The Clinton administration's reaction to the Senate's refusal to ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty threatens to erode the bipartisan approach that has sustained American foreign policy even in the Clinton administration (witness NAFTA, NATO expansion and Bosnia). The president condemned the Senate vote as a symptom of militant isolationism, and the State Department has notified foreign governments that it still considers itself legally bound by the treaty--as if a negative vote of a majority of the Senate were an aberration when a two-thirds positive majority was needed for ratification. All this has tempted some foreign leaders to question the credibility of America's international role.

It is high time to put an end to this name-calling. Our allies have a stake in our credibility; they should not be encouraged to challenge it by entering our domestic debate. The Clinton administration will need bipartisan support for the remainder of its term--especially in managing China's entry into the World Trade Organization. And a successor administration should be able to develop its own approach free of bitter controversy.

What makes a respite all the more necessary is that the treaty failed above all because the end of the Cold War has basically transformed global strategic conditions and the nature of arms control as heretofore conceived. No doubt isolationists--in different guises--exist on the extremes of both our political parties. But it is absurd to blame the Senate vote on an isolationist cabal when six former secretaries of defense, four former national security advisers and four former CIA directors (including two appointed by President Clinton) opposed ratification, while four former secretaries of state--myself included--refused to endorse it.

All of us had served at one time or another as stewards of America's involvement in a global policy and had supported previous treaties to limit the risks of nuclear conflagration. But we balked at a permanent test ban in the face of severe and unresolved doubts. Our concerns embraced verification, since low-yield tests by common agreement cannot be detected,reliability of our nuclear stockpile in the absence of testing and lack of meaningful sanctions.

Some of us urged a delay in the vote, during which a bipartisan commission could have examined our concerns on the basis of a set of agreed questions. This proved impossible to arrange because of the Senate leadership's distrust of the White House and because the administration, while hinting at its readiness for delay, put forward no proposal on how to deal with the concerns of responsible critics. Instead, the administration implied strongly that it would resubmit an unmodified treaty at the first opportunity and would make the treaty a campaign issue.

This deadlock between administration self-righteousness and the senators' lack of confidence in administration security policy has led to a revival of the most acrimonious controversies over arms control of the early 1970s. In the process, the key issue--the transformation of the nature of arms control with the end of the Cold War--has been almost totally submerged.

During the Cold War, as nuclear stockpiles reached tens of thousands of deliverable weapons and war threatened the extinction of humanity, concerned individuals in and out of government began to advocate the then-unprecedented proposition that the holders of these vast arsenals might negotiate to mitigate the nuclear dangers by limiting their nuclear buildups and establishing some rules for deployment. The purpose was to reduce the dangers of surprise attack, accidental war or war by momentum, such as caused World War I.

Proponents of this school of thought--myself included--argued that, at a minimum, negotiations on such subjects might educate both superpowers to the dangers of their new capacities and reduce the danger of war by inadvertence. The result was two agreements in the 1970s limiting the number of delivery vehicles for both sides--agreements that, however controversial, were maintained throughout the Cold War by the administrations of both parties, including the Reagan administration.

This "strategic" approach to arms control--which always insisted on retaining the option of modernization and never took risks with verifiability--was nearly overwhelmed by assaults from two opposite directions. One came from a "radical" approach which argued that "strategic" arms control did not go far enough. These theologians of the so-called Mutual Assured Destruction concept insisted on leaving civilian populations totally vulnerableto nuclear attack. Hence they opposed any kind of defense against nuclear missiles and tried to thwart any modernization as destabilizing. Their goal was to prevent war by imposing strategic passivity on the United States where nuclear weapons were concerned.

On the other side, opponents of arms control in the 1970s lumped the "radical" and "strategic" schools together and attacked any effort to stabilize military relations between the superpowers as a mirage or a deliberate deception. The radical arms controllers never encountered a new technology they could approve; their critics never confronted an arms control agreement that they could countenance.

The difference between the strategic and radical schools of arms control was shown by the respective attitudes toward nuclear testing. True, the "strategic" arms controllers negotiated on an underground test ban. But unlike the current version of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the ban was confined to tests above a specific threshold that was verifiable, and provided for a limited number of proof-tests of existing stockpiles to determine their reliability.

With the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Clinton's became the first administration to throw its weight behind the radical arms controllers, and it did so without involving either key senators or former senior officials in a process of consultation. The administration ignored the experience of the 1970s with the Threshold Test Ban and pursued a comprehensive and permanent ban, despite the knowledge that it was not verifiable at low levels. It overrode concerns about verification by asserting that what could be tested at unverifiable levels was not "significant"--an unpersuasive argument in the light of the rapidly changing technology and the indefinite duration of the treaty.

The administration answered concerns regarding the continued reliability of the nuclear stockpile by claiming that computer tests could do the job, even though the relevant computers would not be available for a decade and the directors of the weapons laboratories, who were supposed to administer these tests, were highly ambivalent in their testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Finally, the administration claimed that the United States would be able to withdraw from the treaty if the "supreme national interest" was involved. But how does one determine the supreme national interest in the absence of testing? And in the light of the eagerness of some members of the U.N. Security Council to lift sanctions even while Iraq is in undisputed violation of the U.N. inspections system, what international sanctions would be agreed or enforceable?

Finally, the difficulty of modifying a bilateral treaty such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty would be vastly compounded by a multilateral treaty including more than 100 nations.

The Senate vote should thus be interpreted as a wake-up call to face the revolutionary change in the nature of our strategic problem and in the role (and limits) of arms control. The "strategic" arms control of the 1970s sought to regulate a bilateral U.S.-Soviet relationship. Each of the parties could be assumed to have a parallel interest in reducing the risks of surprise attack or accidental war. Though this premise was questioned on ideological grounds, it was plausible to argue that the fear of nuclear holocaust might override ideology.

But the conflict between two nuclear superpowers is no longer the overwhelming threat to peace. That threat is, rather, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to countries that reject any common norms and seek nuclear weapons to blackmail the rest of the world. The premise of the complete test ban was that cessation of tests by the nuclear powers would set an example for other countries to stay out of the nuclear weapons field. But the countries about which we are most concerned have neither signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty nor would they be constrained by it if they did sign. After all, North Korea, Iran and Iraq had all signed the 1968 Non-Proliferation treaty and accepted its inspections. Yet each is actively pursuing clandestine nuclear capabilities in violation of agreements it had signed.

The oft-repeated argument that a complete test ban, if observed, would freeze our nuclear advantage is not relevant to the rudimentary nuclear capabilities of the rogue states. And industrialized proliferators may sign the complete test ban with its weak verification and toothless sanctions for exactly the opposite reason: to achieve a pause to enable them to narrow the gap with our technology.

Among the nations of the world, the United States has a special responsibility for international security, especially involving nuclear weapons. For the sake of all those who, whether they like it or not, depend on our protection, we cannot afford to subordinate national security to doubtful, speculative benefits. We are the ultimate guarantors against the scourge of biological and chemical warfare. We need a capacity to resist with discrimination--that is, in a way that will minimize catastrophe and not stake everything on the nihilism of the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction. Therefore, for us to give up technological options is a far graver decision than for countries relying on far more rudimentary capabilities. One would think our European allies would show some understanding of these realities and resist being drawn into a domestic political campaign here.

Unlike some of the critics of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, I do not oppose the concept of arms control. On the contrary, I believe that democratic governments have an obligation to their publics to demonstrate serious efforts to reduce the dangers of a nuclear holocaust and nuclear proliferation. Existing nonproliferation agreements should be preserved, including the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the suppliers' restraints of the more recent period, such as the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Canberra Group restricting chemical exports. A verifiable test ban might have a place in such a strategy if it included a time limit that permitted reassessment in the light of experience, quotas for proof-testing and agreement on sanctions against violators.

But traditional arms control agreements--especially of the toothless variety--may have come to the end of the road. New nuclear states such as India and Pakistan are reachable by traditional instruments and norms of diplomacy. Their friends can assist them in achieving a stable mutual deterrence and give stabilizing reassurances about their conventional security. What is really needed is a new common nonproliferation policy by nations already possessing nuclear arsenals. They must agree on controls over the export of their technologies and devise precise and tough sanctions against states acquiring weapons of mass destruction and those nations that supply them.

The writer, a former secretary of state, is president of Kissinger Associates, an international consulting firm that has clients with business interests in many countries abroad.

(c) 1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate