NEW YORK — The Clinton administration's reaction to the Senate's refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty threatens to erode the bipartisan approach that has sustained U.S. foreign policy even within the administration. President Bill Clinton condemned the vote as a symptom of militant isolationism, and the State Department notified foreign governments that it still considered itself legally bound by the treaty. All this has tempted some foreign leaders to question the credibility of America's international role.
It is high time to put an end to name-calling. The treaty failed because the end of the Cold War has transformed global strategic conditions and the nature of arms control. No doubt, isolationists, in different guises, exist on the extremes of both parties. But it is absurd to blame the Senate vote on an isolationist cabal when six former secretaries of defense, four former national-security advisors and four former CIA directors opposed ratification, while four former secretaries of state, myself included, refused to endorse it.
The deadlock between administration righteousness and senators' lack of confidence in the administration's security policy has revived the acrimonious arms-control controversies of the early 1970s. Yet, the key issue--the transformation of the nature of arms control with the end of the Cold War--has been almost totally submerged.
When nuclear stockpiles reached tens of thousands of deliverable weapons and war threatened the extinction of humanity, individuals in and out of government began to advocate the then-unprecedented proposition that the holders of these vast arsenals might negotiate to mitigate nuclear danger by limiting their nuclear buildups and establishing some rules for deployment. The purpose was to reduce the risk of surprise attack, accidental war or war by momentum, such as World War I. The result were two agreements in the 1970s limiting the number of delivery vehicles on both sides. However controversial, the accords were maintained throughout the Cold War by administrations of both parties, including President Ronald Reagan's.
This "strategic" approach to arms control, which always insisted on retaining the option of modernization and never took risks with verifiability, was nearly overwhelmed by assaults from two opposite directions. One came from a "radical" theology of arms control, which sought to base U.S. security on guaranteeing the maximum destructiveness of nuclear war. Advocates of Mutual Assured Destruction insisted on leaving civilian populations totally vulnerable to nuclear attack. Hence, they opposed any kind of defense against nuclear missiles and tried to thwart any modernization as destabilizing. Their goal was to prevent war by imposing strategic nuclear passivity on the United States.
The difference between the strategic and radical schools of arms control was illustrated by their respective attitudes toward nuclear testing. True, the "strategic" arms controllers negotiated an underground test ban. But unlike the current version of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the ban was confined to tests above a specific threshold that was verifiable and allowed a limited number of proof-tests of existing stockpiles to determine their reliability.
Opponents of arms control in the 1970s lumped the "radical" and "strategic" schools together and attacked any effort to stabilize military relations between the superpowers as a mirage or a deliberate deception. The radical arms controllers never encountered a new technology they could approve; their critics never confronted an arms-control agreement that they could countenance.
With the test-ban treaty, Clinton's became the first administration to throw its weight behind the radical arms controllers, and it did so without consulting either key senators or former senior officials. The administration ignored the experience of the Threshold Test Ban of the 1970s and pursued a comprehensive and permanent ban, despite the knowledge that it was not verifiable at low levels.
The Senate vote should be interpreted as a wake-up call to the revolutionary change in the nature of the U.S. strategic problem and in the role (and limits) of arms control. The "strategic" arms control of the 1970s sought to regulate a bilateral U.S.-Soviet relationship. Each of the parties could be assumed to have a parallel interest in reducing the risks of surprise attack or accidental war. Though this premise was questioned on ideological grounds, it was possible to design plausible negotiating positions on the basis of which strategic equilibrium might transcend ideology, at least as far as the goal of preventing a nuclear holocaust was concerned.