The US has decided to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, which allows its 35 signatory states to observe each other’s activities in order to curb aggression and monitor military buildup. The treaty’s origins can be traced back to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s visionary leadership, which Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush built on, resulting in the powerful non-
With Open Skies, countries can perform what are known as “short-notice observation flights” over each other’s territories, subject to agreements such as the type of observation planes, their routes, the equipment they carry and even the image resolution. Images are shared with all other treaty parties — meaning Open Skies is built on the kind of international coordination and cooperation that the White House loathes, despite their immediate tangible benefits in separating facts from paranoia or false assumptions. Additionally, it builds confidence among treaty parties and even the world at large that countries with the means to wage devastating wars are not wantonly worsening tensions, especially in troubled parts of the world.
Open Skies has worked in conjunction with other non-proliferation treaties and agreements to create a formidable nuclear safety accord that has reduced the world’s nuclear stockpile by 85 percent. Ideally, no country should even have such weapons given the extreme risks they pose, but this incomplete reduction is welcome given the fractious era that preceded it.
Flawed or incomplete as the world’s nuclear policies may be, they have been in place for the past 75 years and some successes can be attributed to them. They leave a record fraught with myriad examples of what works and what has failed — which is exceedingly important given that the current global nuclear arms stockpile of about 13,400 missiles is still capable of wiping out all life on the planet in a single afternoon.
Unfortunately, with Open Skies now under threat combined with widening geopolitical rifts across the globe, the nuclear powers have ceased crucial negotiations and dispensed with collaboration on containment and suppression. In their place is escalatory rhetoric, a rush to upgrade arsenals and a dangerous disengagement placing the world on a terrifying path reminiscent of the 1960s, when the Soviet Union thought it was a good idea to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, less than 200km from the coast of Florida.
Unfortunately, with Open Skies now under threat combined with widening geopolitical rifts across the globe, the nuclear powers have ceased crucial negotiations and dispensed with collaboration on containment and suppression.
Granted, there are plausible arguments in the current White House’s stance, since Russia plays hard and fast with the treaty’s principles. Fortunately for the US and its allies, even Russia cannot circumvent or undermine the ironclad common-sense notions and overall purpose of Open Skies so much as to render it meaningless; the US has still been able to gather valuable data on Russian military movements in flights over Russia and Belarus. But the White House has decided to back off completely, shocking its allies, who are now urging the administration to reconsider.
Unsurprisingly, Russia pledged its continued commitment to Open Skies. Washington (yet again) has dropped the ball on this invaluable tool of national security, especially to countries that lack satellite imagery of their own. To Moscow’s benefit, a US exit from Open Skies creates an impossible dilemma for the Euro-Atlantic alliance. European countries have declared their commitment to Open Skies but because they host US military assets, Washington may pressure them to reject Russian overflight requests.
Predictably, Russia will want overflights over these assets, and when rejected it may ban Open Skies overflights over its own territory. This is a nightmare scenario for countries that have built parts of their military intelligence and national security apparatus around the data collected by Open Skies overflights. On the other hand, if European allies ignored Washington, the latter may threaten to pull out their assets, which will have ramifications for NATO and could set back Euro-Atlantic relations decades.
While the allegation that Russia misused imagery acquired from Open Skies overflights is concerning, it should not have warranted Washington storming out of this invaluable tool of global arms control. The matter should have been left to the treaty’s dispute resolution mechanisms, which have worked in the past to resolve issues. Instead, the disproportionate step of leaving Open Skies is part of a larger pattern of an American all stick, no carrot attitude to international relations that favors bravado and angry rhetoric over carefully thought out policy positions and their timely implementation. The America of old preferred collective strength over the variety, lethality and quantity of its armaments. The new “America First” has only ever amounted to “America Alone.”
Quitting Open Skies risks a return to Cold War era militarization. Ongoing internationalized proxy wars raging in Libya, Syria and Yemen, along with the increasing sophistication of non-state militant extremists in the Sahel and parts of the Middle East, mean the opportunities for the use of dangerous weaponry are rife.
The time has come for a return to the spirit of transparency, cooperation and pragmatism that gave birth to Open Skies; these recent developments need not be a death knell but a wake-up call to our shared humanity.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advance International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell