WASHINGTON — The latest salvo in President Barack Obama's campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons was fired Wednesday, delivered not by the administration, but by the man who presided over the collapse of America's Cold War rival.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union when it fell apart in 1991, called on the U.S. to ratify an accord to ban all nuclear test blasts, saying it would strengthen U.S.-led efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.
"We have seen that dialogue with even the most recalcitrant governments is possible," Gorbachev wrote in a New York Times op-ed column, apparently referring to North Korea and Iran. "Yet dialogue can work only if the United States abandons the hypocritical position of telling others what they must do while keeping its own options open."
Gorbachev, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, is a leading advocate of nuclear disarmament. His call for U.S. ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, foreshadows the next major battle over arms control policy following Obama's victory on Dec. 22, when the Senate ratified a new U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reduction treaty.
Republican senators who tried to kill Obama's New START treaty are expected to mount a vigorous effort to block the treaty, bolstered by the addition of five new GOP members.
Obama pledged to "immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty" in an April 2009 speech unveiling his ambitious goal of eliminating nuclear weapons.
Senate approval requires a two-thirds vote, or 67 of the 100 members, meaning that the test-ban treaty will require the support of 14 Republicans, one more than those who supported New START.
The leading Senate opponent is the No. 2 Republican, Jon Kyl of Arizona, who argues that the U.S. can't risk relinquishing its ability to test, a contention the administration and numerous independent experts reject. Kyl, who led the bid to kill New START, also halted the Senate's first attempt to ratify the test-ban treaty in 1999.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, who, as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has jurisdiction over international accords, predicted after the New START vote that the test-ban treaty would have a difficult path to ratification. "I said months ago to the president that the test ban treaty in the current atmosphere is a very, very difficult process. A whole lot of educating has to go on," Kerry said.
Some administration officials are less pessimistic.
"There's always been a bloc of opponents historically to nuclear arms reduction and control in the Senate," Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, the top U.S. arms negotiator, said on Dec. 23. "That's part of a healthy debate; it's part of a healthy process. I don't see that as a major, major issue."
The treaty would effectively add underground nuclear tests to a 1963 ban imposed on blasts in the atmosphere, oceans and space. It would be enforced by a United Nations-run global network of more than 330 seismographs and other sensors. It's been ratified by 153 countries, but can't go into effect until it is ratified by the U.S. and other nations with nuclear programs, including China, Iran, India, Pakistan and North Korea.
The U.S. hasn't conducted an underground test since 1992 — it had conducted more than 1,000 before then — and maintains a voluntary moratorium on testing, as do the other major nuclear powers.
Gorbachev argued that the moratoriums should be made legally binding, saying not to do so "would render futile any attempts to influence the behavior of countries that have been causing so many headaches for the United States and other nations" — another apparent reference to Iran and North Korea.
Opponents argue that ratifying the treaty will undermine national security, saying the U.S. must retain the ability to test new or modified warheads to ensure the safety and reliability of a U.S. nuclear arsenal that is shrinking and aging.
Treaty proponents respond that that the U.S. has no plans to develop new nuclear weapons and that in any case, high-speed computers, advanced experiments and warhead overhauls have eliminated the need for testing.
The directors of the U.S. nuclear arms laboratories this month expressed confidence in their ability to ensure a safe and reliable arsenal following Obama's commitment to spend $85 billion over the next decade to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons facilities.
Opponents also argue that there's no reliable way to detect secret low-level nuclear tests.
Experts disagree, saying that even low-yield nuclear blasts can be detected by the global sensor network maintained by the Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, as well as by U.S. systems.
"One of the big advantages we have now is that there are (monitoring) stations across Asia in some of the countries that were formally part of the Soviet Union," said Lynn Sykes, a professor at Columbia University's Earth Institute. "That has allowed us to monitor China and Russia and North Korea a lot better. North Korea is quite easy."
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