FORTY countries, including Egypt, India, Iran, and Iraq, have recently proposed an amendment to the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits tests of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. They want to turn it into a treaty banning all nuclear weapons testing. This initiative presents the Bush administration with a diplomatic challenge and a national security opportunity. More than 100 countries have joined the treaty over its 26-year life. But nuclear weapons testing by the United States and the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent by Britain, France, and China, continues at a vigorous pace underground.
Such testing has been vigorously criticized by most countries. In 1987, 128 countries voted for a United Nations resolution advocating the amendment that has just been formally proposed. Only the US, France, and Britain opposed the resolution.
The Limited Test Ban Treaty's amendment clause specifies that a conference to consider amendments must be convened if requested by one-third of the parties. The US, Britain, and the USSR - the three countries that drafted the treaty - are responsible for convening such a conference. Those countries will each have only one vote at the conference, but under the treaty each of them can veto any amendments.
The 40 countries that have now called for an amendment conference are more than a third of the parties. These countries want an end to underground as well as atmospheric testing. What should the US do?
In large part, the answer to this question depends on whether the Bush administration thinks that continued testing is necessary, and, if so, for how long. Until 1981, every American president since Dwight Eisenhower had endorsed efforts to negotiate a comprehensive test ban agreement. Reagan administration officials reversed this longstanding policy, believing that nuclear weapons testing would be necessary indefinitely to develop new types of nuclear weapons and to make sure that the nuclear weapons already in the US stockpile will work. President Reagan also canceled ongoing comprehensive test ban negotiations. But President Bush may take a fresh look at this issue.
There is reason to think that a ban on nuclear testing at this time would enhance American national security. If the US and the USSR stop testing, it will be more difficult for hard-liners in third-world states to argue that their countries needed to test nuclear weapons to acquire international prestige. A comprehensive ban would also help to stabilize the nuclear arms race by impairing the ability of either the US or the USSR to build new generations of nuclear weapons.
Concern about the reliability of stockpiled weapons could be eliminated by giving final proof tests to any types of weapons in the stockpile that have not yet been tested fully, and then freezing existing blueprints. New types of nuclear missiles and bombs would have to be designed to incorporate existing designs.
The problem of verification, long a critical issue in negotiations, has largely been solved by technological advances in seismology.
President Bush could respond in four ways to the 40-nation initiative. Three of them are reasonable. The fourth possibility would be diplomatically isolating and would throw away an opportunity to contribute to nuclear nonproliferation.
First, the President could seize the initiative by reopening negotiations with the USSR toward a comprehensive test ban.
Second, if the President wants to move at a more modest pace toward an eventual comprehensive test ban treaty, he could explore with the USSR a gradual phase-out of nuclear weapon tests over several years.
Either of these approaches could lead to a treaty that would advance American interests, and either of them could convince the 40 nations that the superpowers are engaged in a serious effort to end nuclear weapons testing. As a result, the pressure to hold a large conference, in which the US would have only limited influence, might abate.
Third, the US could endorse the 40-nation initiative, convene the conference promptly, and work within it to help frame a sound, effective amendment. For example, it could insist on suitable verification arrangements and a schedule for an end to testing which permitted final experiments with any weapons that have to be modified to remain reliable without further testing.
The least attractive policy would be American obstruction of this new international effort to move the world toward a comprehensive test ban.
This course would enable the USSR to continue to portray itself as more devoted than the US to arms control. It would also increase the likelihood that by the end of the century, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, and other nations will test nuclear weapons and deploy the missiles and bombers that could eventually ensnarl the world in a nuclear war.