CTBT Or Bust: Living Up To The Prague Agenda In Obama’s Second Term – Analysis


By Shane Mason

In his 2009 Prague Speech, President Obama committed the support of his administration to three treaties which he defined as “concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.” The speech indicated that he would work to negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia, pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and support a “verifiable” fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). [1] To the dismay of the President’s supporters and arms control advocates, only New START has been ratified since.

President Obama
President Obama

Following a negotiation process that lasted just over a year, New START was signed by President Obama and President Medvedev in April 2010. [2] The treaty entered into force in February 2011 following contentious debate in both the U.S. Senate and Russian parliament. [3] Negotiations for a fissile material cutoff treaty have been stymied in the Conference of Disarmament (CD) for nearly two decades, and prospects to break the diplomatic impasse appear unlikely in the foreseeable future. [4] Pakistan is the latest country to block progress on the treaty, leveraging the CD’s requirement for consensus to insist on a treaty which limits both existing and future stockpiles of fissile materials. [5] Absent a minor diplomatic miracle in Geneva, little substantive work will be accomplished during the last years of the Obama administration on the FMCT.

As President Obama’s second term is set to begin in January 2013, the only viable opportunity to move forward with the Prague agenda will be the ratification of the CTBT. Securing the necessary Congressional approval to ratify the treaty will not be easy, particularly amidst the hyper-partisanship of the modern Senate and the influence of a cadre of Republican Senators for whom international agreements – even the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – are anathema. In addition, urgent domestic and foreign policy challenges are almost certain to attract most of Obama’s attention in the next two years, and may prevent a legislative push for the CTBT before the 2014 mid- term elections.

Treaty Status and Political Considerations in the United States

Although the CTBT has not entered into force, it enjoys widespread international support with 183 States Signatories and 157 Ratifying States. The entry into force provision requires ratification by all Annex 2 states – the 44 states “which formally participated in the work of the 1996 session of the Conference” of Disarmament during CTBT negotiations, and possessed IAEA-recognized nuclear reactors. [6] Indonesia’s ratification in February 2012 brought the number of remaining Annex 2 states to eight. The outlier Annex 2 states include five signatories (China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the United States) and three non-signatories (India, North Korea and Pakistan).

While the CTBT has languished in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since its defeat in 1999, President Obama’s re-election and the Democratic Party’s unexpected gains in the November 2012 election may provide the White House sufficient political capital for a robust legislative offensive to ratify the treaty. In the 113th Congress beginning in January, Senate Democrats and Independents who caucus with Democrats will hold fifty-five seats, while forty-five seats will be held by Republicans. Since the approval of two-thirds of the Senate is required to pass a resolution of ratification, the Obama administration will need to secure at least twelve Republican votes.

Opposition from Senate Republicans will likely piggyback on their recent criticism of the Obama administration’s proposed FY 2013 budget, which they claim underfunds nuclear weapons activities. Critics allege that by “reducing the scope and stretching out the schedule of several warhead weapons life-extension programs” and deferring facility upgrades at Los Alamos, the White House has reneged on commitments made during New START negotiations to modernize the nation’s nuclear stockpile. [7] In a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Pannetta on 29 June 2012, eight Senators (including six Republicans) warned:

“We believe the linkage between the nuclear modernization and the New START Treaty was clearly defined at the time of ratification and remains so today. Thus, we are concerned about the impact that failing to fulfil this critical commitment could have on future treaties the Senate may be asked to consider” [8] (italics added)

Treaty advocates in the administration and Congress are likely to rely heavily on a recently-released National Academies of Sciences report which examined technical issues related to the CTBT. Commissioned by the White House in 2009, the independent panel of technical experts concluded that “the United States is now better able to maintain a safe and effective nuclear stockpile and to monitor clandestine nuclear-explosion testing than at any time in the past.” [9] The report goes on to say that “surprise by clandestine nuclear weapons activities cannot be prevented with absolute certainty with or without the CTBT, but a fully functioning CTBTO after entry into force…can help reduce that risk.” [10] While the report will not satisfy all critics of the verification regime, the report goes a long way toward addressing many concerns with the verifiability of the CTBT.

Windows of Opportunity: Different Scenarios to Pursue Ratification

Despite impressive Democratic victories in the November elections, President Obama will likely be unable to pursue CTBT ratification in 2013. Federal budget negotiations and gun control legislation are sure to lead the President’s domestic agenda during the first year of his second term. In foreign policy, the on-going situation with Iran, managing the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the devastating civil war in Syria are certain to dominate the administration’s priorities.

In addition, Senate action on the CTBT is likely to be postponed by the administration’s upcoming campaign to support the Law of the Sea Treaty (UNCLOS), which appears to be near the top of the President’s foreign policy agenda. After the Senate held four hearings on the treaty last summer, the White House is well-positioned to initiate the legislative process in support of UNCLOS early in 2013 [11] While the treaty did not ultimately make it to the Senate floor, the flurry of hearings suggests the onset of a strategic effort to prepare Congress and the country for a more robust effort in 2013, this time with a more public role for the President. The CTBT may be pushed even further down the agenda if President Obama decides to double-down and make another attempt to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Nevertheless, if the Obama administration could somehow initiate the legislative process in support of the CTBT sometime late in 2013, it would enable the President to quickly leverage momentum from the most recent elections. [12] In addition, wrapping up Treaty ratification before the end of the year would allow the process to avoid the spike in partisanship that will surface in the run-up to the 2014 mid-term elections.

President Obama’s next-best window of opportunity falls between the dates Congress reconvenes in late- January 2014 and the end of the year. The most obvious political obstacle to ratification in 2014 will be the acute partisanship found in most election years. Persuading at least twelve Republican Senators to defy their party to support a controversial foreign policy initiative of President Obama will always prove challenging – in an election year, the challenge will be even more daunting. Moreover, intense partisanship may be aggravated in late 2013 by what is sure to be an intense fight over the Law of the Sea Treaty, and in early 2014 by a potential confrontation over the appointment of the new Chairperson of the Federal Reserve. [13]

Senate seats of twenty-one Democrats and only fourteen Republicans will be contested in 2014. Of the six Republicans who voted for New START in 2010, four will be up for re-election or will retire in 2014 – Senators Alexander, Collins, Cochran and Johanns. This does not bode well for the CTBT’s prospects, as these Senators are, at the very least, on record voting for a major arms control Treaty signed by President Obama and could be more willing to support the CTBT.

Clearly, the administration would rather pursue the CTBT before the mid-terms than during the lame- duck session at the end of 2014. Democrats currently enjoy an impressive numerical advantage, and if the party loses seats in November 2014, it would make CTBT ratification in the final two years of the Obama administration even less likely.

If President Obama is able to overcome a myriad of political challenges to ratify the CTBT, he would validate the soaring rhetoric of his Prague speech, and renew momentum for the treaty’s entry into force. In addition, United States ratification would reassert American leadership in the global non-proliferation regime at a time when the regime is fragile at best, and at worst, moribund. The ability of President Obama to successfully ratify the CTBT will sustain the international norm against nuclear testing, and add badly-needed legitimacy to a treaty that, seventeen years after it opened for signature, still does not have the power of international law.

Shane Mason is currently a Master’s candidate in the Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Mason interned at the CTBTO from August to December 2012.

[1] “Remarks by President Barack Obama,” Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic, 5 April 2009,
http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-By-President-Barack-Obama-In-Prague-As- Delivered.

[2] Shear, Michael D, “Obama, Medvedev Sign Treaty to Reduce Nuclear Weapons,” The Washington Post, 8 April 2010.

[3] Woolf, Amy F, “The New START Treaty: Central Limits and Key Provisions,” 14 February 2012, Congressional Research Service, p.23-24.

[4] Berger, Andrea, “Finding the Right Home for FMCT Talks,” Arms Control Today, October 2012, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2012_10/Finding-the-Right-Home-for-FMCT-Talks#Berger.

[5] Zughni, Farrah, “Pakistan Blocks CD Agenda Again,” Arms Control Today, April 2012, http:// www.armscontrol.org/act/2012_04/Pakistan_Blocks_CD_Agenda_Again.

[6] CTBT, Annex 2, p. 92, http://www.ctbto.org/fileadmin/content/treaty/treaty_text.pdf.

[7] “The Budget for Fiscal Year 2013,” Department of Defense, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/ files/omb/budget/fy2013/assets/defense.pdf

[8] Letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, 29 June 2012, http://www.lasg.org/budget/Kyl_CMRR- NF_ltr_to_Panetta_29Jun2012.pdf

[9] “The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: Technical Issues for the United States,” p. 12 National Research Council of the National Academies, Washington D.C., 2012.

[10] “The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: Technical Issues for the United States,” p. 12 National Research Council of the National Academies, Washington D.C., 2012.

[11] No hearings on the CTBT have been held during the Obama administration

[12] “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea : 103-39,” U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, http://www.foreign.senate.gov/treaties/details/103-39.

[13] Alden, William, “Casting Call in Washington,” The New York Times, 23 October 2012

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