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Trump Gives Another Gift to Hard-liners with Open Skies Exit

It is an unforced error and voluntary self-blinding.

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

The president has given hard-liners another gift with his decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty:

President Trump has decided to withdraw from another major arms control accord, according to senior administration officials, and will inform Russia on Friday that the United States is pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty, negotiated three decades ago to allow nations to fly over each other’s territory with elaborate sensor equipment to assure they are not preparing for military action.

Withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty is a serious mistake in its own right, and it portends the death of New START next year. The president has made no secret of his disdain for arms control and nonproliferation agreements, and leaving Open Skies will be the third such agreement that Trump has quit since taking office. The decision to exit the latest treaty is proof that the president’s antipathy to arms control was not just the result of Bolton’s malign influence. It also comes from the president’s own blinkered, zero-sum view of all diplomatic agreements. Hard-liners in the Senate, such as Tom Cotton, have been beating the drum against the Open Skies Treaty in particular, so the the decision this week is also a victory for them.

John Bolton was predictably thrilled with the news:

The only moments in arms control history that Bolton celebrates are the moments when important treaties are killed. He may no longer be in government, but Bolton’s agenda is still thriving and defining Trump’s foreign policy in many respects.

Quitting the treaty is a blow to our allies and other partners in Europe. They pleaded with the Trump administration not to do this, and they were ignored. While they remain parties to the treaty, many of them lack the capabilities to conduct the overflights to gather intelligence on Russian movements, so they will be in the dark along with the U.S. The treaty has had value as a stabilizing factor in relations between the U.S. and Russia, and it has made Europe more secure. Throwing the treaty away puts the U.S. and our allies at a disadvantage, and it introduces new uncertainty into the relationship with Moscow. For all of the president’s feigned interest in better relations with Russia, he has consistently acted in a way guaranteed to ratchet up tensions and increase distrust. Complaints about Russian noncompliance are just a pretext for scrapping a treaty that hard-liners have never liked. If they were really concerned about Russian noncompliance in one small area of their country, they would not be advocating for leaving the treaty and denying the U.S. the ability to conduct overflights over the rest of it. The restrictions that Russia has put in place around Kaliningrad are not serious enough to justify giving up on the treaty as a whole:

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the dispute about overflights near Kaliningrad does not warrant abandoning the agreement.

“Concerns about Russian compliance with the accord, though serious, are resolvable, pertain to political disputes between Russia and some of its neighbors, and do not rise to the level of a material breach that would merit US withdrawal from the treaty,” Kimball said.

He pointed out that even though Russia has imposed a 500 kilometer flight limit over Kaliningrad in contravention of the treaty, “a treaty flight by Estonia, Lithuania, and the United States in February over Kaliningrad flew for more than 500 kilometers for the first time since Moscow imposed the sublimit in 2014, according to an April 8 report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant.”

The only way to resolve these concerns successfully is to stay in the treaty. Once the U.S. is out of the treaty, it will be in no position to fix anything. It is an unforced error and voluntary self-blinding. The treaty is worth keeping, and abandoning it makes no sense.

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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