Home/Daniel Larison/Abandoning the Open Skies Treaty Makes No Sense

Abandoning the Open Skies Treaty Makes No Sense

Trump took another step towards ripping up another successful arms control treaty:

The Trump administration has taken steps toward leaving a nearly three-decade-old agreement designed to reduce the risk of war between Russia and the West by allowing both sides to conduct reconnaissance flights over one another’s territories, U.S. officials said.

The withdrawal would mark a further step toward dismantling the post-Cold War arms-control framework, already buffeted by the demise of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the uncertain fate awaiting the New START accord on U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear arms, which expires in 2021.

President Trump has signed a document signaling his intent to withdraw the U.S. from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, two U.S. officials said.

Even after Bolton is gone, his destructive influence keeps driving Trump’s foreign policy off a cliff. Bolton-allied officials on the National Security Council continue to press for pulling out of yet another useful agreement, and Trump is clueless enough to go along with them. There is no serious argument for scrapping the Open Skies Treaty. The treaty permits overflight rights for all parties to the treaty, and that grants the U.S. and our allies access to monitoring Russian movements inside their country in exchange for granting the same to them. It is a great example of a multilateral agreement that reduces tensions and helps to keep the peace. The treaty is important for stabilizing relations between the U.S., our European allies, Ukraine, and Russia. If the treaty falls apart, it will make it that much harder for all parties to monitor what the others are doing, and that will contribute to an avoidable increase in tensions. U.S. withdrawal undermines the treaty and runs the risk of encouraging Russian withdrawal as well. The entire architecture of arms control is being burned to the ground, and this president has been the chief arsonist.

The Open Skies Treaty represents a great success of U.S.-led diplomacy after the end of the Cold War. It was unanimously ratified by the Senate in 1993. It is a legacy of the George H.W. Bush administration, and it is an important and underappreciated contribution to international security. This is different from withdrawing from the INF Treaty, where the administration had the excuse of quitting over Russian violations. The alleged minor breaches of the treaty by Russia do not warrant throwing out the treaty as a whole. The only people that want to get rid of this treaty are ideological hard-liners that despise any and all arms control agreements no matter what they are. When the chief opponents of an agreement are John Bolton and Tom Cotton, you can be sure that the agreement is worth preserving. Once again, Trump is mindlessly following the advice of hard-liners to the detriment of U.S. and allied security. Alexandra Bell and Anthony Wier put it very well last week when they said this:

Walking out of the Open Skies Treaty would simply squander one more inherited asset that has paid solid, steady returns for American national security.

Former Secretary of State Shultz, former Defense Secretary Perry, and former Sen. Nunn wrote a recent op-ed in defense of the treaty:

The treaty has authorized more than 1,426 missions, including more than 500 U.S. flights over Russia, which is by far the most overflown and best-monitored country in the treaty. The flights, scheduled on short notice, provide valuable photographic evidence of major military movements across Europe, reducing uncertainty and worries about surprise attack. They add important information to what satellites provide.

The treaty stipulates that mission aircraft can be equipped only with specified sensors limited to an agreed resolution. By agreement of all parties, including the U.S., a process is under way to upgrade the sensors. These detailed, verifiable procedures allow observing parties to identify significant military equipment, such as artillery, fighter aircraft and armored combat vehicles. All imagery collected from flights is made available to any signatory.

Abandoning the treaty makes no sense. It would mean giving up the access that the treaty currently provides, and that would leave the U.S. with less than it gets now. The only reason to quit the treaty is to satisfy some dimwitted ideological obsession with undoing the arms control agreements of the past. Quitting the Opens Skies Treaty will harm U.S. and allied security, and it will be yet another reckless act of international vandalism by the Trump administration.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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