GP Insights

GP Insights # 359, 23 May 2020

The US to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty: Yet another Trump-drawal.
Harini Madhusudhan

What happened?
The US President Donald Trump announced on 22 May that the US will formally withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty in six months. Reiterating the intentions for the withdrawal, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, "We may, however, reconsider our withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance with the treaty" and limit its repeated violations of the treaty terms. Though the terms that amount to a violation remains unclear, this announcement comes at a time when multiple structures of arms control mechanisms have been collapsing.

What is the background?
First the Treaty in Brief. The Open Skies Treaty, signed in 1992 in Helsinki, came to effect in 2002 as a confidence-building measure among countries. The treaty under its conventional arms control architecture allows each of the 35 nations signatories to the treaty to conduct short-notice, unarmed, reconnaissance flights over the territories of another country and collect data on military forces and activities. The future of the Open Skies Treaty had been ambiguous since the fall of 2019 when the Trump administration began to hint that it was considering its withdrawal. The European side was well aware of the likeliness of such a decision since then.

Second, the US decision behind the withdrawal. In early April 2020, the US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seem to have agreed on taking the US out of the Open Skies Treaty, an understanding that they reached without convening the usual interagency process through the National Security Council or consulting others within the administration. Following this, a statement by Chris Ford, the assistant secretary of state for international security and non-proliferation, added that it could have been a combination of two particular reasons. The first was when Russia restricted flights over Kaliningrad and the second included restrictions on flying over Belarus. However, Ford stated that these cannot be seen as a violation of the treaty but as a contradiction to the confidence-building principle of the treaty. Russia denied the US allegations of the violations of the terms of the treaty and stated that the withdrawal would undermine global security.

Third, a general trend in the US walking out of global treaties. The US under Trump has been on a withdrawal streak from treaties, which include the Paris Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran Nuclear Deal, the INF treaty, and now the Open Skies Treaty. In all likeliness, most of these treaties were intended for arms control with a focus to extend relations with Russia. Simultaneously, the US has so far not been able to bring Russia and China on board to discuss a trilateral initiative for the future of arms control when the START treaty expires in February 2021.

What does it mean?
First, in the age of satellite surveillance, a treaty like this clearly seems to have lost relevance. If carefully planned, the US withdrawal could open up new opportunities to bring newer control mechanisms in place. Holding on to the symbolic relevance of the treaty for the relations between the US, Canada, European Allies, and Russia, this move reflects a sense of short-sightedness on the side of the US. 

Second, the withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty would make it harder to get Russia and China on board for discussions on START, the last of the arms control mechanisms that are in place at the moment. The deadline set for the withdrawal is close to that of the US Presidential elections, it is unclear if the Congress would allow such a withdrawal before the next Presidential election.

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