Trump White House ditches yet another disarmament deal, ponders new nuke tests and announces U.S. withdrawal from WHO

Open Skies Treaty

For nearly two decades, the Open Skies Treaty has allowed its members to gather information on each other’s military forces and activities through aerial surveillance. With 34 States Parties, including the United States, Russia and most European countries, the multilateral accord has facilitated 1517 short-notice and unarmed overflights. Throughout its operation, the treaty has increased military transparency and predictability, helped build trust and confidence, and enhanced mutual understanding (ELN Statement of 12 May 2020).

News reports on 21 May that the Trump administration had made the final decision to leave the Open Skies Treaty were met with a chorus of pleas to reconsider from the arms control community, in Congress and even from a former CIA director who called the idea “insane”.

Thomas Countryman, the former U.S. acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security and now chair of the board of the Arms Control Association, stated:

The Open Skies Treaty has helped preserve the post-Cold War peace. It allows the 34 participating nations, including the United States and Russia, to fly unarmed observation aircraft over one another’s territory. This helps preserve a measure of transparency and trust, thereby enhancing stability and reducing the risk of conflict…

Kingston Reif, Arms Control Association director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, underscored the bipartisan support in Congress for this treaty (originally negotiated by the George H. W. Bush administration) and the failure of the current U.S. government to follow legal notification requirements before withdrawal.

The Trump administration cites Russian non-compliance in the Kaliningrad region as a motivating factor for its decision, but the Arms Control Association press release notes a change in Russian behaviour in relation to

a joint U.S.-Estonian-Latvian treaty flight over Kaliningrad this year that was not subjected to the earlier Russian restrictions” …[and the fact that] Russia will no longer raise an “objection” for the United States and its allies to “fly over one of their major exercises.”

A statement from President Reagan’s former Secretary of State, George Shultz, former Senator Sam Nunn, and former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry from an October 2019 article in the Wall Street Journal, reacting to the initial administration threat of withdrawal, was also cited by the Arms Control Association:

As with any treaty, implementation disputes arise. Current disagreements are related to underlying territorial and political issues between Russia and some of its neighbors. But these problems can be solved through professional, pragmatic diplomacy, not by abandoning treaty commitments.

Veteran Canadian arms controller Peter Jones, now a University of Ottawa Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, offers this rationale:

President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty is motivated by a desire to play to the ideology of his political base at home, not by any reasonable national security rationale. This is ironic, given that the greatest champions of Open Skies within the US have, historically, been Republicans.

For the full text of this excellent blog post, which deftly skewers other American complaints about the Treaty, see: Withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty is a Short-Sighted Mistake, (, 27 May 2020).

The 12 May European Leadership Network (ELN) statement, signed by 15 former senior European politicians and security personnel, specifically addresses the role of the remaining 33 states parties in the event that the U.S. made good on its withdrawal threat. This statement has particular relevance to Canada and Hungary, the depository states of the Open Skies Treaty:

Should the United States withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, remaining State Parties must make a determined effort to consider its effect on the treaty. According to Article XV.3 of the treaty, if the United States withdraws, Canada and Hungary must convene a conference of the States Parties no less than 30 days and no more than 60 days after they have received a withdrawal notice. Parties should adopt a position of maximum flexibility.

Whither Canada?

Syrine Khoury, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, said Canada views the Open Skies Treaty as a key tool of global arms control, while “understand[ing] and shar[ing] many of the U.S. concerns regarding Russian non-compliance with the Open Skies Treaty”.  She further stated that:

Canada will consult with other state parties to determine the impact of the Trump administration’s announcement on the treaty’s continuation….

While this careful diplomatic language is understandable in light of the overriding need to maintain the best possible relations during the pandemic with the “malignantly narcissistic” Trump administration,  we call on Canada, as a custodian of the Open Skies Treaty and one of its key architects, to engage in quiet but determined diplomacy to shore up the Treaty in the wake of an almost certain U.S. defection.

Reckless Trump talk on using new nuke testing as “negotiating leverage”

Alarm over security-undermining actions of the Trump administration was heightened further by a 21 May Washington Post report — repeated in part by the — that senior White House national security officials had discussed whether to conduct the first U.S. nuclear test explosion since 1992 in a move that “would have far-reaching consequences for relations with other nuclear powers and reverse a decades-long moratorium on such actions”.

The moratorium is against the backdrop of the successful negotiation in 1996 of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which now has 168 states parties and has been signed by all five officially recognized nuclear weapons powers (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the USA). The U.S. Senate has not ratified the treaty, nor have a number of the other nuclear-capable states whose ratification is required for the Treaty to come into effect. (Note that Russia has ratified the Treaty, but China has not. North Korea has neither signed nor ratified it.)

The U.S. has accused both Russia and China of carrying out very low-yield tests in secret, but both countries have denied the accusations, which are not substantiated by publicly available evidence.

According to the Washington Post, the main reason cited by officials for a possible resumption of underground nuclear testing was that:

demonstrating to Moscow and Beijing that the United States could “rapid test” could prove useful from a negotiating standpoint as Washington seeks a trilateral deal to regulate the arsenals of the biggest nuclear powers.

Former U.S. Senator and co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) Sam Nunn joined former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernst J Moniz in a statement that disputed any technical need for such tests and ridiculed the argument that a resumption of testing would create “negotiating leverage” with either the Russians or the Chinese:

A test intended to create “negotiating leverage” would have just the opposite effect. It would make it even harder to dissuade North Korea from conducting more tests and continuing to expand its nuclear arsenal and would eviscerate any constraints on other nuclear capable states, as well as potential adversaries, like Russia and China.

Moreover, a resurgence of nuclear testing may not be reversible for decades, paving the way to new nuclear weapon states and the development of even more destructive nuclear capabilities and elevated risks from others—a legacy no president should want.

Non-governmental organizations have also condemned the proposal. The Abolition 2000 Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons (in AGM format) unanimously adopted a statement on 23 May condemning the reported White House discussion of resuming nuclear weapons testing.

John Burroughs, Executive Director of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and one of the statement’s drafters, said:

Testing of nuclear weapons evokes nuclear apocalypse, as in the days of US-Soviet brinksmanship. It must not be resumed. At the same time, we must recognize that the capabilities for apocalypse remain in place, and are being maintained and improved in the absence of nuclear explosive testing. This too must be brought to an end.

The only good news is that this horrendously wrongheaded proposal is still at the preliminary discussion state. There is confusion over its exact status, with the proposal being described as “very much an ongoing conversation” or “shelved” in favour of other measures.

Global women leaders appeal to honour International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament and the 75th anniversary year of the United Nations

237 women leaders from more than 40 countries, including several from Canada, joined an appeal entitled Human security for public health, peace and sustainable development, released today to commemorate International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament (May 24, 2020) and the 75th anniversary year of the United Nations.

As women legislators, religious leaders and civil society representatives from around the world we call on governments and policy makers to transcend national borders, differing political persuasions and diverse religious beliefs in order to advance humanity’s common interest for peace, public health, disarmament, sustainable development and ecological responsibility.

The appeal, which was organised by Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (PNND), Women Legislators’ Lobby (WiLL) and World Future Council (WFC), calls on governments to cut military expenditure and increase their focus and budgets on human security and global cooperation, in order to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, address climate change and ensure a sustainable future.

The appeal supports, in particular, United Nations initiatives for peace and disarmament, including the global ceasefire initiative and the UN Secretary-General’s Agenda for Disarmament.

A press release was also issued which included a series of additional comments by the signatories, including:

Countries like Canada with a long tradition of multilateralism and UN engagement whilst also holding membership in NATO, a nuclear-armed alliance, have a special responsibility. It is long past time for a shift to sustainable peace and common security, as envisaged by the UN Charter, and Canada must help make that happen.
Peggy Mason (Canada), President, L’Institut Rideau Institute. Former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament to the UN.

Canadian Parliamentarians who signed the appeal include Liberal MP Hedy Fry and NDP MP Heather McPherson.

The appeal has been sent to all Heads of State, plus heads of key UN and international bodies.

Click here for the full appeal, here for the list of signatories and here for the accompanying press release.

Honouring UN Peacekeepers on 29 May

May 29 is International Day of UN Peacekeepers. In commemoration of their ongoing service and in the hopes of a greater Canadian contribution we feature an article by two Canadian experts, Walter Dorn and Robin Collin – which first appeared in the Hill Times on 25 May, 2020 – entitled: UN peacekeeping works but Canada’s contribution falls to all-time low:

Canada has maintained deployments of hundreds to the NATO missions in Latvia and Ukraine for many years, so why have we so much trouble providing a few hundred soldiers and police to UN missions, even for short periods? It seems a sad reflection on the government.

For the full article (in pdf. format) click here.

Late-Breaking news: Trump announces U.S. pull-out from WHO

At approximately 3 pm today, 29 May 2020, American President Donald Trump announced the complete U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) in the middle of a global health crisis. There are no words adequate to describe the sheer depravity of this action.


Photo credit: Council on Foreign Relations (Open Skies Treaty overflights)

Tags: 75th anniversary year of the United Nations, Abolition 2000, Arms Control Association, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), European Leadership Network (ELN), Former Senator Sam Nunn, Global Women Leaders Appeal, International Day of UN Peacekeepers, International Women's Day for Peace and Disarmament (24 May 2000), Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, North Korea, nuclear capable states, nuclear testing moratorium, Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), nuclear weapons states, Open Skies Treaty, Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (PNND), Peter Jones, Women Legislators' Lobby (WiLL), World Future Council (WFC), World Health Organization (WHO)