Trump’s Withdrawal From the Open Skies Treaty Jeopardizes US National Security
(October 17, 2019) — Among the things the current president will be remembered for, besides his mendacity, ignorance, and vulgarity, will be his legacy of tearing up international treaties and agreements designed to keep Americans safe, casually discarding them at the urging of the very neoconservative ideologues he repeatedly lampooned in 2016.
The latest victim in Trump’s ongoing assault on US national security is the Open Skies Treaty, a landmark multilateral agreement among 34 nations that provides the guidelines for treaty signatories to conduct unarmed reconnaissance flights over the territory of other member states, in order to promote “greater openness and transparency in their military activities and to enhancing security by means of confidence- and security-building measures.”
Open Skies will soon join the Iranian Nuclear Accord, the Paris Climate Agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Arms Trade Treaty on the ever-growing scrap heap of international agreements that have been discarded seemingly without so much as a second thought by this most reckless of US presidents, whose “America First” foreign policy has morphed, not entirely unexpectedly, into that of “America Alone.”
Open Skies meant Open Eyes over global weaponry. Now Trump wants the world to fly blind. (Image: The New York Times)
Former California governor Jerry Brown, who is now the executive chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and serves on the board of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, tells me that in his view, “Walking away from this treaty is dumb. Congress should stop this madness before it’s too late! We need more transparency, not less.”
California Representative Ro Khanna, a leading progressive foreign policy voice on Capitol Hill, also criticized the move. “The fact that the president made this decision without consulting Congress is yet another example of his administration’s disrespect for our constitution,” Khanna told me.
“Instead of withdrawing from landmark multilateral arms control agreements,” said Khanna “the United States should get back into the INF Treaty, extend New START before it expires, and stay in the Open Skies Treaty to avoid a new, costly, and dangerous arms race with Russia. We have to foster a diplomacy rooted in dialogue and diplomacy.”
Arms control expert Alexandra Bell, who worked on the Open Skies Treaty and served as the senior adviser in the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, told me that it is not even clear that “the president has a good idea of what the treaty is and why it is important,” and that the move has been met with confusion and alarm among our closest allies.
According to Bell, “Various parties to the agreement, including the UK, France, Germany and Canada, have all requested more information on the US policy position.” Allies were caught off guard, because “less than a week ago, the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had just participated in a ceremony celebrating the 1500th flight under the agreement.”
Bell told me that it appears that “there is a small group within the White House who have tried to keep the relevant agencies and departments away from the decision, not dissimilar to the lack of interagency process that defined the withdrawal from the INF.”
Some have speculated that the administration is opting out of the treaty because of allegations that Russia has repeatedly violated its terms. But the point of treaties such as these is to preserve open avenues for discussion and conciliation when violations do occur.
Simply scrapping them makes a new and dangerous arms race with Russia all the more likely, which is perhaps—given the fact that the administration’s current defense secretary, Mark Esper, is a former top lobbyist for the defense contractor Raytheon—the point.
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