While the United States is spending $3 billion each week on the war in Iraq - a war, let us remember, that was predicated in part on nuclear fears - it refuses to pay a good part of its dues to the organization that provides for monitoring the countries it wants to prevent from developing nuclear weapons, including North Korea and Iran.
The organization that is to implement the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty has installed 75 percent of its verification structure, an alarm system that monitors the entire globe for nuclear explosions. It does this with an accuracy that the United States cannot duplicate on its own.
The United States likes to receive the information from the International Monitoring System because it comes from reliable, state-of-the-art stations placed strategically around the world in 92 countries, including China and Iran. The stations are performing better than expected by the scientists who designed the system. Yet the organization recently announced that the United States is $28 million in arrears in its payments - small change for the mightiest power on Earth.
The lack of funds is painfully felt in the daily work of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization. Earlier, the United States wielded its influential voice in negotiating and creating the terms of the ban, the specifications of the monitoring system and the functions of this organization - including paying 22 percent of the budget. Now Congress is considering how much to spend on this endeavor.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article that has attracted attention around the world, former Secretaries of State George P. Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, and Sam Nunn, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for the United States to exert leadership in "reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world." They pointed to concerns about the possibility of nuclear arms in North Korea and Iran, and they called for ratification of the test ban treaty, among other things.
Using four technologies - seismic, infrasound, hydroacoustic and radionuclide - 321 stations monitor the globe for nuclear explosions. They are supported by 16 radionuclide laboratories. These facilities relay data via satellite from all corners of the globe in real time to the center in Vienna that analyzes it and sends it to signatories of the treaty. Though the North Korean nuclear test last October was fairly weak, the seismic and radionuclide information collected by the system provided for the detection and location of the event, demonstrating the timeliness and quality of these data.
Next year, the organization will stage an experimental on-site inspection in Kazakhstan to test the equipment and expertise designed to find the evidence of a nuclear weapon test. The United States decided years ago not to participate in the development of the procedures for on-site inspections. Other spinoff applications of the treaty monitoring system include obtaining information on accidental nuclear releases from reactors, as well as monitoring earthquakes and warning of tsunamis and volcanoes.
The Preparatory Commission plans to have 90 percent of the International Monitoring System network installed by 2008. By refusing to meet its obligations and accumulating an extravagant payment deficit over the years, the United States will prevent this from happening.
When countries are looking askance at it over the war in Iraq and its treatment of detainees, and Americans are asking how the United States can regain its credibility, the nation could set a smart example by not choking an international organization that goes a long way to meeting its own nonproliferation goals.
U.S. ratification of the treaty would go even further toward meeting America's obligations specified in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It would also prompt other key countries to ratify the test ban treaty (all of America's European allies have ratified). However, this is a discussion that is more likely to follow, rather than precede, the next presidential election.
In the meantime, Congress should pay its dues. Iraq, North Korea and Iran are reminders that today's security agenda cannot be successfully handled by any nation alone - not even the United States.
Jenifer Mackby, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, worked on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty negotiations. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Ola Dahlman chaired the Group of Scientific Experts in Geneva and the verification work on the treaty in Vienna for 10 years. His e-mail is email@example.com.