Withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty Is a Short-Sighted Mistake

Withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty Is a Short-Sighted Mistake

President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty is motivated by a desire to play to the ideology of his political base at home, not by any reasonable national security rationale. This is ironic, given that the greatest champions of Open Skies within the US have, historically, been Republicans.


The Treaty allows its 35 States Party to conduct short-notice flights over each other’s territories, using agreed and certified aircraft and sensors. The country being overflown is permitted to have observers on the aircraft, and the resulting data is shared, thereby ensuring the Treaty’s regulations and limitations on what can be acquired are being respected.

The US has been the great champion of Open Skies. President Eisenhower first proposed it in 1955 as a test of Soviet claims that Moscow wanted better relations and was prepared to accept arms control agreements. The Soviets failed. In 1989, with Russia appearing to want a new relationship, President George HW Bush proposed Open Skies again, and, once again, he intended it as a test of whether the Russians were serious.


See Prof. Jones’ book, Open Skies: Transparency, Confidence-building and the End of the Cold War, published by the Stanford University Press


While Mikhail Gorbachev was prepared to accept Open Skies, his military, still steeped in the Soviet attachment to secrecy, was skeptical and dragged its heels. It took significant pressure from the US, the other countries of NATO and what was then the Warsaw Pact and reformers in Russia to overcome this and achieve the Treaty after several years of negotiation.

Interestingly, it was the US that insisted on many of those aspects of the Treaty, which the Trump Administration now says are disadvantageous to America. The Russian military tried to impose restrictions on where the flights can go and what they take images of, but the US and its allies insisted that the flights be allowed to go anywhere and take images of anything. Today, American opponents of the Treaty charge that Russia is improperly taking images of infrastructure and other things, but that unrestricted openness is exactly what the US insisted upon. Moreover, the other countries in the Treaty, including the US, do it too.

Interestingly, it was the US that insisted on many of those aspects of the Treaty, which the Trump Administration now says are disadvantageous to America.

The sensor suite allowed by the Treaty was quite primitive, even by the standards of the time. The US and allies wanted a more sophisticated sensor package, but the Russian military held firm. The Treaty built-in a provision whereby the sensors could be upgraded in the future, but only if all members agreed. They subsequently did so, and the Russians have invested in the new sensor capabilities allowed under the revised rules. The US has, so far, chosen not to. Thus, in response to the claim that Russia’s flights return “more data” than US flights do, that is only because the US has not elected to spend the money to get the new sensors that are allowed for everyone.

America’s allies support Open Skies For them, most of whom do not have satellite capabilities, it represents their only opportunity to collect valuable information on Russia, and others, in an increasingly uncertain time. By killing the Treaty, the Trump Administration is dealing a blow to its allies, including some of its closest friends, for the sake of scoring a few political points at home. This has not gone unnoticed at a time when America’s friends are already questioning whether US leadership remains worth following.

President George H.W. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsi, January 1993 in Moscow. (David Ake/AFP/Getty Images)

Some issues have arisen with Russian compliance with the Treaty. They have used it to try to get others to accept their military takeover of neighbouring territories, and they have imposed some restrictions which make it challenging to overfly certain parts of Russia. These are not trivial things, but mechanisms exist within the Treaty to resolve them and are being used to do so. Some progress has been achieved. Most importantly, though they don’t accept Russia’s actions in this respect, the other Open Skies countries believe the Treaty should continue even as these problems are dealt with.

Trump’s announcement sets in motion a clock to US withdrawal. The President says that he hopes a new agreement can be reached in that time, or the present one “fixed.” Though they won’t say so publicly, America’s allies hope that the election in November will fix what’s really wrong here. In the meantime, they will try to keep the Treaty alive in hopes the US will re-join.


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