Trump is junking a treaty—and two planes—designed to stop nuclear war

An early Open Skies Treaty flight gets underway.
An early Open Skies Treaty flight gets underway.
Image: Reuters
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Amid the foreign policy wreckage president Donald Trump will leave for his successor are a pair of scrapped aircraft that underpinned a treaty designed to lower the chances of nuclear war.

Since 2002, the US, Russia, and 32 other countries have allowed each other’s reconnaissance planes to fly into their airspace and snap pictures of the ground to give each party confidence that the other is adhering to arms control rules and not acting belligerently. Trump formally withdrew from the treaty this week after threatening to do so last year.

The Defense Department is taking the additional step of declaring the aging, specially equipped reconnaissance planes used for the mission “excess defense articles” to hand them off to foreign governments in an effort to kill the program for good.

The Trump White House objected to Russian non-compliance with certain aspects of the treaty—including denying access to airspace over certain military installations—but many  observers see the move as part of a worldview that will not tolerate constraints on US power. European allies and arms control advocates believed that pushing Moscow to adhere to the agreement was a smarter approach than withdrawing altogether.

“The treaty continued to enhance stability and reduce the risk of conflict in Europe and provide valuable information about Russian military forces,” Kingston Reif, a researcher at the Arms Control Association, told Quartz. “Our European allies and partners in particular benefited from the agreement, which is why they wanted us to remain a party to it and none of them supported that administration’s decision to withdraw.”

It’s likely that president-elect Joe Biden, an internationalist at heart, will revisit this decision and attempt to follow through with delayed plans to upgrade the plane’s sensors. He may have a straightforward path to putting it back into effect: The legislation that authorized US defense spending this year included a requirement that Trump notify Congress ninety days before exiting the treaty. Perhaps needless to say, that notification was not delivered.

“Upon taking office in January, president-elect Joe Biden should direct a review of whether the Trump administration’s withdrawal decision is legally binding on the new administration and what if any options might exist for the United States to reenter the agreement,” Reif says.

Also of note is China objecting to Trump’s decision, though it is not a party to the treaty, because it will destabilize international relations. But China has not been willing to enter arms control agreements, and the Trump White House has used that non-participation as an excuse to exit them. Still, rising tensions between the US and China—particularly in the South China Sea—mean the kind of confidence-building measures exemplified by the Open Skies Treaty should have a place in the Pacific.