Defense officials later confirmed that the U.S. position on testing has not changed, though the United States could resume live nuclear tests within “months,” according to one report. But would resumed testing help — or harm — the U.S. strategic position? Here’s what you need to know.
What is the U.S. policy on testing?
Washington has long supported restrictions on countries’ ability to conduct nuclear explosive tests. The United States has not tested a nuclear weapon above the ground since 1962. In 1963 the U.S. signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, an agreement prohibiting nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, in space and underwater.
The end of the Cold War prompted a further significant step. President George H.W. Bush signed a moratorium on any kind of explosive nuclear testing into law on Sept. 22, 1992. That moratorium was initially only for nine months, but later administrations have extended it.
In the mid-1990s President Bill Clinton tried to ratify a key treaty banning any kind of nuclear tests, including those underground. Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on Sept. 24, 1996. But the question of U.S. nuclear tests and their resumption had evolved into a partisan battleground and the Senate rejected the CTBT in October 1999. U.S. ratification has stalled ever since. The CTBT has yet to enter into force.
The Trump administration is doing what?
Research shows that the evolution of U.S. testing policy reflects a deeper tension between the role of the United States as an international rule-setter and its status as a great power, able to pursue its own national interests free from constraints. The U.S. nonratification of the CTBT reflects this tension, although the political battles over ratification have obscured the treaty’s strategic benefits.
Historically the United States has constrained the behavior of other nations and maximized its power by constructing a system that prohibits widespread nuclear testing. Yet the U.S. hasn’t ratified the CTBT, which would legally obligate it to forswear testing indefinitely. This makes the international regime against testing weaker than it could be, but allows Washington greater flexibility to resume testing if it decides to.
So why talk about testing now? According to the report, Trump administration officials have alleged — though with limited substantiation thus far — that both Russia and China are secretly conducting low-yield nuclear explosive tests. This scenario suggests the Trump administration sees resumed testing as an avenue for great power competition, even if this might not be the case. U.S. national security officials have reportedly argued that a new round of testing would put pressure on Moscow and Beijing to make concessions in the Trump administration’s proposed trilateral arms control talks with Russia and China.
Yet the utility of additional explosive testing for the United States is debatable. Experts argue that the United States can make sure its existing weapons are still effective using a combination of computer simulations and a measure called “subcritical nuclear testing,” which does not create a nuclear explosion. And Trump officials have yet to explain how resumed testing would strengthen the U.S. position in arms talks.
Long-term costs outweigh short-term gains
Even if these arguments were valid, it would still be in the U.S. interests to uphold the norm against explosive nuclear testing. Here’s why: The long-term costs of resuming testing outweigh any short-term benefits.
During the Cold War, nuclear tests by friendly newcomers to the nuclear club, and attempts to prevent these tests, played a key role in shaping U.S. nonproliferation policy. The U.S. had a patchy record on limiting proliferation among its allies. When it failed to prevent friendly states from acquiring nuclear weapons, it pressured them to keep their weapons hidden.
Resumed testing would increase the likelihood that other nuclear club members — including U.S. partners like India and Pakistan, as well as a rival like North Korea — would conduct their own explosions. Given the smaller number of tests that most other nuclear powers have completed compared to the United States, testing would be of far greater utility to them. This would raise risks of further proliferation, destabilize the international system and complicate bilateral relations with the United States.
Ironically, resumption of U.S. testing may actually encourage Russia and China to resume their own tests publicly. That would limit U.S. ability to project power, and undermine its existing nuclear dominance while increasing risk of conflict.
How does this fit into the bigger picture?
It’s important to place the discussion on the resumption of nuclear tests in context. This move would be a continuation of a wider Trump administration policy that seeks to undermine existing multilateral arms control agreements in an attempt to improve the U.S. bargaining position.
And then there’s the Iran nuclear deal. After Trump’s decision to withdraw in 2018, Iran eschewed its own obligations and has built up an enriched uranium stockpile. In the meantime, the Trump administration has yet to see the expected gains from its withdrawal, as Iran has so far refused to return to the negotiation table and no new and improved deal is on the horizon.
Significantly, when the subject is nuclear testing, the stakes are even bigger. Every nuclear power in the world other than North Korea has adhered to the global non-testing norm since 1998. Non-testing, as well as the wider norms governing the international nonproliferation regime, could be irrevocably undermined by the resumption of U.S. testing. Weighed against this prospect, any conceivable gain from resumed nuclear testing — such as an increased bargaining leverage with Russia and China — seems marginal at best.
Or Rabinowitz is an assistant professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.
James J. Cameron is a research associate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and an affiliate with the Oslo Nuclear Project at the University of Oslo. He is the author of “The Double Game: The Demise of America’s First Missile Defense System and the Rise of Strategic Arms Limitation” (Oxford University Press, 2018). Follow @cameronjjj.