Peter L. Jones. Open Skies: Transparency, Confidence-Building, and the End of the Cold War. Stanford: Stanford Security Studies, 2014. 264 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-9098-7.
Reviewed by Heather P. Venable (Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (November, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Peter Jones's Open Skies: Transparency, Confidence-Building, and the End of the Cold War explores what is perhaps an underappreciated legacy of the Cold War: that the United States, Russia, and thirty-two other nations may fly over each other's territory to conduct reconnaissance thanks to the Open Skies Treaty, which was negotiated between 1989 and 1992. The treaty thus serves as a "confidence-building measure" (CBM) that helps to foster trust between nations by providing evidence that a potential adversary is not actively preparing for war.
Although this work is more of a diplomatic history, Jones earned a PhD in war studies from King's College. In 1989, Canada's Department of External Affairs hired him to work in its Verification Research Unit of the Arms Control and Disarmament Division. This occurred just as Open Skies negotiations began; Jones thus attended all three Open Skies conferences and contributed to Canadian bureaucratic policy regarding the treaty. Based on this experience, he seeks to challenge some of the negative perspectives of the treaty's negotiating process by providing insights into its complexities. In short, Jones counters the treaty's reputation for being notoriously Byzantine in what is the first monograph focused on the treaty's origins.
Suggested by President Dwight Eisenhower as early as 1955, Soviets quickly rejected the idea; President George H. W. Bush then proposed a similar but expanded program in 1989. In many ways, President Bush believed that the United States would benefit whether or not the Soviets agreed to the treaty. The US could gain information and assurance of Soviet intentions if the USSR agreed, or it would win favorable publicity in the court of public opinion if the Soviets refused to be a party to the treaty. At the time, some critiqued Bush's idea, arguing, in part, that space reconnaissance assets made Open Skies irrelevant. Jones, by contrast, insists that these kinds of overflights not only provide unique capabilities and insights but also serve to foster trust and openness.
Open Skies rode the coattails of another treaty: the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which was signed in 1990. CFE sought to verify the restrictions on conventional forces and military exercises in hopes of preventing a large, surprise conventional attack. The fact that the Soviet Union subsequently moved much of its military equipment east of the Ural Mountains and thus out of the CFE-negotiated verification zone also facilitated increased support for Open Skies amidst a continued atmosphere of distrust.
One of the key challenges of implementing Bush's vision for Open Skies, as opposed to Eisenhower's, was that the former called for a multilateral approach that included far more NATO and Warsaw Pact members. Nations disagreed over a variety of key issues. For example, the issue of whether a nation's size should determine the proportion of overflight sorties it would receive pitted smaller nations against larger ones in the bargaining process.
Just as problematic were divisions within individual nations. In particular, US bureaucrats disagreed about the treaty's utility depending on the extent to which they gathered intelligence as the "collectors" or acted as "protectors" to safeguard national secrets. As in the negotiations for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), this dichotomy of views proved to be one of the greatest challenges to Open Skies' success. These kind of intra-nation and intra-alliance negotiations served mainly to distract the participants from preparing to engage with their Soviet counterparts when they arrived at the negotiating table during their first conference. Due to this debate occurring at the end of the Soviet Union's life, that nation also faced challenges, particularly from the non-Soviet countries of the Warsaw Pact who now refused to walk in lockstep with the USSR.
Other nations such as Canada helped to speed up negotiations, such as by undertaking trial flights to demonstrate the proposal's feasibility by bringing together operators and negotiators. Oddly, this area of the text is the only place that the author uses the pronoun "I" to describe his participation. While Jones happily praises Canada's initiatives in some places, he also points out similar actions taken by other nations to limit bias.
Even with nations seeking to break deadlocks between the United States and the Soviet Union, challenging issues remained. Participants wrestled over whether participants would fly their own planes or use those from a shared pool, how capable sensors should be, how much advance notice ought to be provided when submitting a flight plan, and whether the final images or data would be shared. Unsurprisingly, the United States pushed for allowing the most access and the greatest technological capability while the Soviets sought to impose the greatest restrictions on the treaty's implementation.
Throughout negotiations, the Soviets had to balance their new glasnost policy that accorded with the kind of transparency inherent to the treaty against hard-line naysayers. The slowly changing mind-set of some is revealed in the words of one Soviet officer who recalled, "We believed for a long time that everything ... should be shrouded in an impenetrable veil of secrecy.... But it transpired that excessive secrecy did not enhance but weakened our security" because the US tended to assume the worst of Soviet actions (p. 15). Similarly, despite its calls for openness, the US adopted a "negative" approach by hoping to embarrass the Soviets into agreeing to the treaty, which was counterproductive. In other words, the legacy of Cold War negotiating practices and assumptions largely remained at work even though seismic shifts were underway.
As a consequence, negotiations broke down at one point until President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker intervened to negotiate a breakthrough. Jones continually hammers home that the treaty faced just as much opposition from within the US bureaucracy as it did in the Soviet government. In his opinion, the treaty ultimately succeeded in large part because the president and other high-ranking officials determined to make it a success and pushed bureaucrats past their "comfort levels" (p. 3).
However much the author stresses how participants had to discard their Cold War mistrust in order to make this treaty a success, the most important causal factor implicitly appears to be the changing geopolitical context of the Soviet Union's demise. In some ways, then, this reality somewhat undercuts Jones's emphasis on human actors, particularly the individual negotiating efforts that constitute this work's focus. Ironically, the changing context also affected the ultimate success of the treaty, undermining some of its accomplishments. Perhaps owing to his role in the negotiating process, the author slightly tends to celebrate these endeavors, although it could also be argued that he simply wants to balance more negative accounts of the treaty.
Disappointingly albeit honestly, Jones concludes that this model has limited applicability to other geographical regions as well as to potential monitoring fields ranging from weapons of mass destruction to the environment. This weakens some of the work's "so what" value. Still, he insists that the treaty provides "golden rules" that can help to speed future negotiations, namely that a treaty must result in missions characterized by cooperation, qualitatively equal sensors, and a sharing of information. While this work might find a somewhat narrow audience among military historians, those interested in this particular period in Cold War history as well as diplomatic historians seeking to understand the challenges of conflict resolution will find a largely nuanced and complex account that has continued relevance given the heightened tensions between the two nations.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Heather P. Venable. Review of Jones, Peter L., Open Skies: Transparency, Confidence-Building, and the End of the Cold War.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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