Test Ban Treaty Defeat Hurts the Presidency

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Bill Clinton's Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty humiliation is a milestone on America's journey beyond the Cold War — a measure of both how far Washington has traveled and of how little headway has been made. Senate Republicans Wednesday overrode the President's last-minute plea that voting on the treaty be postponed on national security grounds, slapping down Mr. Clinton's foreign policy centerpiece by 51 votes to 48 in a mostly partisan vote that fell well short of the required two-thirds majority. It was the first time since 1920 that the legislature had rejected an international security treaty — an action almost unthinkable during the Cold War years, when partisan differences ended at the nation's borders and the legislature ultimately deferred to the executive on issues of national security. But if the vote signaled the end of the White House's Cold War prerogative on issues such as nuclear arms control, the concerns that shaped its outcome were very much grounded in the Cold War doctrine of nuclear deterrence. The treaty's naysayers insisted that the U.S. refrain from tying its own hands in the face of any future nuclear competition, and they remained unconvinced by White House assurances that the CTBT actually codified the overwhelming nuclear advantage of the U.S. over the new kids on the nuclear block.

The Senate's vote has left the CTBT dead in the water, but despite the dire warnings from the White House, that doesn't mean there'll be a rash of underground tests in the weeks to come. Although harshly critical of the U.S. decision, China and India — like President Clinton — insisted that they'd continue to abide voluntarily by the treaty's provisions. But Clinton's CTBT failure signals the international community of the diminished power of the U.S. presidency. The legislature's decision in Clinton's first term to deprive him of "fast track" negotiating powers has made Latin American countries reluctant to reach comprehensive trade pacts with an administration that may not be able to keep its end of the deal. Extending that principle to the national security sphere may make the presidency — and the world — a more precarious place.