For Better or for Worse? US Quits the Open Skies Treaty
A treaty which was meant to deliver openness and transparency has once again been rejected by the United States. On May 21 the Trump Administration announced that it will be withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty.
What is the Open Skies Treaty?
This multinational treaty is one which gives signatories the right to conduct surveillance overflights over any part of member state countries. The treaty was the initial brainchild of 34th American President Dwight Eisenhower to de-escalate fever-pitch Cold War tensions. However, that plan did not work out entirely, as the Soviet Union considered it a deal which would give the other side an advantage in monitoring military prowess. The landmark treaty was penned in 1992. It went into effect in 2002 with 34 members in total.
The treaty is a bit tricky to analyze. According to the treaty, members can take aerial footage of the host nation but have to give a 72-hour notice beforehand. Officials from the host state can also be a part of the flight in consideration. Keeping a check on military activity was the key idea behind this treaty which was re-proposed by American President George W. Bush in 1989. It was based on the workings of former President Eisenhower. A post-cold-war era was not the best place to live in despite many agreements and cooperation for peace and security. The treaty aimed to keep in check disarmament and arms control agreements. Nearly 200 flights have been conducted by the United States and 70 by Russia since 2002.
When Will the US Officially Exit the Treaty?
With the United States now having given a six-month notice prior to its actual withdrawal without a consultation with Congress, there are many questions that may come to mind. Some of them will focus on “whether the treaty was beneficial” or was it just another “vague commitment towards safety and security?” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s press release elaborated as to why the United States was opting out of the treaty. The top American diplomat stated that President Trump’s main goal is “to safeguard the rights of Americans and their interests.” National security was also another key topic and so was Russia. The main talking point behind the withdrawal has throughout been Russian non-compliance. Pompeo added that if Russia starts to obey and regards the treaty, the United States will reconsider coming back on board.
Russia Isn’t Following the Rules
What Pompeo said was actually true. Russian non-compliance has increased over time. Russia restricted the United States from conducting overflights in its border with the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and south Ossetia, went on to ban flights over Crimea and limited flight duration over Kaliningrad. These moves did violate the treaty but one must not forget that the United States also restricted overflights over Hawaii. Pompeo has gone so far to say that Russia has “weaponized” the treaty.
Now one may ask what the consequences will be for the United States and global security overall? For starters, this move may come as a shock for many of the members who have still vowed to respect the treaty by being a part of it. Another reason why the United States has opted out is because of the increasing tensions with China. From economic warfare, to sanctions and blaming China for expansion and autocratic rule over Hong Kong and Taiwan, the United States has proven that Sino-U.S. relations can intensify over the coming period. This also leaves members in limbo as to why the United States has withdrawn from this treaty. The consequences can be immense. This would also allow the United States to beef up military activity across the country without being monitored.
Russian and US Imaging Capabilities
The United States and Russia both possess highly advanced satellites which can capture complex images. Through these satellites, the need to conduct overflights is rendered null and void as they can virtually capture images of any location around the world without having a treaty in place. The international arms control framework has lost almost all of its credibility. The United States has withdrawn from the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), has refused to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty and has shunned the Intermediate Range Nuclear Force Treaty (INF). Such moves not only increase the possibility of a direct confrontation but also decrease the importance and relevance of cooperation in an ever-changing world. Instead of easing tensions, all this will lead to risky misunderstandings which will be hard to curb in the future.
The future of arms control depends on who will win the American elections this November. If Trump manages a successful victory, the damage could be far worse than it is today. However, if Democrats win, the problems could be limited to a large extent. The Democrats have already said that alliances should not be undermined and that the Open Skies Treaty is a key tool in monitoring Russia’s military endeavors. At this point in time, a professional and strategic approach would be in the best interest of everyone involved and will safeguard the security of allies who now believe that the United States will eventually turn back on all of its promises.