Michael KreponMore Malfeasance on Open Skies

Lyric of the Week:

“There must be some kind of way outta here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief”

–  “All Along the Watchtower,” lyrics by Bob Dylan, best cover by Jimi Hendrix

Bob Woodward’s book Fear narrates the beginnings of Donald Trump’s disablement of the Federal Government. It contains the memorable scene of his economic adviser stealing into the Oval Office to remove a document ready for his signature. This executive order, prepared by someone with no business being anywhere near the White House, would have wreaked havoc with U.S.-South Korean ties.

Those were the halcyon days of the Trump administration. It’s been downhill since. Trump’s decisions and executive orders have been increasingly injurious to America’s international standing and relations with friends and allies. The big news in this regard during the opening of impeachment proceedings was, of course, Trump’s decision to let Turkey’s leader have his way with the Syrian Kurds. By comparison, Trump’s reported signing of an executive order withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty was small potatoes.

The Open Skies Treaty was first championed by Dwight Eisenhower and became a reality thanks to George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. This Treaty has always been easy to mock. It depended on aircraft after the advent of satellites, and it set limits on the parameters of cooperative aerial data collection, employing unclassified technology. Major powers have more exquisite ways of keeping track of what’s happening on the ground. Critics argue that Open Skies won’t tell U.S. officials anything they don’t already know, therefore it can be scrapped.

This critique completely misses three essential points. First, the best way to stay informed and to obtain early warning of troubling developments is to collect information from many sources, classified and unclassified. Open source intelligence is now part of the way countries make their way in the world. Second, most of America’s friends and allies do not have access to exquisite means of gathering data. They need help. Third, the primary value of Open Skies lies in cooperation rather than data collection. Open Skies is a useful vehicle for cooperating with the competition, allies, and weak states along the periphery of Russia.

The apparent decision to withdraw has yet to be announced by the White House. Perhaps it’s not too late to reverse it, but this would require someone in a position of authority around the President to explain to him that the United States, Ukraine, and the Baltic States would be the big losers from walking away from the Open Skies Treaty.

The big winner would be Russia. The Treaty allows for ride-sharing flights over Russian territory, facilitating political and military ties between the Pentagon and its counterparts among former Warsaw Pact states and breakaways from the Soviet Union. Anything that weakens these ties benefits Russia.

Why would Trump pull out of a treaty that benefits the United States more than Russia and extends U.S. influence in Central and Eastern Europe? The nominal answer is that Russia isn’t complying fully with the Open Skies Treaty. A few slivers of territory that Moscow holds in Georgia are off limits, and constraints have been imposed regarding flights over Kaliningrad. Moscow has been less accommodating to Open Skies flight crews than it should. Washington has imposed corresponding constraints on Russia and has developed workarounds. This has been going on for over a decade.

Noncompliance can be corrected if given a high enough priority with effective diplomacy backed up by a purposeful political-military strategy. If not, the United States still benefits more than Russia. So why walk away? Homicides continue, but we don’t disband the police force. And as Russian compliance problems go, Open Skies doesn’t doesn’t amount to a bucket of warm spit.

Last week I was interviewing someone for my book who contributed to the major arms and cooperative treat reduction successes during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations. When the topic of the Open Skies Treaty came up, we both shook our heads. This move has nothing to do with Conservatism. Conservatives don’t tear down something that’s working without something better to replace it.  Some kids on the playground and the beach get their kicks tearing down construction projects and sand castles. They don’t know how to play well with others. Grownups are still doing this in the administration and on Capitol Hill.

What could explain this latest tear down? My colleague wondered whether Open Skies was a topic of conversation between Trump and Putin. I confess to wondering whether the construction of Trump Towers in Istanbul has something to do with the betrayal of the Syrian Kurds. It’s easy to harbor these thoughts because of Trump’s commingling of personal and family gain with his presidency. His toxic relationship to Putin also casts a pall over his decisions.

There is a less conspiratorial, alternative explanation for Trump’s bad decisions.  He is a deconstructionist by nature and he simply doesn’t know any better. Trump is dismissive of alliances and friendships. He doesn’t have the sustained interest and skills to engage in successful diplomacy. His Secretary of State pleases the boss in unseemly ways. His new National Security Adviser doesn’t have the standing, knowledge and power to help prevent Trump from free falling. The new Secretary of Defense appears to pick his battles carefully, and so far, he either hasn’t picked one, or he’s lost.

For a while, James Mattis kept his fingers in the dike. He understood how political-military ties could reinforce U.S. standing and influence abroad. He insisted that the Air Force stop its foot dragging and upgrade U.S. Open Skies Treaty aircraft and sensors. He protected the Treaty from the Lilliputians. But he’s long gone.

Meanwhile, anti-arms control ideologues continue to hammer away at treaties. Trump has broken all records for withdrawing from international agreements and treaties; no other President comes up to his ankles. John Bolton is gone, but Tim Morrison remains, elevated by Bolton to run the National Security Council Staff’s dealings with Russia. The last time this portfolio was so ill-staffed was at the beginning of the Reagan administration, when Team B’s Richard Pipes temporarily gummed up the works. My guess is that Tim prepared the paper for Donald Trump’s signature and there was no one above him who knew better or was willing to remove it from Trump’s desk.


  1. Adam (History)

    All Along The Watchtower, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan – covered famously by Jimi Hendrix, and many others.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      thanks, Adam. Will fix this.

  2. Alcibiades Sánchez (@sectionfour) (History)

    Great explanation! Thanks for pointing out the practical value of the Treaty when there are many misconceptions being floated around. But please, “America” is NOT interchangeable with “United States OF America”.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      of course you are right. my error.