Secretary of Defense James Mattis travelled to Asia to calm nerves in Tokyo and Seoul. America’s Asian allies have been unnerved by President Donald Trump’s dismissive rhetoric about alliances based on cost/benefit grounds, and his decision to dump the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. America’s European allies are also deeply unsettled by Trump’s bad-mouthing of NATO and his inclination to view alliances as business transactions. Part of Secretary Mattis’s and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s job descriptions are to help a President who shoots from the lip and whose understanding of geopolitics is skin deep.
Secretary Mattis’s domestic audience is no less important than his interactions with foreign leaders. Much of the American public could use a refresher course on the value of alliances. Alliances are one important way in which the United States separates itself from other major powers. Russia has Belarus. China has North Korea and Pakistan. The United States has alliance partners that span the globe. These partners benefit from U.S. defense ties, while Washington benefits from their geography, bases, expeditionary forces, and military capabilities. Forward-deployed U.S. forces provide visible bonds of common purpose. It would be senseless to loosen these bonds when Russia and China are flexing their muscles and uncertainties abound about America’s direction. Backtracking would invite risk-taking, and risk-taking could invite crises and clashes, whose outcomes could alter power balances in Asia and Europe.
The Pentagon is already taking steps to reaffirm and strengthen the NATO alliance. It is rotating the presence of U.S. air, ground, and sea-based forces in Europe. It is conducting bilateral and multilateral training exercises with allied forces. Military equipment is being prepositioned in the Baltics and elsewhere. Infrastructure is being improved. These and other measures are being carried out under the aegis of the Pentagon’s European Reassurance Initiative. The Obama Administration requested $3.4 billion in fiscal 2017 for these initiatives – quadrupling funding from the previous fiscal year. One clear indicator of the Trump Administration’s thinking and Congressional intentions toward NATO will be whether this $3.4 billion investment in collective security is slashed or increased. Follow the money as well as Trump’s rhetoric.
Another step the Trump Administration and the Congress can take to strengthen NATO is to recommit to the Open Skies Treaty first envisioned by President Eisenhower and negotiated during the George H.W. Bush Administration. President Bush challenged Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to prove that he truly supported openness, or glasnost, by agreeing to accept cooperative overflights with planes carrying approved, commercially available sensors. These aren’t spy missions, since everyone knows the flight plans and the sensors use unclassified technology. Gorbachev agreed, as did the rest of the Warsaw Pact and NATO. The Treaty permitting cooperative aerial overflights from Vancouver east to Vladivostok was signed in 1992. It took a decade to revise implementing procedures to reflect the dissolution of the Soviet Union and to secure the necessary ratifications. Since 2002, more than 1,000 cooperative missions have been flown – an extraordinary testament to the foresight of Presidents Bush and Eisenhower.
What began as a symbol of openness has now become an effective means of reassuring allies and states around the periphery of Russia. The most useful aspect of the Open Skies Treaty is the ability of states to “ride-share.” This allows the United States Air Force to operate with friends and allies on board while overflying Russia. The United States is allowed 21 cooperative over-flights of Russia under the terms of the Treaty. The Air Force has partnered with Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Italy and others. This list might usefully be expanded to signify solidarity in these troubled times.
What’s not to like? Some critics simply don’t like treaties, and they are working diligently to dismantle them. One reason in this case is that opponents object to the Treaty’s openness – the very reason for its negotiation – because it could facilitate Russian spying. But the United States can exercise a veto over any new, unclassified sensors carried on cooperative over-flights. Another reason is that Russia isn’t entirely cooperative about Open Skies flights – especially over parts of Ukraine, Georgia, and Kaliningrad – the heavily armed Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania. The answer here is to keep pressing for full compliance, not to forfeit the benefits of the Treaty.
The biggest impediment to reaping the Treaty’s benefits lies with the U.S. Air Force. Open Skies isn’t its priority. The two U.S. monitoring planes are old and prone to mechanical difficulties – in sharp contrast to new Russian planes. A new Boeing 737 costs around $50 million; the Air Force’s requirements could double this number, so two new Open Skies planes would cost around $200 million. By adding these funds to the European Reassurance Initiative, Secretary Mattis and Members of Congress can clearly demonstrate America’s commitment to European friends and allies.
Note to readers: An earlier version of this piece was published at Breaking Defense on 2/7/17.