Repairing Transatlantic Ties Begins with Joe Biden Returning to The Open Skies Treaty

Donald Trump’s antipathy to arms control strikes again. The Trump administration officially withdrew the United States from the Open Skies Treaty (OST) on 22 November, after serving the obligatory six-months’ notice.


This decision marks a further blow to the post-Cold War international security framework. Originally proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955(and then revived under George H.W. Bush in 1989), OST allows each signatorystate to conduct short-term unarmed reconnaissance flights over signatory states territory to gather data on military forces. The host cannot declare any area or military installation to be off-limits.


OST is notably the third international security agreement that Donald Trump has pushed to abandon from the Oval Office. In 2018, President Trump withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that limited Iran’s nuclear capabilities, even though the U.S.’s closest European allies, such as Britain, France and Germany, remained in the agreement. In 2019, the Trump administration withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, an agreement signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that banned an entire class of missiles.


The question now is whether the incoming administration will seek to re-join the agreement. It was made clear during this year’s campaign that Joe Biden hoped to restore U.S. relations with its closest allies. The president-elect is froma generation where multilateralism is a strong pillar of American foreign policy.


What this means to Europeans

OST has been a valuable international security agreement for European governments. For close to two decades, OST along with the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE) and the Vienna Document on Confidence and Security-Building Measures (VD), have been the building blocks of European conventional arms control and confidence-building architecture.


The Treaty is of particular importance to post-Soviet states that share a land border with Russia. The Baltic States, in particular, see OST as an important component of their security architecture,allowing their defence forces to observe the evolution of the military infrastructure of their Eastern neighbour. In addition to recording developments, observation flights offer Baltic defence forces the opportunity to forge closer cooperation with their American allies, who often play a leading role in observation flights. It was only at the beginning of this year that American military observers played a leading role in an observation flight, together with their Estonian and Lithuanian counterparts, in recording developments concerning military installations in the Western Military District of Russia and Belarus.


As the Treaty allowed the U.S. a maximum of 42 observational flights per calendar year, its departure from the Treaty creates additional difficulties, not least for the Baltic States, which benefit from far fewer observation flights. That said, Western European powers, in particular France, Italy and Germany, have notably expressed their willingness to remain firmly committed to the Treaty. Greater inter-European cooperation might be envisaged, but it will not replace the sophisticated space reconnaissance capabilities offered by the U.S.


The U.S. withdrawal also raises crucially the question of Russia’s future compliance. At first glance, given that Russia has conductedmany more observation flights over European states than over the United States, this maysignal that it wishes to continue to comply with the agreement. However, Russia is concerned that the Americans will continue to have access to observation flight data from their European allies.


The Russian government also expects treaty signatories will allow Russian forces to conduct observation flights over their entire territory, regardless of U.S. military sites.


These demands do not seem unreasonable. The agreement does not provide the opportunity for a country to deny another treaty party the opportunity to overfly U.S. facilities on its territory.  The treaty provisions provide guidelines, that imagery and other data gathered from overflights shall be shared only with other treaty parties. Equally, Moscow should also refrain from adopting unilateral rule changes on observation flights, especially over Russian exclaves and Russian-occupied territories. In particular, observation flights over the Kaliningrad Oblast have been restricted by Russia imposing a 500 kilometres flight distance limit over the exclave. It should also be noted that Russia has banned treaty parties from flying over the occupied Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, on the pretext that they are not members of the treaty.


These outstanding issues have consequently prevented treaty members from building effective confidence-building measures and have thus contributed to the growing opacity about Russian actions in the Baltic region and South Caucasus. With the departure of the U.S., the ability of Europeans to implement effective political and military measures likely to induce Moscow to return to compliance diminishes considerably.


Joe Biden’s position

During this year’s campaign, the former Vice President repeatedly stated his intention to return the global alliances and international agreements that President Trump abandoned or criticised.


Not surprisingly, Biden opposed Trump’s withdrawal from OST, citing in a statement in May, the benefits the agreement brings to the maintenance of international peace and security.


However, when Biden takes office in January, the former Delaware senator could face significant obstacles. The Trump administration is already preparing to get rid of the U.S. Air Force planes used for surveillance. The outgoing administration has notably taken the first steps to dispose two specially equipped Boeing OC-135B planes that the Air Force used for Open Skies flights. In July, the then-Defence Secretary Mark Esper also cancelled the program used to buy newer planes to replace the OC-135Bs, despite receiving$125 million from Congress last year for the first replacement aircraft.


Politically, a Biden administration could also face confrontation from the Senate. This is possible considering that the Republican Party currently holds a narrow lead in the upper chamber and could gain full majority when voters in Georgia fill the two final seats in the January 5 runoff elections. Prominent Republican senators, notably Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Richard Burr have been leading advocates for U.S. withdrawal from the OST, and will therefore oppose re-joining the agreement.


Equally, two Democratic victories in Georgia would divide the Senate 50-50, leaving elected Vice President Kamala Harris with the power to settle the deciding votes. A Democratic-led Senate, combined with a Democratic-led confirmed House, would give Biden a better chance to achieve his foreign policy goals.

Author: Kareem Salem

Kareem Salem holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of New South Wales. He is bilingual in English and French and has written for a number of international bodies. His main interests lie in transatlantic relations, the European Union’s Neighbourhood Policy and international trade and cooperation within the international system. Kareem firmly believes in multilateralism and considers it an important mechanism to support international peace and cooperation between nations.

December 31, 2020