The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy argued for new attention to great power competition as key to U.S. defense — but there is a difference between focusing on the risk of such a conflict and actively inviting it. The latter is the effect of the administration’s reported new interest in making a unilateral exit from the Treaty on Open Skies, which grants mutual permission to send reconnaissance flights over the entire territories of its 34 party states. Crucially, one of the signatories is Russia.
The Open Skies Treaty was negotiated at the tail end of the Cold War and implemented in 2002. The theory is that being able to view each other’s armed forces at will can reassure each participant that the others are not planning for war. Now, according to the Wall Street Journal, President Donald Trump wants America to leave. This would be a dangerous mistake.
Following close on the heels of U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the uncertain future of the New START agreement, signed by then-President Ronald Reagan in 1987, exiting Open Skies would demolish another piece of de-escalatory infrastructure designed to avoid a crisis between nuclear powers. With U.S. and Russian troops in close quarters on opposite sides of tensions in Syria and Eastern Europe, now is the time for more diplomacy, not less.
It’s worth asking why the administration is considering withdrawal at all. Washington and Moscow have each put a few limits on flights over their territories — Hawaii and some other U.S. bases have been off limits, as have Kaliningrad and Russian-occupied Georgia. Unsurprisingly, both parties have duly accused each other of noncompliance with the treaty.
But those violations aren’t new, and the United States has long made far more use of Open Skies than has Russia: U.S. planes have flown three times as many surveillance missions over Russian territory than vice versa. We are getting more out of this than they are, and U.S. allies value the treaty as well. This is why then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in May 2018 told Congress he believed it is “in our nation’s best interest” to stay in the Open Skies Treaty, calling it a source of “greater transparency and stability” and a valuable “mechanism of engagement” with the other nations involved.
Mattis was correct. Open Skies is “important for stabilizing relations between the U.S., our European allies, Ukraine, and Russia,” as The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison explained. “If the treaty falls apart, it will make it that much harder for all parties to monitor what the others are doing, and that will contribute to an avoidable increase in tensions.” (A review of nuclear close calls between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War demonstrates this value well. Many of these crises could have been more easily resolved if an Open Skies-like deal were enacted when it was initially proposed in 1955.)
Given the benefit to American interests, what makes the treaty suddenly unacceptable in the White House? Likely more significant here than any participant nation’s behavior is the advice of former national security adviser John Bolton, who before his departure reportedly pushed the president to leave the agreement. Bolton is known to be a stubborn skeptic of arms-control treaties and diplomacy more generally, preferring military intervention as an all-purpose tool of U.S. foreign policy. He retains ideological allies on the National Security Council, and that influence on Trump remains pernicious.
Fortunately, the administration has yet to formally begin the process of withdrawing from Open Skies, which means this misstep may still be avoided. Trump can simply decline to submit the required six-month notice for U.S. departure. And contrary to what Bolton would counsel, this is the right move. Instead of dismantling an important safeguard against escalation, alleged treaty violations should be used as an occasion for diplomatic engagement to lower tensions rather than heightening them.
Leaving a useful, salvageable treaty that offers mutual assurance against attack is not a wise pivot toward great power relations. It is a reckless and unnecessary step toward great power war.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a contributing editor at The Week.