Foreign Affairs

Unfriendly Skies: Trump Wants to Scrap Valuable Intelligence Treaty

The president reportedly intends to pull the U.S. out of the Open Skies Treaty—will his party push back?
October 15, 2019
Featured Image
A Boeing OC-135B of the sort used by the United States as part of its Open Skies Treaty flights. (U.S. Air Force)

Just when it seemed like President Trump couldn’t possibly be entangled in any more controversies involving Eastern Europe, a letter this week from Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, indicated that the president may be considering withdrawing the United States from the Open Skies Treaty. Like the recent decision to abandon the Kurds in Syria, a move to quit the Open Skies Treaty would be geostrategically foolhardy—and could open another fissure between the Trump administration and congressional Republicans.

The Open Skies Treaty has its roots in the early Cold War, before the satellite era, when the United States flew planes on high-altitude missions to spy on the Soviet Union. President Dwight D. Eisenhower first proposed in 1955 that the two superpowers each permit the other to conduct routine reconnaissance flights over their territory, for the sake of transparency and reduced tensions. The Soviets rejected the idea. American spy flights over Russia continued until the Soviets shot down a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers in 1960.

Three decades later, the administration of President George H.W. Bush picked up the old idea, launching negotiations among NATO and Warsaw Pact countries on a treaty that would allow mutual overflights. Signed in 1992, the treaty includes most of the countries in Europe, including Ukraine and Russia, plus the United States and Canada. Since it went into effect in 2002, Open Skies has allowed each signatory state the right to conduct a limited number of military surveillance flights over the others, with advance notice of at least three days. The countries being observed have the right under the treaty to place monitors and an interpreter aboard the planes flying over their territory. Any country that signs onto the treaty can have access to the data collected from these overflights.

In recent years, the United States and Russia have been at odds over some of the treaty’s operational details, including possible upgrades to the sensor and recording technology permitted under the treaty. (Remember, the treaty antedates contemporary digital cameras.) U.S. and Russian defense officials have each accused the other country of failing to meet its treaty obligations, and neither country conducted any treaty flights over the other in 2018. (Overflights resumed this year.)

The value of Open Skies to the United States has only partly to do with the data gathered during overflights—after all, American spy satellites (like their Russian counterparts) already provide valuable intelligence without having first to coordinate with the country under observation, and with better ground resolution than is permitted under the treaty. But that was already true when the treaty went into effect.

The real value of the treaty to the United States has been the regime of mutual transparency that it put in place, helping to strengthen international norms of cooperation and openness, and thereby to contribute, at least in theory, to stability.

If the indications are correct that the Trump administration intends to withdraw from Open Skies, what response might be expected from congressional Republicans who are already in the midst of other foreign-policy-related fights? In recent days, several members of Congress have been willing to criticize President Trump’s decision to desert the Kurds—even some, like Sens. Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, who have actively defended the president over the Ukraine scandal. Why are these members of Congress willing to speak out for the Kurds but not for the rule of law? Maybe they consider the Kurdish crisis a grave moral matter (it is) but believe the Ukraine scandal is overblown. Or maybe because they believe that President Trump doesn’t care about the Kurds: It’s relatively safe for Republicans to criticize the president on policy grounds, since he cares very little about policy, but to impugn the president’s personal conduct or character—including by taking seriously the Ukraine scandal—is still too politically risky.

Senator Tom Cotton has criticized the Open Skies Treaty for several years for being outdated and because the Russians have failed to comply with it. In a statement released this week, Cotton said that “the president should withdraw from the treaty and redeploy the hundreds of millions of dollars the Pentagon wastes on Open Skies flights and equipment to increase U.S. combat power.”

But Cotton has not explained how withdrawing from the treaty would be a net gain for U.S. interests. And another Republican member of Congress—first-term representative Don Bacon of Nebraska, a retired Air Force brigadier general—has come out strongly against withdrawal. “The Open Skies Treaty promotes understanding, trust and stability among the 34 member nations,” Bacon said in a statement. “I’ve yet to see a compelling reason to withdraw from Open Skies.”

Withdrawing from Open Skies is, even more than the danger faced by the Kurds in Syria as a result of President Trump’s actions this week, an esoteric foreign policy question that is unlikely to resonate with most Americans. The number of voters who will cast their ballot based chiefly on the fate of the Open Skies Treaty is probably less than one. So if congressional Republicans come out in opposition to the administration on this issue, it poses little political threat to the White House.

But lots of congressional Republicans’ constituents care a great deal about whether or not their representatives in Washington are on Team Trump. That raises the costs of opposing the White House. If there’s a small chance the president will punish them for it, but that punishment also risks bringing the disapproval of Republican primary voters, silence starts to seem like a much more attractive tactic.

To stay in their voters’ good graces—and for the sake of tax cuts and judicial nominees—Republican members of Congress have been willing to keep largely silent about the president’s boorishness, bigotry, amorality, and illegal behavior. They have also been willing to forsake major policies that were once dear to their party—free trade, fiscal restraint, and a prudent opposition to abusive declarations of emergency. Have Republicans now reached a point of political paralysis at which they are unable to oppose President Trump even on a politically marginal but strategically important issue like Open Skies?

If so, we at least owe our allies fair warning.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.