Putting Humpty Dumpty Together Again: An Account of the CTBT

I. William Zartman, Mordechai Melamud, Paul Meerts, eds. Banning the Bang or the Bomb?: Negotiating the Nuclear Test Ban Regime. Cambridge University Press, 2014

I. William Zartman, Mordechai Melamud, Paul Meerts, eds.
Banning the Bang or the Bomb?: Negotiating the Nuclear Test Ban Regime
Cambridge University Press, 2014

American and Soviet negotiators sat down in New York in January 1963 to hash out a nuclear test ban treaty in secret. Months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the superpowers needed to reassert their flagging leadership. They billed a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty (CTBT) as a means of dispelling clouds of fallout invisibly ravaging bodies, DNA, and biomes; stemming the tide of nuclear proliferation; and reining in their own race for smaller, more accurate warheads. The problem was how to verify testing underground. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency director Bill Foster sat across from his Soviet counterpart, Semyon Tsarapkin, and offered seven inspections per year. He had orders not to dip below six. His lieutenant, George Bunn, later recalled his boss silently raising five fingers after Tsarapkin brushed aside six, to no avail.* Stuck between Soviet distrust of foreign agents and a constitutional requirement that the Senate consent to a treaty’s ratifications, they failed to reach a compromise. A different treaty emerged which turned a blind eye to subterranean blasts. But after the superpowers signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) in August, the pace of testing actually accelerated. Warheads grew smaller and much more numerous. Atomic Energy Commission chairman Glenn Seaborg would call the breakdown of CTBT talks “one of the major tragedies of the present time.”

More than fifty years later, the United States has still not ratified the CTBT, even after it opened for signature in 1996 and the Russian Duma affixed its own imprimatur. In all, nine countries still need to ratify the treaty before it enters into force. In the meantime, the Preparatory Organisation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation operates in a legal limbo in Vienna. The prohibition against nuclear testing in all environments remains for now a matter of custom rather than law, although the CTBTO’s globe-spanning array of seismographs, radionuclide sensors, and sound-wave listening posts known as the International Monitoring System has proven its mettle in disseminating data about the worldwide dispersion of radioactivity after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011 and in detecting all three North Korean tests.

The nineteen essays in Banning the Bang or the Bomb? piece together the long, jumbled history of nuclear test ban negotiations and their uncertain future. Part 1, “Negotiation,” on which this review focuses, surveys the treaty’s negotiating history. Part 2, “Verification,” offers contemporary assessments of technical matters related to its verification and entry into force. The book offers a detailed description of the history of nuclear test ban diplomacy, and officials in offices such as the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance in the US Department of State, where undersecretary Rose Gottemoeller has promoted the CTBT’s ratification as a next step in arms control, should pick up this book. It should also land on bookshelves of international relations historians and other thinkers who care about how micro-processes and high-tech considerations impinge on multilateral nuclear diplomacy at its highest levels.

What are we to make of the circuitous and contested path taken by test ban negotiations since 1954? An introductory chapter by editors William Zartman and Mordechai Melamud tries to fuse the volume’s elements together, describing the making of international regimes as “a continually moving affair, a recursive negotiation process,” while accentuating how “contextual changes,” most notably the Cold War windup, opened a window for the CTBT in 1996 (pp. 1, 4). Since India first proposed a test ban treaty in 1954, supporters have made various claims about its purpose, portraying it as a barrier to new members joining the nuclear club; a brake on the nuclear arms race; or a disarmament aid. Nuclear-weapon states (NWS) and non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) tend to gravitate to whichever position best suits their interests, although it is remarkable that the United States and the Soviet Union (and subsequently Russia) have reduced their arsenals by approximately 85 percent from a overall peak in 1986, and that “regime-builders” among the NNWS have worked assiduously to resolve differences in hopes of bending the arc of international history away from nuclear-armed anarchy.

The first six chapters situate the treaty in its many contexts. Analyses by Pierce S. Corden and P. Terrence Hopmann examine the CTBT’s political history since 1945 through the prism of its verification provisions. Their instructive summation of such an intricate and esoteric subject merits praise. A focus on verification can at times let the tail wag the dog, however. Foster and Tsarapkin would go on to surmount devilish obstacles in drafting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by 1968; Tsarapkin’s unwillingness to heed Foster’s silent offer was a testament not just to clashing preferences for inspection regimes, but also to a deficit in trust. Lee Ross has expounded on how psychological barriers such as reactive devaluation throw up invisible barriers to conflict resolution. Corden and Hopmann might have pondered how the scabs that had coagulated by 1963 blocked progress, and how their eventual healing would transform nuclear diplomacy and the Cold War. The ostensible efficacy of the test ban also warranted more reflection. Hopmann maintains that a CTBT would stave off proliferation because “[f]or any state to rely on an untested weapon when its survival was at stake … would amount to national suicide” (p. 32). This seemed true amid the paranoia to which the US-Soviet balance of terror gave rise; today, it begs the question of whether nuclear tests are still that necessary. Ori Rabinowitz has recently shown, for example, how Israel, South Africa, and Pakistan all forewent tests at Washington’s urging without seeming to lose faith in their respective arsenals.

The remaining chapters examine how the treaty was finished and why key states–the United States, Russia, and India–have been so equivocal. Corden rightly cites the NPT’s indefinite extension in 1995, when member states instructed the Committee on Disarmament (CD) to submit a final document to the United Nations by the next year, as a “key factor” in the endgame (p. 22). Jaap Ramaker, the Dutch ambassador who chaired the CD in 1996, offers his perspective of how the committee met the deadline. The CD was a conference in permanent residence in Geneva, with sixty-one members (now sixty-five). It had predictable strengths and weaknesses. Since most stakeholders were present, if an agreement was made there, it would probably flourish afterward; on the other hand, the sheer number of delegations made brokering an agreement akin to herding cats, especially since a “consensus rule” handed each state party an effective veto.

Ramaker naturally underscores the chair’s importance. He or she must rely on a hard-won reputation for “fairness, correctness, reliability, impartiality, and openness” as well as “creativity and negotiating skills to overcome the road blocks” (p. 63). Thus, in March 1966, he took “matters into his own hands” and streamlined a rolling text loaded with bracketed sections marking out areas of controversy in hopes of gaining a critical mass of support ahead of the looming deadline (p. 69­). He does not dwell on India’s increasing isolation, as its demands for a binding linkage to nuclear disarmament went unheeded, which culminated in its objection to the adoption of the chairman’s text or its submission to the General Assembly. In a case of procedural wizardry typical of multilateral diplomacy, however, Australia nevertheless transmitted the draft treaty to the UNGA, whose lack of veto players proved its salvation.

A chapter by Zartman and Julia Lendorfer furnishes a theoretical map to orient the reading through the mazelike proceedings. Stakeholders bring formulas that reflect their national interests and identities into negotiations, which then proceed from the general to the specific. There are three ways to reconcile these formulas: through concessions, or small steps toward a common position on an issue; through compensation, or trade-offs between issue areas; and through construction, or “reframing the issue [so] it serves both parties’ interests” (p. 122). Three strategies are then available for building consensus: aggregation, gathering small coalitions for a “snow-ball effect;” concentration, whereby a “power group” buys off members through compensation; and seriation, the point-by-point drudgery of the “rolling text.” The issues and their sub-formulas illustrate the treaty’s complexity: scope (bang versus bomb); verification (intrusive versus protective); control locus (state versus international organization); security (state versus collective); and justice (equality versus equity). In this matrix, NWS found themselves at odds with the group of NNWS known as the G-21, with China and India acting as mavericks, as Beijing pushed for less verification and loopholes for peaceful nuclear explosives and small nuclear tests and both countries arguing in support of stronger disarmament provisions. In the end, “a third middle-power non-nuclear group” that included Australia, Canada, and Sweden came “to play a mediating role” (p. 137).

Four chapters examine how key stakeholders–the United States, Russia, India, and the NGO community–have felt about the treaty. Chris McIntosh unpacks how the issue has been framed in political debates in the United States. He pries out a dichotomy of interests versus norms, hawks versus doves, tough versus soft, by drawing on gender studies. He quotes Senator Robert Casey to great effect: “it’s the … so-called tough guys over there and the folks over here seem something else, less tough, not as interested in security” (p. 151). Andrew Bacevich has brought to light the hypermasculinity of modern American militarism; however, McIntosh might have entertained an alternative explanation. After all, skepticism toward liberal internationalism on the part of American progressives and conservatives alike has deeper roots in the political fractures of the 1970s.

Alexey Feneko’s chapter on Russia’s hardening attitudes is laden with tragic insights. Russian strategists regarded the treaty as a test of post-Cold War cooperation with the United States. Former enemies thus found common ground despite differences over Iraq, Russian nuclear trade to India and Iran, and “the shadow of NATO’s enlargement eastwards” (p. 173). The Duma ratified the treaty in 2000 (one year after the Senate did not), but strengthening the NPT rather than US-Soviet relations was now the prime motive. The George W. Bush administration’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 heightened the disenchantment, resulting in what Feneko calls Russia’s current “skeptical support” for the treaty regime (p. 181). It remains to be seen whether skepticism or support will win out as East-West relations assume a frigidity not seen since 1985.

Ulrika Möller argues that India’s repudiation of the treaty resulted “less from the need to balance China (and Pakistan) and more [from] a determination to impose India’s view of reality regarding its international role on the Western NWS” (p. 215). This assertion echoes those made at the time by Indian officials; however, India’s test of a nuclear warhead in 1998 calls into question the nation’s conception of its “international role as an influential advocate of global disarmament.” Indian officials were disrespected and disenfranchised in Geneva as their national identity collided with the hegemonic structures of world power. It seems plausible, however, that their self-identity looked forward to a future as a major player in Asia as well as on the world stage rather than backward to a tradition of disarmament championship.

Realists downplay the importance of civil society in the Hobbesian jungle of international security affairs. Rebecca Johnson makes the case that international NGOs played a pivotal role in the CTBT’s realisation. Transnational civil society functioned as an interactive tissue linking together distant nation-states; its members’ orientation toward collective security, humanitarian concerns, and environmental preservation pushed a positive-sum, integrative approach to bargaining in place of the zero-sum, distributive model promoted by realists. Activism by protest groups ranging from the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement to Greenpeace shamed the United States, Russia, and France into announcing moratoria on testing by 1992, which “promoted a confidence-building breathing space” (p. 107). Nuclear experts within the government, and from outside entities such as the JASON Group of scientific advisors to the Pentagon, advocated for the proscription of even comparatively small “hydronuclear” tests. This raises the question of whether a group such as JASON, which features individuals whose careers were financed by various agencies of the US national-security state, warrants inclusion in “transnational civil society.” This is a symptom of her subject’s amorphousness. At the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, for example, it is quickly apparent come cocktail hour how small and familiar the “epistemic community” of nuclear experts truly is.

A conclusion by the editors identifies instructive lessons for multilateral negotiations generally and for the global nuclear regime specifically. As a whole, Banning the Bang or the Bomb? makes a consequential, intricate topic legible for wider audiences. Its faults are those of all edited volumes, the tasks of providing depth in equal measure to breadth and of knitting together scholars’ disparate piecework. There are gaps in coverage. A chapter on Chinese attitudes would have cast light not only on the treaty, but also a central concern of our times: whether the most populous country on earth will work with, or against, a paradigm of global governance arranged by former invaders and present-day rivals.

Stephen Hawking once quipped that every equation halves the number of readers. This might read “every committee” for humanists and social scientists, and we would be just as impoverished. International historians and international relations scholars tend to shy away from topics such as the CTBT negotiations because they are complex and resistant to theory. Yet, multilateral negotiations are crucial laboratories in which to dismantle and inventory the mainsprings of international relations. This volume will stand as a detailed guide to nuclear testing’s past and present and a rare schematic of how international regimes can be built in practice.

* George Bunn, Arms Control by Committee: Managing Negotiations with the Russians (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992), 33. In an interview with the author, US Ambassador James E. Goodby related that he did not share Bunn’s recollection even though he was present as a note-taker, but he admits that his focus may have been on his legal pad. James E. Goodby, interview by Jonathan Hunt, March 15, 2012, Stanford, California.

Jonathan Hunt is with the Rand Corporation

This review is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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