WASHINGTON, July 6 — In its first six months, the Bush administration has been examining ways to escape permanently from an unratified international agreement banning nuclear tests, just as it has moved to scrap the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and has rebelled against a global warming pact that it believes would cripple American industry.
But State Department lawyers told the White House that a president cannot withdraw a treaty from the Senate once it has been presented for approval. So, administration officials said, President Bush has resolved to let the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty languish in the Senate, where its supporters concede they do not have the votes to revive it.
The decision puts the test ban in the same category as the Kyoto Protocol on global warming: by informing the pact's allies that it has no chance of ratification, Mr. Bush is essentially forcing his main European partners to find alternatives more to the administration's liking.
Continued U.S. failure to follow through on its C.T.B.T. commitments leaves the door open to a global chain reaction of nuclear testing, instability and confrontation in the future.
Mr. Bush has long opposed the treaty, which the Senate rejected 51 to 48 nearly two years ago in a major defeat for President Bill Clinton. Now, in the next two weeks, Mr. Bush hopes to go a step further and persuade the treaty's allies to acknowledge that the pact is effectively dead.
The issue may be discussed at the summit meeting of industrialized nations in Genoa, Italy, later this month. But a senior administration official said today that there was no mention of the treaty in current drafts of the group's final communiqué. Some Bush administration officials even said that the treaty itself might not even come up for discussion for the first time in many years.
During the Clinton years, Canada, the major European allies and Japan called on "all those states which have not yet done so to sign and ratify the treaty without delay." Mr. Bush's aides have worked to delete that wording from other international communiqués, while still calling on nations to abide by a nonbinding moratorium on nuclear testing.
Behind the arcane change in wording is part of a radical alteration of American arms control strategy. While rejecting the treaty, the Bush administration is pressing for deep, even unilateral, cuts in the nation's nuclear arsenal, deployment of missile defenses and a new framework to combat proliferation that builds on some current pacts but rejects others.
The test ban treaty "does not help our nonproliferation goals," said an administration official who discussed the president's emerging strategy on the condition that he not be identified.
He said the treaty "is cited as providing a new moral and legal barrier to proliferation."
He also said the treaty was also cited as preventing a potential nuclear power from developing a weapon in confidence. "It is presented as a treaty that is verifiable. And it is presented as something that, in fact, still allows us to maintain our nuclear stockpile in confidence. And I think you'll find that it's wrong on every count, that those contentions are wrong."
As of today, 161 nations have signed the treaty, and 77 of them have ratified it. Among those 77 nations are 31 of the 44 states required for the treaty to enter into force; among the remaining 13 are the United States, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. In the absence of a treaty, nations are free to conduct nuclear tests, although a nonbinding moratorium is in place.
Administration officials studied the barriers to pulling the treaty from Senate consideration in order to bury it, as well as the potential outcry here and abroad should the United States abandon it. Today, officials said, Mr. Bush "has no plans" to do anything with the treaty, but also "has no plans" to break from the moratorium on nuclear tests.
But treaties do not die at the adjournment of a Congress as bills do, and can be taken up again at any time by a subsequent Senate. Thus, once the test ban treaty was rejected by the Senate, it reverted to the legal property of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Although a Democrat who supports the treaty, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, became the committee chairman when Republicans lost their majority, Senate rules require a two-thirds vote to ratify the treaty, as its proponents desire, or send it back to Mr. Bush for disposal, as its opponents want.
The math of the Senate split renders either action nearly impossible.
"There is no excuse for our failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty," Mr. Biden said last month. While agreeing that there are "legitimate concerns" regarding the nation's long-term ability to maintain the nuclear stockpile without nuclear tests and with verification, he said those problems could be resolved before Senate approval.
Mr. Bush expressed unwavering criticism of the treaty during the campaign, saying it did not further the nation's nonproliferation policy or strengthen national security, and his administration conducted a review of test-ban issues.
In the most explicit inquiry into the president's options, John R. Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, asked the State Department's legal office to determine whether a president had the power to unilaterally withdraw a treaty pending before the Senate, officials said.
The legal office reported that the answer was "no," officials said. Once a a treaty is sent to the Senate, there is little a president or a successor can do to dispose of it.
Supporters of the treaty criticized the administration's approach, saying the test ban is a cornerstone of nonproliferation efforts and has overwhelming domestic and international support.
"Continued U.S. failure to follow through on its C.T.B.T. commitments leaves the door open to a global chain reaction of nuclear testing, instability and confrontation in the future," said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers.
Mr. Kimball said efforts to delete support for the treaty from multilateral documents "demonstrate that the U.S. is clearly out of step with the rest of the international community on the subject of ending nuclear testing and curbing nuclear proliferation."
He said administration statements "leave open the option to test in the future, and I think that their current approach of rejecting the C.T.B.T. and continuing the moratorium is simply the most politically convenient approach given the overwhelming domestic and international support for a test ban and opposition to a resumption of testing."
The administration's first major success in altering the allies' publicly stated policy — though not necessarily their belief — on the test ban treaty was at the most recent meeting of NATO foreign ministers, this past May in Budapest.
The ministers' final communiqué said, "As long as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (C.T.B.T.) has not entered into force, we urge all states to maintain existing moratoria on nuclear testing."
The language of that compromise statement was in stark contrast to the previous meeting, in Brussels in December, when the ministers stated, "We remain committed to an early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and, in the meanwhile, urge all states to refrain from any acts which would defeat its object and purpose."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company