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CTBT and the Senate


Below follow remarks given by Dr. Ford at a workshop on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) held at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (WWICS) on October 30, 2013, sponsored by WWICS and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Good afternoon.  I’d like to start by thanking the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Woodrow Wilson Center for inviting me to this conference.

I must confess that I was a little surprised to see a full day of scholarly attention here being devoted to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).  If one were going to spend an entire day talking with experts about issues of importance in this general field, I’d have thought it better spent on something both more needed and more achievable than the CTBT – an agreement which I don’t think scores very high in either respect.  Nor is it clear to me that CTBT’s entry into force (EIF) would bring benefits sufficient to outweigh the Treaty’s potential costs, including the opportunity cost of foregoing all the good that might be done by the expenditure elsewhere of so much political and diplomatic capital.  And even that is assuming that EIF would ever happen in the first place, which is far from clear.  (Even if the U.S. Senate gets on board with ratification, EIF also requires ratification by Iran, India, Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, the People’s Republic of China, and North Korea.  In all honesty, how likely is that?)

Nevertheless, CTBT has become a litmus test of ideological purity, revealing one’s supposed commitment to disarmament, so I will offer a few thoughts.  Naturally, what analysis I offer here represents my own personal views, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of anyone else, either at the Senate Appropriations Committee or anywhere else in the U.S. Government.

I’ll spare you my own thinking on the substantive merit of the CTBT, except just to say that I’m not a fundamentalist “anti,” but I am skeptical of its merits and still worried about its potential costs.   If I were a Senator, I would most likely vote “no” right now.  Anyone interested in my thoughts on the details can check my July 3 New Paradigms Forum website posting for more information.

Yet since I’m just a Senate staffer, my personal views are presumably only of secondary importance, at best.  That’s not true, however, of the Senators who would actually vote on CTBT ratification if the Obama Administration ever chooses to put it before them.  So let me give you my take on where they seem to be.

To begin with, I’ve been struck by how little one hears about CTBT even from Senate Democrats, either at the Member or the staff level, and even on the Foreign Relations Committee.  From this, one might infer that they don’t see it as being anything with which they expect to become engaged anytime soon, or indeed a high-priority item on their political agenda in the first place.

CTBT is a topic that the Obama Administration periodically trots out when speaking to the already-converted at international diplomatic gatherings, but when pressed about their plans, they don’t seem to be saying any more today than they were back in 2009.  Administration officials claim they are still committed to the Treaty, and are “doing their homework” by “engaging” with Senators to ensure that CTBT will succeed when submitted for ratification.  As to when this will be, however, they clam up.  Most folks I know have been assuming for years that this means: “Not anytime soon, if ever.”

My own working assumption is that the Administration knows that a second Senate defeat would be not just humiliating to them, but in fact potentially catastrophic for CTBT, and that President Obama currently possesses nothing remotely like the reservoir of political capital that would surely be needed to push something like this through.  I thus see the White House “commitment” to CTBT merely as a commitment to keeping the possibility of the Treaty alive as a talking point, for use with diplomatic interlocutors abroad and with certain elements of Obama’s political “base” at home.  I’ve actually heard from no one on the Hill who thinks CTBT has much of a future as an actual element of anyone’s concrete policy agenda.

This is not to suggest that Democrats are privately against CTBT, for I presume that most support it.  I’d wager they simply understand that long odds are stacked against its ratification, and that even if the U.S. gets fully on board we are unlikely to see ratification from all the states needed for EIF.

With the Administration currently having trouble with the Arms Trade Treaty – and having failed to get sufficient support even for the Disabilities Treaty last year on the Senate floor – and with CTBT EIF itself being such a desperately long shot anyway, my guess is that most Democrats don’t see CTBT as something in which it would be worthwhile to invest much time or effort. Politicians in Washington are sometimes rewarded by their constituents for pursuing longshot crusades at the cost of other priorities on the political agenda, but  CTBT is definitely not one of them.

As for Republican sentiment in the Senate, I think it’s actually more interesting and complicated.  I took the liberty last week of informally surveying some staffers of my acquaintance in various offices on the Minority side, and what I’ll say for the next few minutes is based upon what I heard from them.

In a development I suppose has been heartening to CTBT advocates, Republicans lost their most informed and articulate arms control hawk (and CTBT opponent) with the retirement of Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona.  But what today’s Republicans have lost in arms control leadership and institutional knowledge, they probably make up for in suspiciousness of the Obama Administration and the liberal arms control and disarmament clerisy that supports CTBT.  Neither U.S. political party seems to spend much time thinking about arms control these days, but when they do, Republicans still trend skeptical.  Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, opposes the Treaty, and I’d imagine most of his Senatorial colleagues in the Minority do so as well.

But I want to draw your attention to the biggest single reason my fellow Republicans tell me they oppose CTBT ratification, for it is different from the verification and stockpile reliability worries that drove the vote in 1999.   The reason I have heard most cited today stems from the slow-motion collapse of the bargain struck upon ratification of the “New START” agreement in 2010.

New START made it through the Senate with bipartisan support because ratification was built upon an explicit bargain, in which support for its reductions was coupled with support for increased funding for modernizing the United States’ nuclear weapons infrastructure.  This deal made sense to both hawks and doves.

Hawks could live with somewhat smaller numbers on the assumption that modernizing the nuclear “Complex” would help finally make it what we in the George W. Bush Administration used to call “responsive.”  This is another way of saying that hawks were willing to accept a shift in the U.S. “strategic hedge” – our insurance policy against unfavorable shifts in the security environment – from being one based primarily in a large “reserve” weapon stockpile to one somewhat more grounded simply in the option of producing new weapons on short notice.  Additional funding was also supposed to help modernize and extend the life of our aging warheads.

Nuclear “doves,” however, could also accept this bargain, because it permitted President Obama and his Democrat allies to take a step down the road toward the distant but rosily disarmed future they now endorse.   Indeed, with scholars as diverse as Jonathan Schell, Michael Mazarr, and Sid Drell having suggested that we could preserve strategic deterrence at the asymptote of weapons abolition simply through the maintenance of weapons-making knowledge and reconstitutive capacity, the disarmament community may even have felt at the time that New START established a model for working through future Senate roadblocks in order to bring numbers down still farther – perhaps even to “zero.”

Meanwhile, the bargain in 2010 made excellent sense to a great many folks in the middle, providing an almost textbook example of how to manage stability risks and maintain strategic deterrence with a somewhat smaller arsenal.  Accordingly, New START was approved handily, by a vote of 71 to 26.

So how is this relevant to CTBT ratification?  Well, the critical modernization bargain hasn’t been turning out quite as planned.  At its most basic, the 2010 deal traded a concrete concession up front (in the form of a ratification vote) in return for promises that modernization would get more support for many years to come.  Yet modernization has been faltering, a victim both of some Republicans’ unwillingness to pony up scarce money in a time of austerity, and of Democrats’ lukewarm support for, and in some cases opposition to, modernization.

As President Obama promised it in November 2010, the New START deal was to entail $600 million in Fiscal Year 2012 funding, resulting in a total planned FY12 budget of $7.6 billion for National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) weapons activities.  NNSA weapons funding would rise by $4.1 billion over the first five years, including boosts for the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Oak Ridge and the anticipated Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) plutonium plant at Los Alamos.  Over ten years, weapons activities were to get over $85 billion more.

As it’s turning out, however, the promised funds have not been materializing.  The first-five-years increase envisioned in 2010 is likely to end up about one-third less than promised.  The Life Extension Program (LEP) for the B-61 nuclear gravity bomb has been delayed by two – and perhaps now by three – years, raising the specter that its electronic innards will start to go bad before the LEP is done.  Meanwhile, the W-78/88 warhead project has slipped by three or four years, UPF has been delayed by perhaps four years, and CMRR now seems essentially dead, with Los Alamos still only in concept development for a smaller alternative.

With regard to CMRR, I’m even hearing that some Democrats are increasingly of the view that we don’t need surplus plutonium capacity after all, instead merely requiring some minimal level of “pit” production for servicing a future, smaller arsenal.  (This, of course, is a quiet way of saying that we don’t need a production-based strategic “hedge” at all – which basically means throwing the New START bargain out the window, as well as the aim of a “responsive” infrastructure capable of reacting to unwelcome changes in the future security environment.)  What happens for modernization funding if and when Congress gets around to a full-year spending package is, at this point, anyone’s guess.

Naturally, this erosion of the 2010 bargain unnerves U.S. hawks, and hawkish worries about all this necessarily color any consideration of CTBT.  If it were ever to be ratified, after all, CTBT would presumably also require a New START-style bargain – likely something in which treaty ratification, up front, would be traded for promises to ramp up whatever programs seem most likely to mitigate the additional strategic risk imposed by CTBT.  But how credible are such promises likely to be now, if the New START deal unravels?  (One can almost hear the refrain now: “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me!”)  I don’t see many Republicans being eager to line up for a second round of disappointment.

Indeed, one of my colleagues predicts that even those Senate Republicans who voted for New START, even though some of them might otherwise have been inclined to ratify CTBT, are now likely to oppose the test ban, precisely because they now fear it’s a fool’s bargain to trade up-front concessions for mere promises of out-year behavior that the promisor cannot reliably deliver.  Since this problem only gets worse as Obama’s second term progresses – insofar as even if Republicans did trust him, he cannot bind his successors and will be gone from office long before any kind of CTBT-augmented spending trajectory can bear fruit – it is difficult to imagine Republicans taking such a deal again.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that if you want an alignment of political forces sufficient to push CTBT through the Senate, you may have to wait a while, and Congress may have to spend a good deal more money on NNSA first.  I, for one, am not holding my breath.

Thank you.

-- Christopher Ford

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