America's long history as a driving force in the world's effort to contain weapons of mass destruction has taken an abrupt change in direction with the Senate's rejection of the nuclear test ban treaty.
A pact first proposed by President Eisenhower is suddenly geopolitical adrift. That makes it less likely that emerging nuclear nations such as India, Pakistan, and North Korea will ever sign on - raising the probability of regional arms races in the next century, experts say.
The fact that these nuclear newcomers have refused to rein in their programs is precisely the point, say many Republican senators who voted against the treaty. Stressing self-reliance over global cooperation, they say the United States must not bind itself with a flawed treaty that others will flout.
With this in mind, they brought about a break with internationalism more decisive than any since the US Senate defeated the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
"[This] will be a vote heard around the world to the detriment of the United States," warned Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania on the Senate floor, making a last-minute plea for GOP Senate leaders to call off Wednesday's vote.
In the end, the Senate rejected ratification of the treaty in a 51-to-48 vote mainly along party lines, with no Democrats voting in opposition.
President Clinton and Senate Democrats vowed to continue pushing the treaty, which the Senate can vote on repeatedly. But backers say there is virtually no chance it will be brought up again until 2001 at the earliest, after the presidential election.
The US is now the first nuclear power to explicitly reject the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), completed in 1996. Along with China and Russia, the United States is one of 26 nuclear states - of a total of 44 - that still must ratify the pact before it can take force.
The treaty would ban all nuclear explosions in the air, space, or underground, set up an international monitoring system to detect violations, and allow for on-site inspections when necessary.
The treaty's foundation
The CTBT builds upon the 1969 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in which the five major nuclear powers agreed to engage in disarmament discussions in return for a promise by nonnuclear states not to acquire nuclear weapons.
Now, experts say, that's open to question. "The CTBT has for 30 years been considered the litmus test of the sincerity of the nuclear-weapons states in living up to their part of the bargain," says Thomas Graham, former special representative to the president on arms control.
Critics of the agreement - which was 40 years in the making and is the first arms-control treaty ever voted down by the Senate - concede that the step is likely to draw international fire in the short run. But they contend the treaty, which the US was the first to sign in 1996, was flawed from the beginning.
While its aims are sound, they say, the treaty is unverifiable, unenforceable, and would compromise US security, allowing "rogue" nations to continue developing nuclear weapons.
"The [treaty] has no teeth," said Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi.
Ultimately, Senator Lott and others argue, this week's vote will bolster international arms-control efforts by setting higher standards for negotiations and reinforcing the strength of the US nuclear deterrent.
Conservative arms experts agree. Despite the expected uproar, the Senate move "will mean going back to the international drawing board and that will be ultimately a healthy thing," says Baker Spring, a defense expert at the Heritage Foundation here.
Nevertheless, the diplomatic fallout from the vote was immediate and vociferous. America's European allies, whose leaders had forcefully spoken out for Senate approval, expressed dismay and disappointment.
Germany's defense minister called the vote "absolutely wrong." Russia, in a foreign ministry statement, added: The vote marks a "serious blow" for the system of nuclear arms accords and shows that Washington is seeking to "destabilize the foundations of international relations."
In Asia, Japan predicted "inestimable" negative effects from the vote, while China voiced "profound regret." Both China and India pledged to maintain their de facto bans on nuclear testing.
While provoking international criticism, the vote also has profound domestic significance. The vote by the GOP-led Senate and the acrimonious debate surrounding it mark a breakdown of a decades-old bipartisan consensus on arms control.
"We've come along way from the bipartisan majority that supported unilaterally banning nuclear testing in 1992," says Christopher Paine, a former Senate staff expert on nuclear testing.
Indeed, this week's debate underscored a deep divide in the world view of Democrats and Republicans on arms control and American security. Senate Republicans tended to base their assessment of the treaty on calculations of the strength of the US nuclear deterrent. Democrats emphasized the treaty's advantages for checking nuclear proliferation abroad.
The controversial vote, which Democrats and some Republicans had desperately attempted to delay, holds potential political costs for both sides.
For the Clinton administration, pushing for the vote before lining up enough support marked a serious political miscalculation.
Yet by refusing to put off the vote when defeat was certain, GOP conservatives led by Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina also risk sparking criticism from the American public - which strongly backs US ratification - especially should foreign nations carry out new nuclear tests.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society