faith negotiations on nuclear disarmament during the first 25 years of the Treaty’s existence.

In the end, the NPT was extended indefinitely. To achieve this result the US and the other nuclear weapons states agreed to a set of Principles and Objectives that included “a universal and internationally and effectively verifiable Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty no later than 1996.” This Treaty was, in fact, negotiated and opened for signatures in September 1996. The first country to sign was the United States.

The Comprehensive Test Ban is a treaty that is very much in our interests. After all, we have already conducted some 1,050 atmospheric and underground nuclear test explosions, more than any other nation. The Treaty allows conducting laboratory tests by computer simulation. The US has also been conducting sub-critical nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site, although these violate the spirit if not the letter of the treaty. We are currently spending some $4.5 billion annually on our Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program to maintain our nuclear arsenal.

When the Senate defeated the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty we were saying to the world that we have little interest in providing leadership toward a nuclear weapons free world. Rather, we want to hold open the option of further testing of our nuclear weapons. This means, of course, that other nations may well decide to do the same.

Prior to the Senate vote, leaders of our key allies in Europe –President Jacques Chirac of France, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, and Chancellor Gerhard Schroder of Germany, wrote: “Rejection of the treaty in the Senate would remove the pressure from other states still hesitating about whether to ratify it. Rejection would give great encouragement to proliferators. Rejection would also expose a fundamental divergence within NATO.”

But the Senate was not to be swayed by either friends or logic. They chose instead to place their bets on continued reliance on nuclear weapons. They have also, along with the Members of the House of Representatives, voted to deploy a National Missile Defense System “as soon as technologically feasible.” This would mean undermining the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an arms control measure that came into force under the Nixon administration. Despite assurances by the Defense Department that the planned missile defense system is aimed at so-called “rogue” nations and not at the Russians, the Russians have indicated that such a system could mean the end of further reductions in nuclear armaments and possibly the beginning of a new offensive nuclear arms race.

Neither we nor the Russians want to return to the days of the Cold War. We know the price that was extracted in terms of risk to humanity and in terms of resources (more than $5.5 trillion spent by the U.S. alone). We live in a dangerous world. But, as many top US military leaders have pointed out, there is no problem that nuclear weapons would not make worse.

Lest we forget, here is what nuclear weapons can do. One nuclear weapon could destroy a city. Two small nuclear weapons destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ten nuclear weapons could destroy a country. Imagine the US with New York, Washington, DC, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle destroyed by nuclear blasts.

One hundred nuclear weapons could destroy civilization. One thousand nuclear weapons could destroy the human species and most life on Earth. And yet, there remain some 35,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Some 5,000 of these are on hair-trigger alert despite the fact that the Cold War ended ten years ago.

The Congress is displaying an ostrich-like mentality, believing that we can threaten others with our nuclear weapons while putting up a “shield” to protect ourselves. What is most disturbing about this worldview is that while we keep our collective heads in the sand, we are missing the opportunity to show real leadership in moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons. This opportunity may not come again.

In April 1999 the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation presented its Distinguished Peace Leadership Award to General Lee Butler, a former Commander in Chief of the United States Strategic Command. General Butler was once in charge of all US strategic nuclear weapons. He was the man responsible for advising the President of the United States on whether or not to use nuclear weapons in a crisis situation. While he held this position, General Butler could never be more than three rings from his telephone. He is now an ardent advocate of abolishing all nuclear weapons.

While with us in Santa Barbara, General Butler recalled: “When I retired in 1994, I was persuaded that we were on a path that was miraculous, that was irreversible, and that gave us the opportunity to actually pursue a set of initiatives, acquire a new mindset, and re-embrace a set of principles having to do with the sanctity of life and the miracle of existence that would take us on the path to zero. I was dismayed, mortified, and ultimately radicalized by the fact that within a period of a year that momentum again was slowed. A process that I have called the creeping re-rationalization of nuclear weapons was introduced….”

The Senate vote on the CTBT is reflective of this “creeping re-rationalization of nuclear weapons.” It will undoubtedly be a major subject of concern when the Review Conference for the Non-Proliferation Treaty is held in the year 2000. Representatives of many countries will note that the US and other nuclear weapons states have not ratified the CTBT, and they will wonder why. They will wonder whether they should not hold open their own options for developing nuclear arsenals. They will ask: “If the world’s most powerful nation chooses to base its security on nuclear weapons and keeps open its options to continue testing these weapons, shouldn’t we consider doing so as well?”

In the end, the Senate’s vote was arrogant and shortsighted. It leaves the world a more dangerous place, and the future in greater doubt.

* David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.