On October 13, 1999, the U.S. Senate conspicuously failed to give its consent to ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The CTBT was the Clinton administration's major arms control initiative at the time, and the treaty's high-profile rejection was widely considered the president's worst foreign policy defeat in Congress. The vote was a stark 48 to 51 -- not even a majority in the treaty's favor, and far below the two-thirds required for approval.

Despite the Democratic takeover of the Senate in 2001, the CTBT still sits with the Foreign Relations Committee, where it reverted at the end of the 106th Congress. Even if the Senate were to act, the treaty's ratification by President George W. Bush seems most unlikely. The United States continues to maintain the moratorium on nuclear weapons testing that it has observed since 1992, but the administration argues that the war on terrorism may require the development of new tactical nuclear weapons and it wants to shorten the time that it would take for the United States to resume nuclear testing. Moreover, although Bush professes deep concern about the spread of weapons of mass destruction in the wake of September 11, he shows little faith in the efficacy of treaty law as a means of thwarting it. The administration has, to be sure, signed and sent to the Senate a two-page arms reduction treaty with Moscow. But it repeatedly said that such a treaty was unnecessary, agreed to it largely as a quid pro quo for Russia's acquiescence to the U.S. abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and made sure that the document avoided the kind of specific language that has served to bind contracting parties throughout the history of arms control.

Looking back, the Senate's defeat of the CTBT may well have been a turning point in American statecraft if not in world politics, marking at the least a setback for efforts to regulate weapons through detailed arms control treaties, and possibly their end. The Senate's action also may have been a watershed in the politics of American foreign policy, for the treaty's failure was an important triumph for unilateralism -- a conservative strain of Republican thought that now struggles for control of George W. Bush's foreign policy against the cooperative internationalism that was the hallmark of his father's administration.

Looked at up close, however, the CTBT train wreck seems less the stuff of history than an accident of politics, an executive-legislative stalemate that resulted from clashing institutional interests, partisan struggle, intraparty factionalism, and personal vindictiveness. Certainly it was a story of zealotry, conspiracy, and incompetence in which all the key players share responsibility for an outcome that only a minority really desired. But the Senate's action was also a result of conflicting substantive judgments on such matters as the science of nuclear weapons development, the politics of nuclear proliferation, the parameters of military deterrence, and the requirements of the national interest. The story is worth reviewing not only for its inherent drama or because it lays bare how hardball politics is played on key foreign affairs issues in the country's highest legislative body. Most important, it is a useful reminder that foreign policy is always partly domestic policy, that the treaty ratification process always mixes substance and politics, and that treaties must be designed accordingly.


In President Bill Clinton's words, the CTBT was "the longest-sought, hardest-fought prize in arms control history." Negotiated from 1994 to 1996, the treaty committed its contracting parties to what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called "a total ban on nuclear ... explosions of any size, in any place, at any time." It established a global network of 321 internationally maintained monitoring stations to detect clandestine explosions, and it provided for on-site challenge inspections in cases of doubt. With nuclear tests prohibited, the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal would be maintained through a $4.5-billion-a-year stockpile stewardship program, using supercomputer simulations, laser blasts, and subnuclear tests of components, including the high explosives used to trigger atomic bombs. As of July 2002, 165 nations had signed and 93 ratified the CTBT. But the treaty can come into force only when it is ratified by all nuclear-capable states -- a total of 44 countries. To date it lacks ratifications from a dozen of those nations, in addition to the United States.

When the Clinton administration sent the CTBT to the Senate in September 1997, it had a distinguished record in arms control, having successfully held the Soviet successor states to their renunciation of nuclear weapons, engineered an indefinite extension of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and ratified the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Most recently it had worked with Republican leaders in the Senate to get approval of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) over adamant conservative opposition, negotiating almost two dozen conditions on the resolution of advice and consent to satisfy skeptics.

The CTBT was the administration's next logical step in arms control, extending as it did the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty's prohibition of atmospheric, undersea, and outer-space testing. Proponents argued that the new treaty would curtail advances in nuclear weaponry by Russia and China, locking in American superiority; limit the development of more advanced weapons by India, Pakistan, and Israel; and establish an international norm against testing that would at a minimum put additional pressure on North Korea, Iraq, and Iran to continue complying with the just-renewed NPT.

Republican opponents, for their part, had three basic arguments against the CTBT. First, they did not believe that the safety and reliability of the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal could be assured indefinitely without tests of complete weapons (and some contended that the changing security environment might well make the development and testing of new weapons essential). Over time, therefore, the lack of testing could weaken the American deterrent. Second, many Republicans had little faith that mere signatures on paper would actually stop nuclear testing and weapons development by other nations. And that worry led to a third: that the treaty's monitoring and verification system would not work as advertised to detect cheating. If the treaty failed to stop nuclear proliferation abroad while retarding nuclear weapons development at home, Republicans thought, the effect on American security might be catastrophic.

Beneath these differences lay a critical strategic choice. Given limited energy and resources, should a state try to shape the international environment to reduce a threat -- in this case the threat of nuclear proliferation -- or was it better to deter and defend against the threat? The CTBT was controversial partly because it could be seen as attempting the former at the expense of the latter. Moreover, deterrence and defense seemed to depend on American decisions, whereas nonproliferation depended on the decisions of other governments. To treaty opponents it seemed illogical to weaken deterrence at home for an uncertain result overseas.

Treaty advocates, on the other hand, thought that the risks involved in an indefinite testing moratorium were minimal (given the enormous U.S. lead in nuclear weaponry) and would be outweighed by the likely benefits in threat reduction. Democrats admitted that the verification provisions of the CTBT were not airtight, but they argued that the establishment of monitoring stations in countries where the United States could not otherwise gain access would considerably advance U.S. intelligence. They acknowledged some risk in attempting to maintain the U.S. arsenal through the stockpile stewardship program, but pointed out that there were also hazards in derailing the international nonproliferation effort, as the treaty's defeat might well do. Senator James Jeffords of Vermont (who was then a Republican but now is independent of either party) summed up their case by pointing out that nothing was 100 percent certain in national defense, but that the CTBT would surely help stop nuclear proliferation.

These arguments played themselves out against the background of the long struggle, unprecedented in living memory for its personal and partisan bitterness, between Clinton and the conservative Republicans who had taken control of Congress in 1994. The actual defeat of the treaty, however, was precipitated when Senate activists in both parties forced their leaders into strategic and tactical decisions that engaged intraparty factional differences at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, all operating under pressure from grassroots political constituencies and special interests concerned with arms control. It is a story at once highly predictable and totally surprising, a story, for good or ill, of democracy at work in foreign affairs.


The CTBT's defeat in the Senate began with two activists, on opposite sides of the issue, who drove the action forward after the treaty had been held up for two years in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Each was determined to see the treaty voted on -- one to kill it outright, the other to get it approved.

Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) led those who wanted the treaty voted down. Summoning up language from Ronald Reagan's denunciation of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty two decades earlier, he called the CTBT "fatally flawed," adding, "it jeopardizes this nation's nuclear deterrent, it will not contribute to the cause of non-proliferation, and it is unverifiable and unenforceable." He argued on the Senate floor that ratification might actually promote proliferation by creating doubts among allies about the reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons, and that defeat would strengthen the hand of American nonproliferation negotiators by making U.S. minimum standards for such treaties clear.

In the spring of 1999, Kyl and a few colleagues began contacting like-minded Republican senators to canvass their possible votes, carefully avoiding those who might make the effort known. The group then orchestrated a quiet but elaborate campaign to move those leaning against the treaty into the "no" column. Staffers prepared elaborate briefing books for this inside game, and meetings were scheduled with (and letters and phone calls generated from) experts known to be against the treaty, including former secretaries of defense and weapons scientists. By the end of September, Kyl and company had 42 out of 55 Senate Republicans pledged to vote against the CTBT, 8 more than were needed to defeat it.

Unaware of Kyl's spreading plot, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) was demanding that the Senate bring up the treaty for the opposite reason. He considered the CTBT an important step in dealing with the threat of nuclear proliferation, and he wanted the Senate's approval quickly, in advance of an upcoming conference of treaty signatories in Vienna at which he considered American leadership essential. Dorgan and his Democratic colleagues knew that 70-80 percent of the public favored the CTBT, and they hoped that this favorable opinion would generate pressure on the Republicans to release it from the Foreign Relations Committee. So while Kyl was working behind the scenes in the summer of 1999 to orchestrate the CTBT's defeat, the Democrats concentrated on the outside game of producing public statements of support from scientific associations, Nobel laureates in physics, pro-treaty military and defense experts, and eventually even the leaders of allied countries. On July 20, all 45 Democratic senators released a public letter to Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, urging him to hold hearings on the treaty and report it out for a vote. But he rejected the appeal out of hand.

Confronted in the fall with Helms' determination to hold the treaty hostage, Dorgan decided to do some hostage-taking of his own. In early September he confronted Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) with an emotional speech in which he promised to station himself on the floor "like a potted plant" and "object to other routine business of the Senate until this country decides to accept the moral leadership that is its obligation." He continued,

I am sorry if I am going to cause some problems around here with the schedule. But frankly, as I said, there are big issues and there are small issues. This is a big issue. And I am flat tired of seeing small issues around this chamber every day in every way, when the big issues are bottled up in some committee and the key is held by one or two people.

When Joseph Biden (D-Del.), then the ranking minority member of the Foreign Relations Committee, backed Dorgan's tactics in late September by showing Lott an amendment to the CTBT that the Democrats were planning to attach to an unrelated appropriations bill, the stage was set for the antitreaty Republicans to make an offer that the Democrats would find hard to refuse. Although the Republicans had steadfastly resisted the Democrats' demands for action all summer, on September 30 Lott suddenly offered Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) a unanimous consent agreement (UC) providing for a vote on the CTBT within a week, with no guarantee of hearings or committee reports, very restrictive conditions on amendments, and only ten hours of Senate debate.


Committed legislators such as Kyl and Dorgan, true believers in their causes, are important to moving the legislative process forward. But they are by definition risk takers, and as such rather dangerous people. By forcing the CTBT issue they compelled their leaders to make urgent tactical choices, beginning the process that led to the vote of October 13.

The first of these choices was the Republican decision to offer a floor debate and vote. Holding the treaty in Helms' committee was a safe tactic, and one that could have been sustained as long as the Republicans controlled the Senate. But once Kyl had collected his 40-odd "no" votes, the possibility opened that the CTBT could be brought to the floor and defeated outright. Although it held the attraction of finality and of a public defeat for the president, this approach was more perilous, and the Republican leadership did not readily embrace it.

To be sure, the UC went far toward minimizing the risks. Only one amendment would be allowed from the Democrats, probably attaching the six so-called safeguards Clinton had already promised at the weapons community's insistence. (These basically provided that the country would do whatever was necessary, including abrogating the treaty, to maintain its nuclear deterrent.) The one-amendment limit assured Helms that the CTBT would not be "defanged," or made acceptable to Republicans via changes or conditions, like the CWC had been. Republican control of key committees could also be used to shape the debate. The Foreign Relations Committee would hold just a day of hearings on the treaty's political ramifications, but the Armed Services Committee scheduled three days of testimony emphasizing its military effects, especially the worrisome impact of a perpetual ban on testing America's nuclear weapons. Most reassuring to treaty opponents, however, were the time limitations the UC placed on the whole process. There would be little opportunity to educate senators on the complexities of the pact or to work out compromises easing their concerns, and little time also for Clinton to use his formidable public relations skills to arouse pro-CTBT opinion in the country or his persuasive powers to influence senators' votes on the issue.

Still, one could never be quite sure what would happen once the treaty was put into play. Substantial majorities of Americans favored ratification in virtually every state, and there was the danger that they might be mobilized once a vote was scheduled. Senators might say they were opposed, but would they actually take the political risk of voting against a popular arms control treaty when the moment of truth arrived? Moreover, the minority included skilled parliamentarians such as Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) who would maneuver to change the outcome. Those conspiring to defeat the treaty also worried about Lott. "As much as I like and love Trent Lott," noted Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of Kyl's group, "I've said that he'd rather make a bad deal than no deal at all." Lott had not only allowed the procedures that led to the CWC's approval in 1997, he had even voted for it. Would he cave again?

In spite of these risks, the Senate's Republican leaders decided to make their offer to Daschle. In retrospect, Democrats think the Republicans were playing offense. After all, given Kyl's whip count, defeat of the CTBT in a quick up-or-down vote was as sure as anything could be in a legislative body, and the chance to humiliate Clinton was just too good to pass up. But Republicans argue that they were actually playing defense. Press reports indicated that the White House was about to launch a big public-relations effort to shake the treaty loose, public opinion was overwhelmingly in its favor, and the pressure might have gotten too strong for the Republicans to continue the tactics of delay. All these dangers could be avoided if the treaty were simply voted down. So when Biden came to him, Lott was ready: "I [said] to Senator Biden, ... 'O.K., you want it? We'll schedule it for a debate and a vote.'"

Once Lott made his offer, the Democrats faced an even more fateful and no less difficult decision: whether to accept it. After negotiating to have a bit more time for debate, Daschle and his colleagues took the offer on October 1. This was a far more risky decision than the Republicans', and as such more difficult to explain.

One key factor was something the majority had counted on in setting the trap: the Democrats had been so publicly insistent on getting action on the CTBT that they could not now turn down a vote, no matter how unfavorable the conditions. "We would have looked stupid demanding hearings, demanding a vote, and then complaining about the process," said one legislative staffer. "There's no moral victory in that." Then there was the enormous frustration with Helms and his endless delaying tactics. "It would be as dead from not coming up as it would be if people voted it down," commented a Senate Democratic aide. "And the United States would be in as difficult a position if foreign countries could say, 'You never did anything even to get it considered,' as it would be if you had to say, '[The] Senate didn't agree.'"

There was also the expectation, or at least the hope, that accepting Lott's offer would begin a process the Democrats could shape in spite of the straitjacket of the UC. Lott, after all, had been reasonable on the CWC, and many Democrats just could not believe that Republicans would insist on a fundamentally unfair process in so important a matter, even if they had the raw power to do so. Unaware of the Kyl group's painstaking work, they saw Republican senators as mainly uncommitted rather than locked in. And there was always the hope that, just as the antitreaty forces feared, even their "no" votes might not hold. Biden explained, I am looking for the political God's will to have people have a little bit of an altar call. It is one thing to say privately you are against this treaty. ... It is another thing to be the man or woman who walks up in that well and casts the 34th vote against the treaty and kills the treaty. ... I think they may begin to see the Lord.

Even if the CTBT failed to win two-thirds approval, Democrats thought it would probably get a majority, leaving them in a good position to take the issue to the voters. As one White House aide put it, there was an election coming up, it was an issue that most American people tended to favor, and therefore it was kind of a win-win situation for [the Democrats]. Either they would win by getting the CTBT, or if they lost CTBT they would win by raising it as a political issue, and be able to use it in the campaign.

Moreover, Senate Democrats were also frustrated by Clinton. "The President has to play a major role," Biden told The New York Times. "He could affect this more than he has." Clinton had not mounted a public campaign on the treaty's behalf, he had not appointed a high-level official within the administration to lobby for its passage, and he had not recruited a senior Republican senator to work for the CTBT in the Republican caucus. A test-ban treaty had, after all, been sought by congressional Democrats since long before Bill Clinton took office. It was they who had forced George H.W. Bush to sign legislation in 1992 imposing the initial U.S. testing moratorium and requiring test-ban negotiations. For all his rhetoric, Capitol Hill Democrats were not sure Clinton owned this treaty as much as they did, and part of their motivation in accepting the UC was to get the president finally energized.

Still, on its face, Lott's offer had to seem suspect. Why, after all, would the Republicans release the treaty from committee unless they had the votes to defeat it? "We weren't completely stupid," said one Senate Democratic aide. "It was pretty clear that Lott wouldn't be doing what he did unless he knew the fix was in." But when they added it all up, Daschle and Biden decided to take the plunge anyway. The aide described the pressures the Democratic leadership faced:

I think the Democrats were pretty damn scared, 'cause they saw themselves in a box, and at various times there were some Democrats saying, "We have to get out of this," and there were others saying, "Oh, what the hell, we might as well go ahead," and there were still others saying, "We can't back out because we will look like cowards." ... And you had Dorgan ... still saying, "The hell with them; the one thing we want to do, the one thing we have to demand is get them on the record." Because this was seen to some degree, even by the White House, as potentially a good issue for the election. ... [So] at this point, going grudgingly ahead was the only decision that would keep the caucus together.


Defeat of the CTBT is usually seen as a matter of partisan conflict, pitting Republicans against Democrats, and that it surely was. But as Senate Democrats' frustration with Clinton's inaction on the treaty shows, the CTBT tested intraparty ties as well. In fact, both parties had to deal with significant differences within their ranks over the treaty, or at least over the tactics for handling it in the Senate. And in the end, the clash of those intraparty factions may well have had more impact on the treaty's disposition than either the key senators who kicked off the fight or the party leaders who took it on.

Those who worked on the CTBT at the White House came at the issue rather differently than did Democrats in the Senate. Although administration staffers shared the frustrations of their colleagues on Capitol Hill at the Republicans' refusal to give the treaty a fair hearing, they were convinced there was no way out without Republican cooperation. For them the CWC was also a precedent, but one that proved the absolute necessity of removing the treaty as a political issue and negotiating amendments that would satisfy senators' doubts, a process they thought would require lengthy engagement with the opposition party. What the Senate Democrats saw as Clinton's passivity grew partly out of that concern. As one National Security Council (NSC) aide put it,

We did not want to engage the president in a frontal assault on anyone's manhood on the issue of the CTBT. ... Why? Because we wanted to seriously engage them in hearings, and to not look like we were just simply making this an issue to beat the Republicans about the head with. So that frustrated a number of Democrats like Biden and ... Dorgan and others who wanted the president to come out and make this a very public and visible issue.

In fact, White House operatives felt so strongly that substantive consultation could not happen in the two weeks allowed by Lott's UC, and that such discussion was necessary to get the required votes, that they ultimately told Daschle and Biden to reject Lott's deal outright. But why should experienced senators defer to the White House on legislative tactics? It was hard for outsiders, even fellow Democrats, to credibly tell the legislators how to do their work, and the White House simply failed to stop the deal.

Democrats thus went into the fight divided. Clinton did get energized, and the NSC staff, the White House legislative office, and the State and Defense Departments shifted into high gear to promote the treaty. But those involved felt a "sense of desperation," according to one of them, "a sense that this was a real uphill battle, and ... [the administration] had been put in a very difficult position. We had no choice but to go to the mat for our allies on the Hill."

Desperation quickly turned into the hard realization of what Kyl and company had done. The resolution providing for a vote on the CTBT was adopted on Friday, October 1; at a White House dinner the following Tuesday night, senators of both parties told the president frankly that he was just not going to win this one. And so, without taking its foot off the gas, the administration slammed on the brakes. While continuing frantically to promote the treaty, Democrats started just as strenuously trying to postpone the vote.

If the White House and Hill Democrats differed over how to handle the treaty, Lott also had factional splits in his own party to worry about. Republicans divided into roughly four camps on the CTBT as it was presented to them in early October 1999. First, of course, were members of the Kyl group who worked for its defeat. At the other extreme were those who wanted to see the CTBT ratified, including particularly the four Republicans who voted for it: the late John Chafee (R.I.), Arlen Specter (Penn.), Gordon Smith (Ore.), and then Republican Jeffords.

In the middle were Republicans who ultimately voted against the treaty but would have preferred that the vote be postponed. This group was in turn divided: some were opposed to the CTBT but wanted to avoid the setback to nonproliferation efforts and the embarrassment to the United States that would result from its outright defeat; another faction was genuinely unprepared to decide on the issue given the abbreviated hearings, the absence of a report from the Foreign Relations Committee, and the short time allotted for consideration and deliberation. In fact, 24 Senate Republicans joined 38 Democrats in signing a letter to Lott and Daschle, circulated by Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), requesting postponement of the vote.

In consultation with those working to kill the treaty, Lott put two conditions on postponement. In Helms' words, the president would have to "formally request in writing (a) that the treaty be withdrawn, and (b) that the CTBT not be considered for the duration of his presidency." On October 11, Clinton wrote the majority leader requesting the postponement, but he refused as a matter of principle to go further. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger explained, "The president believes that it is inappropriate for him to say to the world that the United States is out of the non-proliferation business during an election year."

With the president unwilling to meet both of the Republican conditions, the majority leader came under enormous pressure. On one side were those wanting to call off the vote, and on the other were those insisting that the treaty be defeated. His own caucus was almost evenly split on the issue, although the Kyl group had the upper hand procedurally, since any single senator could block a negotiated change in a UC. Still, the Democrats tried to help Lott find a way out. As a substitute for Clinton's pledge, Daschle offered the majority leader his promise that the Democrats would not attempt to reschedule the treaty during Clinton's term unless "extraordinary circumstances," as defined by the two leaders, required it. Democrats thought the majority leader had shaken hands with Daschle on the deal. But Helms wanted "the president's signature" on a capitulation, and others in the Kyl group argued that there was no way a leaders' agreement could prevent other Democratic senators or Clinton himself from continuing to demand action on the treaty whenever international events seemed to warrant it, again making Republicans the bad guys for refusing.

With a negotiated postponement thus blocked by the antitreaty Republicans, Daschle suggested that the Senate might avoid action by simply not returning to the Executive Calendar, on which the treaty waited. Going back to the calendar required that the majority leader introduce a procedural motion and secure the support of 51 senators. The simplest way out was for Lott not to make the motion, but even if he did, only 5 of the 24 Republicans who had signed the Warner-Moynihan letter needed to join the 45 Democrats for it to fail.

The escape must have been attractive. But in the end Lott made the motion, knowing it would be seen as a test of his scheduling prerogatives and therefore of Republican control of the Senate. And every single Republican voted in favor, even the four who later voted for the CTBT itself, although it was clear that the resolution's passage meant the treaty's defeat. Warner explained, "We should never be put in a spot where we have to challenge the Republican leader." Commented a Democratic aide, "They didn't have an ounce of courage when it really mattered."

Why did Lott side with the anti-CTBT group? He had long said that he was personally opposed to the treaty, and had repeatedly made it quite clear to Democrats both in the White House and in Congress that he would never again expose himself to the vindictive conservative reaction that had followed his vote for the CWC. One Democratic Senate aide speculated that Lott went with the Kyl group "because they're the people who are bloody-minded enough that he fears them." Another argued that Lott had become majority leader because of conservatives, not because of internationalists, and an NSC staffer agreed that "it was first and foremost a vote on Lott's leadership"; had he "ducked the vote, ... he would have been in trouble." Or perhaps, given the difficulty of beating something with nothing, Lott simply went with the balance of passion in a caucus where very few were actually in favor of the treaty and some were strongly against.

Whatever his reasons, Lott pushed the treaty over the edge. Clinton immediately castigated the Republicans for "reckless partisanship" and "a new isolationism," but the majority leader maintained that the Senate had "fulfilled its constitutional responsibility."


The executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government do not, of course, function in a vacuum. The Senate's decision on the CTBT was influenced by outside participants on at least three levels: the general public, the activist "base" of each party, and special interest groups within the arms control community.

Overwhelmingly favorable public opinion had remarkably little impact on the outcome of the CTBT vote, although it did affect the tactics on both sides. Believing that public support for the treaty was shallow and politically impotent, Republican opponents decided to bypass public discussion via rapid action and abbreviated hearings. Whereas many Democrats thought that favorable public views on the CTBT could be used in the 2000 election against the Republicans -- Al Gore's first TV campaign ad focused on the issue -- the G.O.P. gambled that a defeated arms control treaty's political saliency would quickly fade, and they were right. Despite worldwide condemnation of the Senate's action, no new nuclear states rapidly emerged, the testing moratorium held, and the election of 2000 turned on other issues.

More important to the outcome were rank-and-file Republicans, the grassroots activists who provide most of the party's funding and organizational strength. Right-wing media and conservative Republican members of Congress spared no effort to convince their constituencies that the CTBT posed a major threat to America's security and sovereignty. This shaping of conservative opinion may have been a factor in Lott's decision to go ahead with the vote despite the sizable Senate majority desiring postponement. One top Republican aide explained that the only way out would have been "an internal Republican bloodbath." Another said, "The issue had been elevated to the level where it was seen as such a bad treaty, that it would have been very hard to shift gears with our conservative base and not vote on it. They wanted us in the end zone, spiking the ball on something that belonged to Bill Clinton."

Individuals and interest groups who were for or against the CTBT also played a vital role in the debate and influenced it on each side. Some were active on their own initiative; many others were orchestrated by staff on one or the other side. Pro-arms control organizations kept the pressure on pro-treaty senators, helping to create a climate among Democrats that seemed to demand Senate action. A variety of scientific organizations and individuals issued letters or statements endorsing the treaty: nine nuclear-weapons experts from the Union of Concerned Scientists urged the Senate to approve, the American Physical Society produced 32 Nobel laureates who confirmed that nuclear weapons reliability could be assured without testing, and the American Geophysical Union and the Seismological Society of America affirmed that the treaty's sensor array would make surreptitious testing by other nations impossible. In his 1998 State of the Union address Clinton noted endorsements by four former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and White House operatives helped generate an October 8 op-ed in The New York Times by the premiers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom urging the Senate to approve the CTBT.

The Kyl group was equally active on the antitreaty side. Six Republican former secretaries of defense signed a letter arguing that confidence in the reliability of nuclear weapons would inevitably decline without nuclear testing, undermining deterrence. One of them, James Schlesinger, was brought in by antitreaty staff to brief Republican lawmakers on the CTBT, and several insiders said he was instrumental in persuading many (including Lott) to vote against the treaty. Having failed in an earlier effort advocating postponement, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote on the day of the vote opposing approval.

Among the most influential individuals in the CTBT debate were the directors of the nation's three nuclear-weapons labs. In February 1998 Clinton had visited the lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico, to promote the treaty, and the directors had issued a supportive statement, assuring the nation that the "stockpile stewardship program will enable us to maintain America's nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing." In their October 1999 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, however, the directors indicated considerable doubt about the program's adequacy. C. Paul Robinson, director of Sandia National Laboratories, warned that "if the United States scrupulously restricts itself to zero-yield [tests] while other nations may conduct experiments [with yields] up to the threshold of international detectability, we will be at an intolerable disadvantage." C. Bruce Tartar, director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, worried about the labs' ability to attract top scientists and bluntly called the stewardship program "an excellent bet, but ... not a sure thing." Antitreaty senators jumped on this testimony in the next day's floor debates as evidence that the CTBT would put the nation's nuclear deterrent at risk.

Treaty proponents found the apparent shift in the lab directors' views intriguing. Had the directors learned something in the 18 months since Clinton's visit that made them more nervous about the adequacy of the stockpile program? Maybe they were just being typical scientists, unwilling to say that anything is 100 percent certain, and thereby naively playing into the hands of antitreaty senators who took their statements out of context. It is also possible that, on the contrary, they were shrewd politicians, men who understood that the treaty was going down, that the majority party on Capitol Hill was against it, and that they needed to be on the right side of the issue. Whatever the reasons, the posture of the lab directors was a major contributor to the atmosphere of doubt that treaty opponents were able to create as they forced a rapid vote on the CTBT.


In the aftermath, the two sides were as divided on the causes of the CTBT's defeat as they had been on the treaty itself. Democrats maintained that a willful group of senators, using personal animosities, partisan discipline, clever parliamentary tactics, and their control over the Senate, had undermined the will of the majority, causing at least embarrassment and at worst real damage to the interests of the United States in the world. Byrd charged that the Senate had followed procedures that "effectively abdicated its duty" to advise and consent, while Clinton attributed the defeat to "politics, pure and simple." To most Republicans, on the other hand, the treaty had received adequate attention and failed decisively on its merits. The Senate had fulfilled its constitutional role of "quality control" by rejecting a "dangerous" treaty, said Lott: "It was not about politics; it was about the substance of the treaty, and that's all it was."

In fact, both judgments contain part of the truth, for the CTBT's defeat resulted above all from the interaction of political factors with the treaty's substance. Certainly a few Republicans did use their party's control of the Senate calendar and procedures to engineer the debacle, brilliantly illustrating the enormous importance for policy outcomes of holding a majority in a legislative body. Another tactical political lesson is the importance of good legislative intelligence, since detailed knowledge of Kyl's activities would surely have saved the Democrats from falling into Lott's trap. The story of the CTBT's defeat also exposes the complex and highly interdependent relationship between legislative leaders and their colleagues. Although termed majority and minority "leaders," neither Lott nor Daschle was all-powerful, and at critical turning points both seemed more controlled by than in control of their caucuses. Moving forward with the UC seemed the only course of action that would keep the Democrats together, whereas going ahead with the vote later seemed the only way to avoid a political donnybrook among Republicans.

In fact, the CTBT fight was a vivid demonstration of the interplay of partisanship and factionalism in a government where politicians must cooperate within and across branches to get things done. In the CTBT vote, not only did bipartisan cooperation fail, but there were also significant splits within each party, on the Democratic side between the White House and Congress, and on the Republican side within the Senate. Ironically, these factional differences seemed to heighten the importance of party unity while driving each side to the political extremes. Once the activists were able to define their stance as the party's stance -- as happened with Democrats in accepting the UC and with Republicans in the procedural vote -- they were able to capture support from their colleagues greater than the merits of the issue alone would have allowed. The result made impossible even the level of compromise needed to postpone the vote. As one Democrat said, "This should be an example of how not to do it."

Yet it would be a mistake to interpret the CTBT's defeat as a lesson only on the salience of politics, procedure, and partisanship. Substance also mattered, primarily because of the Clinton administration's decision -- taken well into the negotiating effort -- to go for a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing, one that prohibited all nuclear tests forever. The scope and finality of the commitment seemed to require near-certainty about a lot of things -- the effectiveness of the stockpile stewardship program, the capabilities of monitoring and challenge inspections, even the future of deterrence and war itself -- that were uncertain at best. By making the treaty absolute and permanent, the administration raised the stakes for the Senate, and it did so despite a lack of cooperation from significant numbers of the opposition. It thus presented the treaty's opponents with the opportunity to use their dominant legislative position to deny senators time to sort out their concerns about the treaty and satisfy themselves that its benefits were worth its risks. The problem was not just that the Lott-Daschle UC made amendments all but impossible. The rushed procedure also made it difficult for senators to learn about the many highly technical aspects of the CTBT and to get comfortable with the political issues it posed. Lacking that knowledge and comfort, senators were unwilling to commit themselves and their country in perpetuity.


The critical lesson of the CTBT debacle therefore is that the bigger the consequences of a treaty for the United States, the more important it is for the White House to take account of its domestic political ramifications and to involve the opposition party in the Senate in its negotiation. Clinton, of course, found leading Senate Republicans quite unwilling to assist in negotiating a test-ban treaty, but that should have alerted him to the need to lower the stakes by making the treaty less comprehensive and of limited duration. To be sure, many provisions that internationalist Republicans would have welcomed -- including a ten-year escape clause, an allowance for some limited nuclear testing, and less demanding procedures for calling challenge inspections -- had been removed from the U.S. negotiating posture under fierce opposition from other nations. Thus a partial ban would likely have been more difficult to negotiate as well as less effective in stopping proliferation. Like many treaty negotiators, Clinton was caught between the demands of domestic and international politics. Yet the result amplifies the need for negotiators to understand the tradeoffs between the two and make their choices carefully.

The political dynamics Clinton faced in the Senate point to a final observation, one with importance well beyond arms control and executive-legislative relations. If the Democrats' split on the CTBT was a tactical one -- largely explained by the maxim of bureaucratic politics that where you stand (on an issue) depends on where you sit (in the government) -- the Republican divide represented something deeper, a philosophical clash over foreign policy that holds great importance for the Bush administration's future. Internationalist Republicans in the Senate, like the first Bush administration, thought cooperative diplomacy and treaty commitments could play a useful role alongside the exertion of American power in dealing with post-Cold War threats. Many conservative Republicans in Congress, on the other hand, were unilateralist in their approach to national security matters, believing that it was naive at best and dangerous at worst for the United States to try to cooperate with threatening states or to trust its security to paper promises. Their alternative to arms control treaties was a strong military and a national missile defense system that would physically defend the nation against attack.

Although somewhat weakened since their heyday in the late 1990s, unilateralists are still dominant in the House of Representatives and in the Senate's minority leadership. Will George W. Bush follow their lead, or will he follow the cooperative internationalist example set by his father? So far his record is decidedly mixed, with the clash between conservatives such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and internationalists such as Secretary of State Colin Powell becoming increasingly obvious. If history is any guide, the outcome will depend partly on the results of policies adopted and yet to be adopted, partly on the longevity of various personalities in government, partly on the direction that the president's own education in foreign policy takes him, and partly on what historians once called the "chapter of accidents." But the clash among Republicans between cooperative internationalism and unilateralism will not go away soon, and its consequences for the future of American statecraft will be profound.

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  • Terry L. Deibel is Professor of National Strategy at the National War College. This article is based on a detailed case study, "Inside the Water's Edge: The Senate Votes on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty," published by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are solely the author's.
  • More By Terry L. Deibel