Withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty confirms US foreign policy decay under Trump
25 May 2020|

Washington’s announcement on 21 May that it is unilaterally withdrawing from the Treaty of Open Skies has been rightly condemned as an irresponsible national security misstep. Although there is substance to the US’s claims that Russia has repeatedly violated its commitments under the treaty, which has been signed by 35 countries and allows them to conduct unarmed observation flights over one another’s territory as a confidence-building measure, the decision to step away from it when the global security environment is deteriorating is yet another example of the destabilising and ultimately self-defeating foreign policy of the current US administration.

The main thrust of Washington’s rationale for withdrawing appears to be that Russia has been in violation of its treaty obligations by denying the US flyover rights in certain locations. The US also argues that Russia is using imagery obtained on flyovers ‘in support of an aggressive new Russian doctrine of targeting critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe with precision-guided conventional munitions … Russia has, therefore, weaponized the Treaty by making it into a tool of intimidation and threat.’

Given that Russia operates satellites equipped with greater imagery capabilities than Open Skies aircraft—which, ironically, is also one of the issues identified by critics of the treaty who see the flights as redundant—one of Washington’s key defences of its decision appears hollow. The US has also gained a number of advantages from the treaty and has arguably been a net beneficiary of being a party to it.

The US withdrawal is also difficult to understand because it will be clearly disadvantaged by the decision. Russia will be permitted to continue observation flights over US military bases in Europe, provided Moscow remains party to the treaty.

But this is merely the latest instance of the White House taking a path that appears contrary not only to the US’s long-term security interests but also to the objectives of international arms-control efforts.

In 2018, President Donald Trump delivered on his threat to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program, which had successfully wound back Tehran’s enrichment efforts and provided the international community with unprecedented visibility of Iran’s nuclear activities. At the time, Trump said that the US would work on finding a ‘real, comprehensive, and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear threat’.

And while the US is no closer to a new deal with Iran today, what the White House’s strategy has done is prompt Tehran to resume nuclear activities prohibited by the JCPOA, in the process cutting in half the time it would need to produce enough weapons-grade fuel to build a nuclear bomb.

In 2019, Washington formalised its withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, citing Russian non-compliance as the reason. While Russia clearly had a case to answer in this context, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a valid point when he observed that, ‘Instead of engaging in a meaningful discussion on international security matters, the United States opted for simply undercutting many years of efforts to reduce the probability of a large-scale armed conflict, including the use of nuclear weapons.’

Washington is also showing signs that it may sabotage prospects for extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by insisting that Russia bring China to the negotiating table before the US will support its renewal. There’s almost no chance China will agree, and Washington’s insistence on Chinese participation has been assessed as potentially a ‘poison pill’ intended to kill off prospects for a new arms-control treaty.

More worryingly, on 23 May reports emerged that senior US national security officials have discussed conducting the first US nuclear test explosion since 1992 in order to establish a negotiating position for discussions with Moscow and Beijing on a trilateral deal to regulate their respective nuclear arsenals. Such a move by the US would have far-reaching consequences: it would likely kill off any prospect of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty ever coming into force and it would potentially trigger a new round of testing by nuclear-weapon states, starting a new arms race.

The common thread running through these cases is the Trump administration’s tendency to use a strategy of brinkmanship to force the US’s favoured negotiating outcome in contentious arms-control agreements, rather than traditional diplomacy. But there are also signs that the US is potentially rethinking its overall approach to international arms control.

The newly appointed US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, Marshall Billingslea, has said that the US ‘know[s] how to win these [arms control] races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion’. He went on to note that Trump ‘has a long and successful career as a negotiator, and he’s a master at developing and using leverage’.

More broadly, the US’s repudiation of key arms-control arrangements may also suggest antipathy on the part of the current administration towards the idea of international agreements. As noted by the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, the US’s withdrawal from Open Skies, ‘has nothing to do with the Open Skies Treaty and everything to do with the fact that the contemporary [Republican Party] sees international agreements as a stain on our sovereignty’.

The Trump administration has hollowed out the expertise of the US State Department, so it shouldn’t be surprising that constructive voices have been lost in the foreign policy debate in Washington.

At the start of 2018, a year into the Trump presidency, US think tank the Center for American Progress observed that ‘President Trump has needlessly alienated America’s allies; stoked tensions and heightened risks with little to show but damaged credibility; squandered the goodwill of people everywhere; and surrendered the high ground of America’s moral and global leadership.’ Since then, the Trump administration has continued to chip away at the foundations of the international security architecture.

But the greatest tragedy of the Trump administration from a foreign policy perspective is that this disruption has come at a time when the world needs constructive US leadership in international affairs more than it has in decades.