The treaty that ended in war

Experts discuss the Senate's vote against the global nuclear test ban treaty, Clinton's biggest foreign policy failure yet.


Alicia Montgomery
October 14, 1999 4:00PM (UTC)

The nuclear test ban treaty excited more attention in its death than in life. Ever since Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott announced he would put the long-ignored treaty up for a vote, its proponents have been scrambling to find a way to derail the process.

But President Bill Clinton and treaty supporters did little to sway lawmakers in the opposition camp, and embattled Senate Republicans cast ballots mostly down party lines Wednesday to reject ratification of the treaty. It was a stunning rebuke to the president's foreign policy and also marked the first time the Senate had rejected an arms control treaty since refusing to approve the Treaty of Versailles in 1920.

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Experts discussed the political consequences of the treaty vote with Salon News.

Rich Galen is a Republican strategist and publisher of Mullings, an Internet political column.

The Senate leadership's position was that the president hadn't exactly beaten anybody over the head with this treaty. He never said "we need to get this done now." The Republicans were talking to the guys they trust on this issue, like James Schlesinger, who said that it was a bad treaty. Clinton was going around saying that nobody in America opposed this treaty except for 50 Republicans in the Senate. Lott got wind of this plot to attempt to embarrass the Republicans and said, "there's no need to do that. We'll just bring it up for a vote." There wasn't any urgency to this vote. It didn't need to happen now. Clinton threw down the gauntlet on this one and said, "I bet you can't beat me on this one," and Trent Lott said, "Watch me."

For the Republicans running for reelection in the Senate, there should be no problem from this vote. They have better information than the press does, so if they go home and get a Democrat opponent who says "you were against this treaty," they'll be able to give their voters good reasons.

It does mean that Al Gore has something to talk about on foreign policy that's not Bosnia, Haiti or Somalia. But for Bill Clinton to stand there at his press conference this afternoon and say "I didn't know they were going to bring it to the floor, so I couldn't get prepared for it" is so hypocritical.

Clinton did use the term "new isolationism" to talk about the Republicans who voted against it, which in my mind is an implication of creeping Buchananism among the Republicans. That is a phrase they must have tested with focus groups and found that works for them. What I don't understand is how accusing the Republicans of the kind of isolationism that the labor unions -- who just endorsed Gore -- is going to help. I think the congressional Democrats are saying they'll keep fighting for this thing because that's what the president is saying.

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The real question is how do you undo a bad treaty. The answer is you don't, unless there is specific language in the treaty that lets you out. The only answer would be to violate the treaty.

No one really wanted to take this vote in the first place.

Joseph Cirincione is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Non-proliferation Project.

The politics overwhelmed this treaty. The talk of concerns about verification were a smoke screen. Those concerns were answered by Bill Clinton and the treaty itself. The Supreme National Interest clause says that, if there is any doubt at any time that the treaty is in our national interest, the United States can withdraw. The Senate Republicans hate Bill Clinton and were not about approve his treaty. They've missed so many other chances to get him. Impeachment, though it seems like such a long time ago, was just this year. They wanted to hang this man and he slipped the noose. So this was their chance.

People underestimate how profoundly conservative and isolationist this Senate is. To find one comparable, you have to go back to the Senate that voted down the Treaty of Versailles, keeping us out of the League of Nations. There was a determined hard-right effort from senators like John Kyl and Jesse Helms to vote this down. This group has a deep and profound mistrust and hatred for the existing international non-proliferation regime. They believe it offers a false sense of security and lulls America into complacency. They want to take apart this international non-proliferation regime across the board. They want to take down the ABM treaty, they oppose our non-proliferation policy in North Korea and the Cooperative Threat Reduction program that's dismantling the nuclear weapons program in Russia.

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There's almost no chance for the treaty to come up again. It's very difficult to change a senator's vote. There would have to be an extraordinary international event to make someone like Sen. Pete Domenici or Sen. Dick Lugar come to the floor of the Senate and say, "I was wrong about this treaty."

Our allies look at us like we're nuts. Every single American ally is committed to this treaty. Fifteen of 19 NATO countries have approved it. To our allies, the defeat of this treaty is part of a pattern that has caused them to question America's ability to lead on the issue of nuclear non-proliferation.

Some people in the defense department objected to this treaty because it would stop the U.S. from doing new designs for weapons. But it's also partially a personnel issue. Eliminating testing makes the department less attractive to scientists who want to work on their designs and have them tested. Of course the military wants to retain its options. But the military would give up new designs to ratify this treaty that all the Joint Chiefs of Staff supported.

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Frank Gaffney is director of the Center for Security Policy in Washington.

[The treaty vote] has reestablished the principle under our Constitution that the Senate is a co-equal institution of the White House in making our treaties. It is an important check-and-balance.

I hope the Democrats fight for this treaty again. I hope they make as big an issue as they possibly can because a vast majority of our countrymen have been deluded into thinking that we don't have to worry about these issues any more. But we live in a more dangerous world now than during the Cold War. Unfortunately, there has been a really troubling trend toward adopting some of these wooly-headed ideas like adopting the nuclear test ban.

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There are lots of bad ideas that the present administration has embraced. The idea of perpetuating American vulnerability to missile attack, or normalizing relations with North Korea and Cuba, or allowing the Chinese to take over our sector in the Panama Canal, or sending Bill Clinton to visit Vietnam. How about the notion that, if we put teeth in the bio-weapons conventions, it will do anything but lead to a wholesale transfer of our biotechnology to the most dangerous countries on the planet?

Very few people can impugn Sen. Lugar's dedication, his resistance to partisanship and his commitment to an America that is engaged in the world and leading the world in non-proliferation issues. His was concerned that the treaty is unverifiable, unenforceable, that it would undermine our nuclear deterrence capabilities and that it's harmful to more sound arms control initiatives.

Our allies support this treaty because, well, none of those other countries are the United States. That may seem self-evident , but it's relevant. Those other governments in NATO felt it was important to ban land mines. But this government didn't because we have global responsibilities that they don't have, and we have troops all over the world that are in harms way.

Unlike those other countries, we have a responsibility to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent, and we have to make independent decisions about how to maintain that it.

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William C. Potter is director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

The outcome really was disgraceful. It's scandalous how the parties could claim that this was not politically motivated when so little time was given to debate and consideration of the treaty. Both parties had strong views on the substance of the treaty, but I think the votes and the maneuvering were largely about politics. At the upcoming 2000 nuclear non-proliferation treaty conference, it will be difficult for the U.S. to condemn any nation that doesn't follow multilateral non-proliferation agreements when the Senate so overwhelming rejected this treaty. It sends the wrong political signal.

We are much better off with the treaty than without it, even though there were some legitimate concerns. But regardless of what one thinks of the treaty, it shouldn't have been defeated in the manner that it was yesterday. The blame can be spread on both sides of the aisle. I don't think the administration had pursued this the way it should have. Sen. Lugar has, more than any senator, guided treaties toward ratification. The administration didn't make it a priority to bring him on board early, and he voted against it.

Unless there are international developments which appear to be linked to the vote, it won't be easy to get this back on the floor. I'm not optimistic in the short-term that we will see a reconsideration of the treaty. We're witnessing an erosion of support for arms control policy in Congress, and a lack of interest in key international issues. In this climate, it would be difficult to find majority support for any conceivable multi-lateral treaty.

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Leaders in the Senate were very anxious to embarrass the president. And maybe that's not such a bad thing, and maybe it was deserved. But what they have accomplished is to damage American diplomacy in the paramount security challenge of today, which is to prevent the spread of tools of nuclear destruction.

There is a strong mood in Russia especially, and also in China, to reconsider nuclear non-proliferation agreements. The Russians have been debating whether to resume building nuclear weapons and tactical arms. The defeat of this treaty reinforces the position of those in Russia who support this. If the Russians resume testing, the Chinese would follow suit almost immediately.


Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

MORE FROM Alicia Montgomery

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