Withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty signals pattern in international relations and arms control

By Galen Fitzkee
In a 1980 Annual Conference statement titled “The Time Is so Urgent: Threats to Peace,” Brethren recognized a potential nuclear arms race as one of the most pressing political problems for peacebuilders to address. Amazingly, 40 years later we find ourselves on similarly shaky ground where the barrier between stability and hostility appears increasingly thin. By recently committing to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, the current US administration has compromised the systems set in place to avoid an arms race or military engagement–and the church should take notice.

Unfortunately, but importantly, we have a unique opportunity to advocate for peace and speak out against US government decisions that undermine peaceful relationships with our neighbors around the globe.     

The current administration has made a habit of withdrawing from international organizations, trade agreements, and treaties of all kinds throughout their term. As a brief refresher, these include but are not limited to: the Paris Climate Agreement, UN Human Rights Council, Iran Nuclear Deal, Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Most recently, in late May the administration set its crosshairs on the Open Skies Treaty by announcing its commitment to withdraw, effective in six months. This move further highlights the administration’s propensity to pull out of arms control treaties and to insist on isolationist foreign policy instead of cooperating with other global powers such as China and Russia. The uncompromising message of the US is clear and, while some praise this hardline approach, the resulting increase in tensions has troubling implications for the future of peace and cooperation around the world.

The Open Skies Treaty was signed into existence by President George H. W. Bush to increase accountability and transparency among the more than 30 signatory nations. Surveillance flyovers of foreign military operations permitted under the agreement are an important means of intelligence-gathering for many nations and reduce the chances of miscalculations leading to military conflict. Despite these noble goals, some US government officials have accused Russia of undermining the agreement by temporarily banning flyovers in areas where military operations could be present and allegedly using their flyovers to spy on important US infrastructure. Those that oppose this decision, including European allies, have pushed back, saying that the decision was hasty and ultimately weakens the national security of the US and that of countries that rely on its intelligence.

The repealing of the Open Skies Treaty is only one concern; the manner and context in which a decision like this is made also requires scrutiny. In the midst of a global pandemic that demands worldwide solidarity and cooperation, a move such as this should raise questions about timing. Perhaps Congress, European allies, or even perceived adversaries could have been consulted before simply abandoning an important tool for gathering information and a symbol of mutuality.

A more measured approach to renegotiating the treaty’s flaws could have had a profound impact on all parties involved and communicated a desire to work together rather than gain the upper hand or foment distrust. Director of the Church of the Brethren Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, Nate Hosler, summed up the church’s perspective this way: “While no institutions or treaties are perfect, we have long affirmed efforts to reduce war and risks of escalation as well as build trust and cooperation between peoples and nations.” 

Ultimately, we should wonder if this pattern will continue to result in the dismantling of additional arms agreements, which could make the world less secure. The withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty raises questions about the related New START Treaty that limits nuclear proliferation in the US and Russia. New START is up for renewal in February 2021, and while formal negotiations have yet to begin, its continuation is not a foregone conclusion.

At the same time, the “Washington Post” has reported that the National Security Council has discussed conducting the first nuclear weapons test in nearly three decades. On top of those rumors, in reference to a question about a nuclear arms race, Marshall Billingslea, Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control, has stated, “We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion, and if we have to, we will, but we sure would like to avoid it.”

It is our sincere hope that a plan to “avoid it” will be set in place, but we have yet to see evidence of this and should be wary of the current trajectory of arms control agreements and international cooperation. Precedent has been shattered in the case of the Open Skies Treaty and other arms control treaties, so it is difficult to know how to respond and act.

In a 1980 statement for peace, the Church of the Brethren called for “bold and creative initiatives” to avoid an arms race or wasteful military spending, which are still relevant requests. Today’s administration has given us reason to believe the likelihood of these events may be higher than ever before, and we as a church should take this opportunity to speak up for peace.

As Hosler reminds us, “Jesus’ call to peacemaking includes interpersonal as well as geopolitical efforts to create a safer and more peaceful world for all people.” The Office of Peacebuilding and Policy seeks to stay informed about threats to peace, inform our church community, and promote action on a personal and governmental level. In this case, we can express our support for arms control reform including the renegotiation of the Open Skies Treaty.

Cooperation rather than competition must drive our international relations, and sensitive negotiations are best conducted calmly and carefully. In the end, peace is created by both the healthy relationships between nations and the voices of the people within those countries who deeply desire and sustain it.

— Galen Fitzkee is an intern in the Church of the Brethren Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. Sources for this article include: www.brethren.org/ac/statements/1980-threats-to-peace.html and www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/trump-administration-discussed-conducting-first-us-nuclear-test-in-decades/2020/05/22/a805c904-9c5b-11ea-b60c-3be060a4f8e1_story.html .

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