The Senate struggled yesterday to find a way to duck one of the biggest arms control issues to come before it in many years, after a debate that emphasized politics and did little to clarify the underlying issue: what role will American nuclear weapons play in the 21st century?
Though some senators spoke apocalyptically of the threat to national security if the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty were rejected or approved, the brief debate steered away from the dicey question of how to achieve a safer nuclear future.
For decades, American experts on nuclear issues have been divided, broadly, between those who think the primary goal should be to discourage the development and use of the weapons, and those who emphasize the need to have the best, most reliable and most usable warheads in the American arsenal.
Both camps say their aim is to deter nuclear war. But they have divergent views of arms control in general and of the test ban treaty in particular, which would bar all countries from conducting any nuclear test explosions.
Spurgeon Keeney, a retired government official whose arms control experience goes back to the 1950s and who is now a pro-treaty activist for the Arms Control Association, described his side's vision of the future: "A world in which you are moving away from nuclear weapons . . . where the mere thought of using them in a first strike doesn't enter into anyone's calculation." Keeney added, "We're almost there right now."
On the other side, former defense secretary and CIA director James R. Schlesinger said those who want to move away from nuclear weapons are unrealistic "abolitionists" who don't grasp the importance of maintaining a reliable deterrent for decades to come.
Schlesinger, who testified last week against the test ban treaty, said it might not pose a substantial threat to American security for some years, "but the real questions come after about 2020," when America's overwhelming conventional military superiority may have eroded and new players on the world stage could threaten the United States. If the U.S. military is locked into a permanent test ban treaty, Schlesinger complained, its options could be dangerously limited.
Schlesinger argues that it is vital to retain the right to test and improve the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Only actual test explosions, he says, can confirm the dependability of the American deterrent and will convince both friends and foes in decades to come that U.S. nuclear weapons remain operational.
All members of the nuclear priesthood agree on the importance of maintaining deterrence. During the Cold War, that meant maintaining a force that would leave the Soviet Union with no doubt that any attack on the United States or its allies would be met with massive retaliation.
In the post-Cold War era, deterrence has a vaguer meaning. Some see a need to deter allies such as Japan and Germany from ever considering development of nuclear weapons, a goal that requires, they argue, sustaining a credible and powerful U.S. nuclear force. Others are more interested in deterring poorer and potentially more aggressive nonnuclear states from trying to acquire nuclear weapons. To this camp, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is a useful tool.
But critics of the treaty argue that in the real world, determined countries will be able to acquire nuclear weapons, and the United States should have a realistic approach to dealing with those--such as India and Pakistan--that do. Relying on a permanent ban on testing to deter proliferation just won't work, they argue.
Johnny Foster, a former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California who designed nuclear weapons for years, testified last week that the United States should be more concerned about how the world could change in the next century. "It is hard to believe that the problems of deterrence several decades from now will require the same types of weapons as were required one or two decades ago," he said. "We should be prepared to change the types of weapons in our stockpile. Some changes are possible without testing; many are not. . . . "
In other words, the United States will always be dependent on nuclear weapons, and must be prepared to use them in the future, as it was in the past.
Jeremy J. Stone, longtime president of the Federation of American Scientists and an arms control advocate for decades, said opponents of the treaty who argue implicitly or explicitly for a resumption of testing are whistling in the dark.
"Nobody wants to test," Stone said, citing the testimony of U.S. military commanders, among others. "The nuclear weapons business is dying. . . . It's a completely dead era."
Noting that the United States has respected the terms of the test ban treaty for the past seven years, without ratifying it, Stone predicted that even a Senate vote to reject the treaty would not result in a resumption of U.S. testing of nuclear weapons.
The debate in the Senate, however, largely avoided the tough, practical questions about where U.S. nuclear policy should go from here. Senators focused, instead, on the verifiability of the test ban treaty and whether other countries could set off very small nuclear explosions without being detected.
"We still think of arms control in Cold War terms," complained Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President George Bush and a weathered veteran of the arms control wars. "We have not changed at all, and yet the world has changed dramatically." The debate in the Senate, Scowcroft added, "is pathetic."
Scowcroft said he hoped for a debate some day that would connect the test ban treaty to a realistic assessment of what the United States can do to ensure "security and stability." That means looking carefully at how various policies will affect the thinking of potential rivals or potential nuclear powers, and deciding what kind of U.S. arsenal best suits national interests.
Scowcroft had formally recommended that the Senate put the treaty aside. "Let's wait until after this partisan period has passed and we can debate it sensibly," he said, hopefully.
CAPTION: President Clinton, who is urging the Senate to postpone voting on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, addresses the American Academy of Pediatrics on children's health.