Banning all nuclear testing U.N. action: World sentiment prevails even if India and U.S. Senate block ratification.

September 26, 1996

HAS THE WORLD at last seen the end of nuclear weapons testing? The signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty this week by the five declared nuclear states -- the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain -- puts enormous pressure on all nations to desist from testing, even if the U.S. Senate balks at ratification and India continues to spurn the treaty. To settle for a de facto rather than a de jure treaty may not be the optimum solution. But it still represents a considerable advance.

Since the first blast in 1945, there have been 2,046 known nuclear tests, all but one of which (India's 1972 explosion) have been conducted by the Big Five. There are, however, at least two score nations that could build simple nuclear weapons without testing. What these nations cannot do -- here the treaty bites -- is develop sophisticated systems without testing.

From Eisenhower to Carter, all American presidents pushed for a comprehensive test ban. But the Reagan and Bush administrations turned negative as treaty critics warned that continuous testing was needed to maintain a reliable nuclear arsenal. The Republican Party platform this year said the treaty was "inconsistent with American security interests."

Political reality suggests that if Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms is re-elected and the GOP retains control of the Senate, formal ratification will be stymied worldwide. But that will not be a fatal setback, at least in the short run, if all signatory nations adhere to the treaty's provisions.

While U.S. obstruction is a product of internal partisan debate, India's objections are rooted in its security concerns about China, a declared nuclear power, and Pakistan, a nation with undoubted nuclear capabilities.

To get around the Indian roadblock, Australia came up with the novel idea of having the treaty signed by willing nations even if it does not formally come into force. It was this procedure that President Clinton embraced this week as he signed "the longest sought, hardest fought prize in arms control history." However, his United Nations audience well knew that his administration had failed to get the Senate to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention earlier this month. A comprehensive test ban might be even more difficult.

Could it be that the Senate's treaty-making powers will have to be rendered irrelevant by the kind of maneuvering seen this week at the United Nations before the U.S. can play its rightful leadership role in shaping world nuclear policy? It is a daunting thought.

Pub Date: 9/26/96

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