Why Withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty Is No Big Deal

In late May, the Trump administration withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty, a move that prompted the requisite jeremiads about the international order, arms control, and the fecklessness of the Trump team in general. The laments drew on the same wellspring of freude prompted by the administration’s 2018 withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), and tut-tutting about the possibility that the administration will decline to extend the New START Treaty upon its expiration early next year. And in the spirit of consistency, all echoed the breast-beating and rending of garments that limned termination of the ABM Treaty in 2002, and pretty much every other arms control agreement ever.

Notwithstanding the operatic responses to this latest perceived depredation, the question of the agreement’s actual efficacy is one the administration’s critics would prefer not to address. And like too many such accords, Open Skies was little more than paper—superseded by technology, ignored or abused by the parties it was most intended to constrain, and constraining the United States in ways detrimental to national security. The same can be said of New START, the INF, and many others. This is not to say that arms control or supranational agreements are intrinsically bad things, far from it; but they are inflexible documents that too quickly develop quasi-biblical followings among those who value international piety over principle and practice.

Open Skies was first proposed under the Eisenhower administration, when the notion of wet photography from aircraft flying over the territory of unfriendly countries seemed positively cutting edge. But it was too cutting edge for the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and lay dormant until revived by the George H. W. Bush administration a few decades later, mostly because, White House officials from Bush 43 tell me, he needed something to agree on with Russia. It didn’t even enter into force until 2002, almost half a century after it was first mooted. While it provides countries with the right to make unarmed reconnaissance flights on short notice over the territory of other signatories to collect data on military activities like troop movements and exercises, the utility of using overflight for that purpose was already fading in 1992; by 2002, there was little that couldn’t be done better with satellites.

The management of Open Skies withdrawal was a textbook operation, particularly by Trumpian standards. The administration consulted with NATO allies about Open Skies, posed a series of detailed questions, and offered to backfill any lost capabilities for NATO members hoping to benefit from America’s superior overhead intelligence capabilities. It made meticulous note of alleged Russian abuses, namely using the treaty to facilitate the mapping of U.S. strategic infrastructure and test military command and control. And officials explained clearly to anyone who might listen how Moscow has been refusing Open Skies requests, including over Russian-occupied territories in Georgia and Ukraine over which only the Kremlin believes Russia has veto power.

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