On May 22, the Friday before the long Memorial Day weekend, President Donald Trump’s administration announced the United States would withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty. Most Americans likely know very little about this nearly two-decades-old multilateral arms control agreement. Probably only a few noticed the announcement. Abandoning the treaty runs counter to U.S. national security interests and further alienates our NATO allies. Coupled with our withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty as well as the JCPOA (Iran Nuclear Agreement), this decision seems to be indicative of the administration’s desire to eliminate arms control as a tool of American national security policy.
Most Americans likely know very little about this nearly two-decades-old multilateral arms control agreement.
Opponents of the treaty are correct that arms control is a means to enhance American security and cannot be considered a policy goal or end state. The Trump administration's pivot, however, may encourage the American people to consider a critical question that has largely been ignored since the end of the Cold War: What is the role of arms control as part of U.S. national security strategy?
The New START Treaty between Washington and Moscow that limits American and Russian strategic nuclear weapons is the last major arms control agreement between the two countries. It is scheduled to expire in early 2021, and many experts fear the Trump administration is not vigorously pursuing renegotiations or an extension. Recent revelations that the U.S. is also discussing whether to conduct the first American nuclear test since 1992 are further cause for concern. Even the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which is due for review later this year or early in 2021, could be in jeopardy. Its collapse could result in the rapid proliferation of nuclear weaponry around the globe.
The original point of Open Skies was to add another square to the global patchwork of treaties keeping superpowers, and their allies, from doing something dangerous, avoiding miscalculations and enhancing crisis management. These were the primary reasons President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed that the U.S. and the USSR accept aerial reconnaissance flights over their respective territories in 1955.
Moscow rejected the proposal, arguing that the U.S. would exploit flights for espionage purposes. But President George H.W. Bush resurrected the idea in May 1989 to reduce tensions between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Negotiations began in February 1990 and an agreement was signed in 1992. The treaty was subsequently ratified by 27 nations from both alliances and entered into force on Jan. 1, 2002.
The Treaty on Open Skies created a regime of unarmed aerial observation flights over the territories of its now 34 signatories to collect data on military forces or activities. Any resulting imagery is shared with all nations. The goal of the treaty is to reduce the possibility of conflict by enhancing mutual understanding, transparency and confidence.
All participating states can conduct aerial reconnaissance over the territory of any other state or participate in joint flights that might include representatives from several countries. Open Skies has been described as “one of the most wide-ranging international arms control efforts to date to promote openness” in military forces and activities. Since its inception, over 1,500 flights have been conducted, with the U.S. flying three times as many flights annually over Russian territory as the Russians have flown over the U.S.
In his formal statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Russia of “flagrantly and continuously” violating the treaty. Still, the fact that no other ally joined America in pulling out of the treaty weakens Washington’s case significantly; indeed, many allies immediately announced their continued support for the agreement.
Pompeo argued that Russia had refused to accept flights near the border with the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia or over Crimea. This is true, but both are diplomatic issues stemming from Moscow’s occupation of territory following the Russia-Georgian War in 2008 and the illegal occupation of Crimea in 2014. The treaty cannot resolve these issues. Pompeo further pointed to restrictions imposed by Moscow on flights over Kaliningrad and “unjustifiably denying a “shared U.S./Canada observation flight over a Russian military exercise.” These accusations are also valid, but Russia recently accepted a flight over Kaliningrad without restrictions, and announced it would no longer raise objections to U.S. or allied flights over major exercises.
Clearly, the Russian Federation has consistently sought to stretch its interpretation of commitments under this treaty (and others) in often outrageous ways. Compliance issues exist, and the United States, in concert with allies, should always vigorously and publicly condemn Moscow for any treaty violation and use the Open Skies Consultative Commission in Vienna to air grievances.
It is also interesting to note how Trump administration officials have, in the past, described the value of Open Skies. In May 2018 then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis testified before Congress that the U.S. should stay in the Open Skies Treaty as it is “in our nation’s best interest.” Mattis described it as a source of “greater transparency and stability” and a valuable “mechanism of engagement” with the other nations involved. This was subsequently illustrated in December 2018 when the U.S. and its allies conducted an Open Skies flight to demonstrate their commitments to Ukraine following Russian seizure of Ukrainian naval vessels near the Kerch Straits.
Finally, withdrawal raises serious operational difficulties as well as allied questions about Washington’s commitment to NATO. It does guarantee that Russia can no longer conduct flights over U.S. territory, and Washington can still rely on its vast array of spy satellites to gather intelligence. But since U.S. allies remain committed to the agreement, Moscow (if it remains in the treaty) will still be able to conduct flights over all NATO territory, including NATO territory that is being used by American forces.
In May 2018 then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis testified before Congress that the U.S. should stay in the Open Skies Treaty as it is “in our nation’s best interest.”
Meanwhile, smaller allies such as the Baltic Republics will lose substantial access to Open Skies intelligence about Russian activities near their borders. Many do not have an Open Skies aircraft and have been dependent on the U.S. or other NATO partners for joint flights. Furthermore, the American intelligence community is historically reluctant to fully share similar intelligence gained from U.S. satellites or other sources due to its classification and the associated technologies used.
Clearly, the emerging security environment is fraught with great uncertainty and potential instabilities. New offensive capabilities such as cyberweapons, hypersonic systems, counter-space weaponry, and the impact of artificial intelligence will force policymakers to modify existing agreements and seek new mechanisms. Washington must also deal with apparent Chinese interest in expanding its nuclear arsenal, increased nuclear weaponry in South Asia, and the lingering question of North Korea.
Open Skies was not a panacea, but leaving the treaty demolishes another piece of the framework designed during the Cold War to encourage de-escalation and avoid a major crisis between the superpowers. At best, the withdrawal further isolates the U.S. and puts Washington on a path to an ever-spiraling arms race. At worst it increases the possibility of a nuclear conflict. Supporters as well as opponents of withdrawal would all likely agree — the world just became a little more dangerous.