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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 29, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 43

Fallout on Capitol Hill
Domestic squabbles nix an international nuclear accord
By YASMIN GHAHREMANI and SAMUEL GILSTON Washington

And lo, the preacher faltered. After years of using its lone-superpower status as a bully pulpit from which to lecture the world on the need to end nuclear weapons testing, the U.S. has failed to ratify the very agreement that seeks to achieve that goal. On Oct. 13, the Senate voted down ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by 51 to 48 - well short of the two-thirds majority needed for the bill's passage. Overnight, Washington forfeited its right to be righteous.

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The sigh of relief from the usual targets of America's earnest admonishments was almost audible. With the U.S. stripped of its moral authority, the three states that have not yet signed the CTBT - India, Pakistan and North Korea - can now work their way toward inking the ban in their own time, on their own terms. "With defeat in the Senate, the CTBT goes into a deep coma," says Jasjit Singh, director of India's Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis. "It is not something that India will have to deal with in the immediate future." Nor Pakistan, which has more pressing concerns to deal with.

Elsewhere in Asia the tone is one of alarm. As a neighbor of North Korea and the only victim of nuclear attack, Japan has the most right to be edgy. Former U.N. Undersecretary General Akashi Yasushi predicts "a negative chain reaction," slowing progress toward a CTBT signed and ratified by all 44 nuclear capable states. Akashi fears that the rejection of the CTBT by the U.S. could nix efforts to get naysayers on board and prompt China (which is among 15 countries that have signed but not yet ratified the accord) to resume nuclear testing.

"I don't think China will resume testing any time soon," says Niu Jun, a director at the Institute of American Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. But Beijing is hardly likely to speed ratification either. Opponents of the treaty now have more ammunition, and that may scare the National People's Congress (NPC) away from a ratification vote. "Usually, the NPC [standing committee] will only consider discussing a treaty when it feels that support will be forthcoming among the delegates," Niu explains.

Pyongyang may not, for the time being, risk the current thaw in relations with Washington by upping the ante in the two sides' nuclear negotiations. But if it does decide to in the future, say by launching another test missile over Japan, "the U.S.'s moral objections will have much less impact," says Niu.

With the world's moral policeman compromised, other global disarmament deals may also now be threatened. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which bans non-nuclear states from developing nuclear weapons, was extended indefinitely in 1995. But only on the condition that nuclear states push through a test ban. Akashi expects next April's review of the NPT to be "stormy."

Washington could also lose much of its global clout for the manner in which the CTBT defeat came about. The treaty was scuttled by Senate Republicans, led by House majority leader Trent Lott and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms. Their campaign smacked more of spite for President Bill Clinton than of genuine concern for the substance of the document. The stench of impeachment still hangs heavy over Capitol Hill. When the Republicans saw the chance to deal Clinton an embarrassing blow, they simply couldn't resist.

Although Clinton has held the high ground, labeling his foes as "reckless and partisan," the episode served to highlight that, with only 14 months of his term left, he is a lame-duck president hamstrung on the world stage by domestic squabbling. While the president continues to flex his muscle on matters outside the remit of Congressional approval, decisions that require bipartisan support - including efforts to bring China into the World Trade Organization - are not guaranteed to go his way. Negotiators hoping to make headway on international issues must choose between accommodating the interests of a feisty Congress and waiting until Clinton is out of the picture.

For now the CTBT is forgotten, but not dead. When Clinton turns his back on the Oval office, the treaty will return to the agenda - probably in the form of a compromise bill that addresses the legitimate concerns over issues of enforcement. The Senate's vote need not be taken as a signal of rising isolationist sentiment. Once a new president is elected, Asia will get its policeman back. And can expect the moral lectures to resume.

With bureau reporting

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