Polarization, the Open Skies Treaty, and the Future of U.S. Treaty Commitments

by Christopher Riehl

On May 21st, 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his intent to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty. This is an agreement between 34 North American and European nations, including the United States and Russia, that permits each member state to conduct short-notice, unarmed, reconnaissance flights over other countries’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities. The stated goal of the treaty is to enable states to verify that their neighbors are not preparing for military action.

President Trump’s decision immediately launched a debate on the implications of U.S. withdrawal which was largely split down partisan lines. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) denounced the move as reckless, arguing that withdrawal “directly harms” U.S. interests. However, administration officials defended the move. Both Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and the Department of Defense reiterated that the decision to withdraw was a direct result of repeated Russian violations of the Treaty. Opinion outside of government is similarly divided, with some analysts claiming that U.S. withdrawal is no big deal and that the Trump Administration was fully justified in pulling out, while others see it as self-defeating and a mistake.

Missing from this discussion is how the American public views the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the treaty. To fill this gap in understanding, the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL) at Western Kentucky University conducted a web survey via mTurk of 1,026 American respondents on July 7, 2020. Respondents were randomly assigned to one of four groups. All groups received the same baseline information describing the Open Skies Treaty and the recent announcement of the United States’ intent to withdraw, but some groups received additional information. Group 1 received no additional information, Group 2 received information supporting withdrawal, Group 3 received information opposing withdrawal, and Group 4 received information both supporting and opposing withdrawal. The specific information received is outlined as follows:

·      Group 1: No additional information provided.

·      Group 2: Added “The Department of Defense asserts that Russia continuously violates the Treaty, despite efforts by other members, and Russia’s actions undermine America’s security.”

·      Group 3: Added “The Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee asserts that the Treaty provides stability and transparency and helps hold Russia accountable as it conducts flights, including over NATO and American bases.”

·      Group 4: Respondents received both pieces of above information from Group 2 and 3.

All respondents were then asked, “Do you support U.S. withdrawal from the treaty?”

Across all four groups, an average of 74.5% of Democrats opposed withdrawal from the treaty while 67.7% of Republicans supported withdrawal, confirming that opinion on Open Skies withdrawal is divided strongly down partisan lines.

This division in opinion is emblematic of the increased polarization of U.S. foreign policy in recent decades. Relatedly, the Open Skies Treaty is not the first international agreement to divide American public opinion down party lines. For example, while 67% of Republicans supported U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, 80% of Democrats opposed it. While 51% of Republicans supported withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, 84% of Democrats opposed it. Lastly, while 73% of Republicans supported withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), 74% of Democrats opposed it. Divided partisan opinion on Open Skies Treaty withdrawal is thus both reflective of the polarization of American foreign policy and the widening debate on whether international agreements are in the national interest or not.

Stanford University political science professor Kenneth Schultz identifies three major ways that polarization complicates U.S. foreign policy. First, polarization increases the difficulty of generating bipartisan support for military action or confirming treaties. Second, it discourages agreement on foreign policy failures in order to learn from them and adopt better future practices. Third, it erodes the United States’ ability to plan long term as presidential administrations change from one party to the other, resulting in dramatic policy swings.

Partisan divides on U.S. treaty withdrawals, as well as this new survey data on the Open Skies Treaty, demonstrate that a fourth complication to U.S. foreign policy needs to be added to Schultz’s list: polarization corrodes America’s ability to remain in international treaties and honor previous commitments across administrations. Consequently, the United States will find it increasingly difficult to help solve long term global problems that require close coordination with other nations – such as combating climate change or mitigating the spread of contagions – if Washington cannot guarantee that it can remain in a given agreement from one administration to the next.

The next test of U.S. commitment to international treaties will be New START, the last arms control agreement between the United States and Russia, which is set to expire in February 2021. The U.S. President has the authority to extend the agreement until 2026. Divided partisan opinion on withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty indicates that a Democratic president is likely to have a political incentive to extend the treaty, while a Republican president is expected to withdraw.

Opinion on the utility of international treaties cuts directly to the heart of how Americans think their nation should engage with the world and, as this public opinion data shows, Democrats and Republicans have drawn deeply opposing conclusions. If U.S. policymakers cannot rely on international agreements forged in one administration to carry over to the next, they will be increasingly forced to pursue unilateral solutions to complex international problems that, in reality, are most effectively handled through long term, multilateral agreements.

This piece is republished from The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

Leave a Reply