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Transatlantic Relations Will Further Wane as the U.S. Pulls Out of the Open Skies Treaty

24 Jun 2020
By Kareem Salem
OC-135B Open Skies aircraft in flight.  This aircraft is used primarily for unarmed observation to support Open Skies Treaty. Source: US Air Force

The United States’ participation in the Open Skies Treaty has always been essential to its operation and to the defence of the security interests of its European allies in the post-Cold War era. The decision will affect American security interests, as the U.S. loses a valuable means of gaining intelligence on Russian military activities and forces.

Amidst the growing deteriorating global security environment, Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to pull the United States from the Open Skies Treaty clearly marks yet another blow to the post-Cold War international security framework. This treaty, negotiated at the end of the Cold War and implemented in 2002, constitutes one of the most extensive international efforts to encourage openness and transparency in relation to military forces and activities between Russia and the West in order to enhance stability and reduce the risk of conflict.

The Open Skies Treaty is the third building block in international arms control structures that Donald Trump has pushed to abandon since coming to office in 2017. The American president has withdrawn from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program, demonstrating Trump’s determination to eliminate arms control as a tool of American national security policy and willingness to alienate Washington’s European allies in NATO. The formal withdrawal from the treaty will take place in six months, according to the agreement’s terms.

This crucial arms control treaty has helped keep the post-Cold War peace by allowing unarmed aerial observation flights over the 34 states party to the treaty. The 30 European signatories have particularly benefited from the treaty, which has enabled them to make crucial observations of Russian military movements without the need for spy satellites or high-tech equipment. Indeed, the Open Skies Treaty allows signatories to photograph existing facilities, construction, and troop movements during flyovers.

The treaty is of valuable importance to the smaller European countries, especially to the Baltic states which share a land border with Russia, where cooperation with the American military has been invaluable in coordinating the observation flights and in ascertaining the degree of the Russian security threat to the region. On February 19 and 20, observers from the U.S., Estonia, and Lithuania conducted an flyover of Russian military installations in their Western Military District. The U.S. played a leading role in the observational flight, enabling the gathering of information pertaining to Russian military activities and forces. The U.S. conducts far more flyovers of Russia than vice-versa.

Yet the U.S. does have some valid complaints about Russia’s compliance with the treaty. The Trump administration has been correct to convey that Russia has breached its treaty obligations, particularly in preventing U.S. observational flights along its border with the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and over Kaliningrad. This has consequently raised opposition to the treaty, especially from Donald Trump’s own political party. Indeed, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, raised the case for U.S. withdrawal. The potency of a fellow Republican’s views, coupled with the open letter backing of other Republican senators, notably Richard Burr and Ted Cruz, indicates a reasonable level of domestic support from Trump’s decision to withdraw.

It should also be noted that the U.S. has imposed limitations on Russian flights over U.S. territory, notably over Hawaii. Both leading nuclear powers are also known to have operated imagery satellites, whose capabilities are equal to or greater than those permitted of Open Skies aircraft.

Russia’s explicit manoeuvres to undermine its treaty obligations appear to have been successful in influencing the U.S. president to withdraw the United States from the treaty. From Russia’s perspective, a U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty would shift the blame from a non-compliant Moscow onto Washington. Indeed, Washington’s European NATO allies, including France and Germany, have expressed their regret over Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nearly two-decade-old agreement.

For generations, transatlantic relations have been the cornerstone of American foreign policy. Donald Trump has sought to rupture this post-Second World War commitment by undermining this special relationship. During Trump’s first NATO summit, he voraciously attacked his European allies for not spending enough on defence. During the Helsinki and London summits, the leader of the White House accused Germany of being “a captive of Russia and clashed with Emmanuel Macron on the number of Islamic State fighters with European backgrounds. More recently, the Trump administration has sought to procure medical equipment at all cost from its European allies, notably wresting control of medical shipments destined for France and Germany. These actions have inevitably undermined U.S. diplomatic relations with its closest allies.

The misguided decision to remove the U.S. from the Open Skies Treaty will only provide new ammunition for Europhile political groups to challenge U.S. military presence in Europe. The German Social Democrats parliamentary leader has already sought to fuel debate, calling for the termination of U.S. nuclear weapons presence on German territory, in light of the change in nuclear strategy under Donald Trump.

The decrepitude of global arms control treaties requires Europe to adapt to these new challenges. This is important considering that the U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty will likely lead to the departure of Russia from the treaty. Moscow will feel inexorably disadvantaged by being a party member to the treaty and fear that European overflights in its airspace will compromise its military strategic interests and advantage the West.

To protect Europe’s security environment from a revisionist Russia requires European powers to maintain their defence spending and cooperation. In 2019, defence spending across the continent was up by 4.2 percent – the biggest uptick in a decade. Yet as European governments seek to implement financial stimulus into their economies and health systems in response to the halt in economic activity during the coronavirus lockdown, it is feared that national defence budgets will be affected. The European Commission has responded to this potential predicament by proposing €8 billion (U.S. $9 billion) to Europe’s Defence Fund in a seven-year plan beginning in 2021 – designed to foster intra-continental defence cooperation. Deeper European defence integration is now more than ever important to enhance Europe’s ability to act and defend.

Kareem Salem is a freelance journalist and holds a Masters in International Relations from the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.  

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence, and may be republished with attribution.