The United States Senate's failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on Oct. 13 marks a disturbing step backward from American engagement in today's world.
Hans Bethe, a Nobel Prize physicist who assisted in the development of the first nuclear bomb, wrote in The New York Review of Books that "the failure to ratify will have serious consequence for American foreign policy for years to come."
The impact on arms control is but one kind of fallout. Perhaps even more serious is what the Senate decision says about the ability of the US to influence events in an increasingly fractured, multidimensional world.
The germ of the test- ban treaty began in the Eisenhower administration and has been negotiated by US and foreign diplomats in good faith over many years. In each administration, whether Democrat or Republican, the process included consultations with relevant congressional committees.
The treaty's opponents use various arguments: It is flawed, they say; it will not prevent rogue states from violating the ban; it would keep the US from maintaining a viable nuclear deterrent. Why should Washington close out its options?
Supporters have insisted that by establishing extensive global monitoring, the treaty will greatly improve the capability to detect violators. Computers can provide the means to maintain the deterrent. A ratified treaty offers an internationally recognized basis for mobilizing official pressure and public opinion against violators.
If the treaty is flawed, the response should not be rejection, but an examination of the problems and efforts, through further negotiation, to resolve them. Some in Congress are now proposing just this. But they encounter among their colleagues a deep-seated distrust of negotiators and of negotiation - a strange attitude in a country of traders and poker players.
But, at the base of opposition to the treaty is the idea that the US has the power unilaterally to deter any threat - that neither this treaty nor any other is necessary.
Three other recent developments further accent this "go-it- alone" attitude. Pressure for a missile defense system is already creating serious problems in US relations not only with the Russians, but with allies. A report issued last week by a committee of corporate executives, military officers, and diplomats said the American diplomatic presence abroad is nearing a "state of crisis," further proof that the tools by which Washington conducts its foreign policies are being degraded.
The president's difficulties in getting congressional approval for the minuscule amount of the federal budget that goes to foreign aid is a third indicator. Opponents of such assistance not only sought to block it, but ridiculed the "turbans" - as one congressman put it - who were receiving it.
Those who propose "going it alone" do not have satisfactory answers to the implications of their philosophy. Could the US have prevailed and kept US casualties low in Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo without the allies prepared to share the risks? How could forces have been moved without the willingness of intervening countries to grant overflight rights? If a rogue state drops a nuclear bomb or releases chemical or biological weapons in anger, is the US prepared for the risks of responding unilaterally, without either allied or regional support?
Weapons issues are not the only ones in which the rest of the world is involved. The effects of degraded environments, conflict, poverty, overpopulation, uncontrolled disease, crime, and drugs in other countries can threaten our own health and safety - and have before.
We cannot gain the necessary cooperation of others in reducing these threats without the effective diplomacy and supporting resources currently so denigrated by some members of Congress.
The US diplomat today, seeking to deal with any of these issues, is severely handicapped by an impression abroad, reinforced by the CTBT rejection, that whatever the US agrees to, even with congressional consultation, is unlikely to gain the approval of legislators who insist that America can "go it alone."
* David D. Newsom, a former US ambassador and undersecretary of State for political affairs, lives in Charlottesville, Va.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society