On Thursday, May 21, the White House confirmed that the United States will withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty. This will be the third arms-control treaty that President Donald Trump has withdrawn the country from since taking office in 2017.
The announcement of the withdrawal has been met with shock and dismay from politicians and military personnel from both sides of the political spectrum. The Trump administration justified the withdrawal by claiming that Russia had broken the treaty.
What is the Open Skies Treaty?
The Open Skies Treaty, a post-Cold War accord between 35 countries, was signed on March 24, 1992, under the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Its origins go back more than half a century to 1955 when then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower advocated for a pact between the US and the Soviet Union (USSR).
The treaty allows the member states of the accord to conduct reconnaissance flights over the other countries in the agreement to observe military activities and equipment. This allows member states to keep track of potential military escalation.
The flights must be unarmed and they require at least 72 hours advance notice before they can be conducted. That notice must be answered within 24 hours by the intended flyover country.
The original 27 member states to sign the treaty in 1992 were Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Kyrgyzstan, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States.
It took nearly a decade for all of the nations to ratify the treaty, with the treaty entering into force in 2002.
There are currently 34 member states who have signed and ratified the treaty, including Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Kyrgyzstan has signed but not ratified the treaty.
Trump pulls out of peace treaties
On Thursday, Trump confirmed that the US would be withdrawing from the treaty it had helped negotiate into existence nearly three decades ago. Trump and his political allies have said that Russia has been “cheating” and violating the accord. In response, the US will withdraw from the treaty, with the Trump administration stating that it hopes this will force Russia to renegotiate.
Discussions to withdraw from the treaty had been ongoing for months, with Trump signaling in 2019 that he was considering withdrawal. Some foreign policy experts have expressed concerns that the treaty will fall apart altogether once the US withdraws, essentially abandoning the US’s European allies.
This is not the first arms control treaty that Trump has withdrawn the US from since taking office.
While campaigning in 2016, Trump frequently criticized the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly referred to as “the Iran deal.” That deal, signed by President Barack Obama, lifted sanctions on Iran in return for the country abandoning its pursuit of a nuclear program.
Ultimately, Trump followed through on his campaign promises and withdrew from the deal in 2018. The US imposed new sanctions on Iran while abandoning the pact that had been endorsed by the UN Security Council and involved China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom.
Trump also announced in October 2018 that the US was withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. That treaty was signed by President Ronald Reagan and the USSR’s General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987.
According to the US State Department, the INF Treaty “required the destruction of U.S. and Soviet ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles (“GLBMs” and “GLCMs”) with a range capability between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, and their associated launchers, support structures, and equipment.” This treaty was aimed at reducing nuclear weapons.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations determined that Russia had violated the treaty and attempted to enforce compliance. Following a six-month period starting in February 2019 in which Russia failed to return “to full and verifiable compliance,” the US officially abandoned the treaty.
Prior to the US leaving the INF Treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin had stated that the US was using the withdrawal as a pretext for being allowed to build up a stockpile of the previously banned weapons. In response, Putin said, “we will also do this.”
The US has also accused Russia of violating the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) signed in 1996, though there is no publicly available evidence for that claim.
The European Leadership Network has expressed concern that the Trump administration is undermining the CTBT by making unsubstantiated claims against Russia.
Reactions to Trump’s decision
In withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty, following previous withdrawals, Trump has been accused of abandoning allies around the world and opening the door to another arms race.
Former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Secretary of Defense William Perry, both members of Republican-led administrations, had written to Trump to urge him to not abandon the treaty.
General Michael Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA), replied to the news that Trump was withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty by saying simply, “This is insane.”
Hayden served with the CIA and NSA under both Republican and Democratic administrations.On Thursday, Senator Edward Markey and Representative Jimmy Panetta, both Democrats, introduced the Preventing Actions Undermining Security without Endorsement (PAUSE) Act into Congress. The bill, proposed in response to what Markey called Trump’s “reckless withdrawal,” would require Congressional approval before the US could withdraw from international treaties.
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