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The Trump Administration’s Withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

By Rachel Feinstein

On November 22, 2020, the Trump administration officially withdrew the United States from the Treaty on Open Skies, one of a large number of important nuclear and arms control agreements entered into in the modern age.  The Treaty on Open Skies (“Treaty”) was initially proposed by President Eisenhower in 1955 to the former Soviet Union as a bilateral arms control endeavor.  The Soviet Union ultimately rejected the proposal and the current, multilateral version was then proposed in May 1989 under the George H.W. Bush administration.  After three years of negotiations, the final version of the Treaty was signed in Helsinki, Finland, on March 24, 1992, and entered into force on January 1, 2002; there are currently 33 signatories to the treaty (excluding the United States).  The Treaty allows each of the States party to the agreement to conduct a specific number of unarmed, reconnaissance flights over the entire territories of any other State-party to observe their military sights and equipment.  Through this process of consistent surveillance and information sharing among the State parties, the Treaty’s two main goals are served – (1) national security and intelligence gathering and (2) the development of trust, confidence and familiarity among the States party to the Treaty.  By withdrawing the United States from the Treaty, President Trump and his administration are not only hampering our intelligence gathering and sharing capabilities, but are also sending another clear signal to our allies in Europe, and around the world, that we do not care about their safety and security, thereby sewing more distrust of the United States amongst this group of our allies.

In his op-ed in the Washington Post, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) makes two main points advocating for the withdrawal – (1) the United States’ satellite capabilities make the treaty redundant, and (2) the United States leaving the treaty does not actually hurt our allies.  There are multiple issues with these arguments.  To begin with, redundancy, especially in the field of intelligence, is not necessarily a bad thing.  While the United States does have substantial satellite image-capturing capabilities, what happens if they miss something or the images are not as clear as they should be?  Leaving the treaty means we have lost an important resource for verifying our data collection in this region.  While the United States can choose to continue to share its satellite collected imagery with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a statement made after the United States announced it was leaving the treaty, noted that any images collected by the remaining State parties cannot be shared with the United States.  Second, Russia further noted that the remaining State parties must commit to allowing Russia to fly over their entire territories, including those areas where United States military installations may be present. This second aspect of Russia’s demands puts the United States at a disadvantage since, as a non-State party, we will not receive copies of the images collected, as we otherwise would have had we remained a party. Therefore, we now have no way of knowing what imagery Russia has captured of American military installations in NATO countries.  Finally, while withdrawing from the treaty might not hurt our allies on the surface, it further erodes the soft power that the United States holds, making us less able to help and protect our allies in other ways outside of this one particular treaty framework.

Ultimately, the secondary reasons for staying in a treaty that “[doesn’t] benefit the United States” overshadow the single reason for leaving it.  Although Russia may not be playing fair, staying in the treaty allows us to continue to receive passive intelligence collection from our allies, provides us with the ability to verify information collected from other sources, and continues positive interactions and trust with our allies in the region. While on its face, Russia’s seeming lack of compliance is bad, the positives to remaining in the treaty would seem to outweigh the negatives, calling for discussions between all of the parties involved to resolve the perceived issues, rather than just leaving the treaty all together.


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