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The Open Skies Treaty Is Worth Keeping

Russian President Vladimir Putin By Harold Escalona/shutterstock And President Trump By Drop of Light/Shutterstock

The Trump administration is still determined to destroy the last vestiges of arms control:

The Trump administration is determined to withdraw from a 28-year-old treaty intended to reduce the risk of an accidental war between the west and Russia by allowing reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, which has put off a full national security council (NSC) meeting on the Open Skies Treaty (OST), the secretary of defence, Mark Esper, and secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have agreed to proceed with a US exit, according to two sources familiar with administration planning.

A statement of intent is expected soon, with a formal notification of withdrawal issued a few months later, possibly at the end of the fiscal year in September. The US would cease to be a party to the treaty six months after that, so if a new president were elected in November, the decision could be reversed before taking effect.

The Open Skies Treaty has been in the administration’s sights for some time. The president already signed a statement of his intent to withdraw from the treaty last year, and the administration is going to move ahead with ripping up another successful treaty in the next few months. It can’t be stressed enough that the case against the treaty is as flimsy as can be. Opposition to the treaty is not based on any real flaws in the agreement. It is driven by an ideological hostility to arms control agreements as such. Hard-liners seek to use minor Russian violations that have already been corrected to justify scrapping the entire treaty, and then they trot out an absurd fiscal argument that replacing the planes used for surveillance flights under the treaty is too costly:

One of the reasons Esper has cited for US withdrawal is to save money by not replacing the two Boeing OC-135B planes the US uses for its Open Skies reconnaissance flights.

Congress appropriated $41.5m last year for the cost of replacement but the Pentagon spending request published in February contained no budget for the new planes. Esper told Congress he was awaiting a decision from the president.

At the same time that this administration is throwing billions more at the nuclear arsenal itself, it is ridiculous to suggest that the U.S. cannot afford the modest sum required to replace these planes. The money is not the real issue. The treaty allows all parties to know what the others are doing, and that reduces the chances of escalation and misunderstanding that could lead to war. Leaving the treaty is the same as intentionally blinding ourselves. It will leave us with less information than we could have, and it will leave many of our allies in the dark as well since many of them do not have the capabilities to carry out these surveillance flights.

Beyond that, the treaty has a stabilizing role by ensuring that there is some ongoing cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. Kyle Mizokami writes:

The Open Skies Treaty is a symbol of cooperation between two distrustful countries, and in that respect, is a model for behavior. It’s also a calming mechanism: the act of allowing a potential adversary to overfly one’s territory is a clear and reassuring sign to the rest of the world that tensions between the two countries are low. Finally, participants on both sides get to know one another during the process, leading to more interaction and greater communication at the inspection level.

Hard-liners complain about Russian violations, but Russian violations aren’t the real issue, either. Russia briefly restricted flights over Kaliningrad in the past, but they have since allowed them to take place:

Russia imposed the limitation over Kaliningrad after a prolonged zigzagging Polish overflight in 2014 closed down aviation for a day. Russia allowed an extended flight over Kaliningrad in February.

When Russia has imposed restrictions over certain areas, the U.S. has responded with reciprocal restrictions. The U.S. has ways of responding to Russian restrictions that don’t involve scrapping the treaty. Hard-liners aren’t interested in making sure that the treaty is working well. As they always do, they just want to set it on fire. That is why leading opponents of the Open Skies Treaty have also been the ones in favor of leaving the INF Treaty and letting New START die. Hard-liners like Sen. Tom Cotton don’t want to replace these treaties with “better” agreements. They simply want to be rid of all of them. Any bilateral or multilateral agreement that requires the U.S. to cooperate with adversaries is anathema to them, which is why they are consistently opposed to real diplomatic engagement with adversaries.

The U.S. and our allies benefit from this treaty, and the benefits that we get from the treaty cannot be replaced by other means of gathering intelligence. Anna Péczeli mentions this as one of the advantages of staying in the treaty:

From an intelligence perspective, another advantage of observation flights is their promptness. Observation flights can be conducted on 72-hour notice, while it can take days to get satellites in place.

Our allies want the U.S. to remain in the treaty. Dana Struckman explained why last year:

The United States should stay in the Open Skies Treaty because it’s about much more than the competition with Russia. The world is watching the rapid erosion of numerous long-standing agreements including important nuclear arms control accords. Pulling out of Open Skies will put the European members on edge, and rightly so; European members view it as one of the last formal, active accords allowing for transparency and dialogue between two nuclear superpowers where they are stuck squarely in the middle. It’s no wonder numerous European signatories to Open Skies have made desperate pleas to the United States to salvage the treaty.

Having overflight rights over Russia gives the U.S. and our allies a much clearer picture of what Russia is doing than we would have otherwise. The OST makes Europe more secure, it reduces the chances of war between the U.S. and Russia, and it maintains a level of stability in the U.S.-Russian relationship that wouldn’t be possible without it. Abandoning the treaty doesn’t serve any American interests, and the only people that want to abandon it are ideologues that have never seen a treaty they didn’t want to kill.

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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