If Bush decides to skip the conference or send a low-level representative, it is likely to invite new criticism at home and abroad that he is curtailing U.S. cooperation in international efforts to address some pressing issues.
Bush has repudiated the Kyoto pact on reducing pollution to reverse global warming; has said the United States will pull out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty so it can develop a missile defense; and has rejected as unworkable a draft agreement on enforcing an international ban on biological weapons.
The U.N. conference on the treaty to ban nuclear tests is set for Sept. 25-27 in New York and is to examine ways to put the treaty into force. The pact cannot take effect until all 44 countries with nuclear reactors ratify it.
The United States was the main force behind the treaty and signed it in 1996 during the Clinton presidency. The Senate refused to ratify it in 1999. Twelve other nuclear nations, including China, North Korea, India and Pakistan, have not ratified it, either.
Bush argues that the treaty cannot be verified because small-scale nuclear tests are impossible to detect. He has said that he has no plans to end a 1992 U.S. moratorium on nuclear test explosions but that the issue was under review. Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have said the United States must be free to conduct nuclear test blasts to ensure the safety and reliability of the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Dozens of foreign ministers are expected to attend the U.N. conference. It will coincide with the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, where Bush will speak Sept. 24.
Some State Department officials believe other countries could infer from a U.S. boycott that the administration has decided to repudiate the treaty.
Even low-level U.S. participation "will reinforce the idea that . . . we are not fulfilling our responsibilities to the rest of the world," said Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, an advocacy group.
Another senior administration official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the fact that the administration believed the treaty was flawed did not mean Bush thought the United States should abandon its global commitments. "The notion that we are turning our backs on the world is nonsense," the official said. " . . . Many people in this country and world would like to ignore the fact that the Senate turned this treaty down."
Jonathan S. Landay's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Warren P. Strobel of the Inquirer Washington Bureau contributed to this report.