CTBT won’t change anything

CTBT, the nuclear test ban treaty that the U.S. has delayed ratifying for years, might be back on the table. John McCain, who originally voted against ratifying the treat years ago, has changed his mind. According to the AP, Mccain said that “The devil is in the details,” but that “If we could get it done, if it is acceptable, then it is a step forward on the path to the president’s goal and mine of a nuclear free world.”

From the title of my post, it sounds like I don’t believe the CTBT is a good idea, but my point is more subtle than that. Since we currently have a nuclear testing moratorium, it’s not clear that proponents or opponents of the CTBT have any solid arguments.

On one hand, proponents can say that ratifying the CTBT will increase our softpower and maybe advance non proliferation goals. The argument is: we already don’t test, so why not sign the damn thing and make the world like us more. But, since we don’t test now, it seems that the marginal benefit of a signing a document saying we won’t do what we are already not doing is small. Some will contest this, but notice that this is a very subtle and hard to quantify benefit. I would like to see someone spell this point out convincingly.

Opponents of CTBT say softpower is a joke and that only a robust nuclear force can deter adversaries and stop proliferation. But again, we haven’t tested our nukes in years. Again, this is a contested point, but it seems like the U.S. nuclear stockpile probably works fine and doesn’t need to be tested all the time.

Last, another important point is that CTBT, if it were ratified, does not the force of god. If another country started testing nuclear weapons and softpower was unable to diffuse the situation, then other countries might be willing to allow exceptions, or at the very least, if we contravened the treaty, the loss in global esteem would be small.

Bottom line, we don’t test nukes right now, so the CTBT debate is about whether to codify that commitment internationally or just keep the commitment domestic. The debate about whether to test nukes or not, is one about whether we should lift the moratorium or not.

CTBT graph


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