Farewell, Open Skies? When Win-Lose Becomes Lose-Lose

The beginning of the Open Skies Treaty marked a new period of friendship between Russia and the United States. Its demise is the latest in a series of turns for the worse.

Until recently, the Open Skies Treaty was a major component of the global arms control architecture. Signed in 1992 and in force from 2002, the treaty allowed unarmed surveillance flights over its 34 party states’ territories. By allowing mutually suspicious countries such as Russia and the United States to monitor each other’s troop and weapon deployments, the treaty provided transparency and reduced the chance of conflict caused by misunderstanding and miscalculation. It also symbolized the optimism of the early post–Cold War period for collaboration between two nuclear superpowers to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

The United States withdrew from the treaty in November 2020, and then Russia followed in June 2021, effectively terminating it. Just as its creation represented a new period of friendship between Russia and the United States, the end of the Open Skies Treaty is the latest in a series of turns for the worse in America’s relationship with its former Cold War adversary.

The breakdown of this treaty underscores one of the most important tenets of the “principled negotiation” method—to search for mutual gain. A traditional approach conceives of a negotiation in zero-sum terms: for one party to win, the other must lose. The principled negotiation method (or “Harvard method”) insists that the best deals leave all parties feeling like winners.

Because of Russia’s and the United States’ mutual withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, the world is now a more unpredictable place for both countries as well as the entire international community.

The breakdown of the Open Skies Treaty demonstrates how the lack of commitment to negotiations deprives parties of an opportunity to seek and find win-win solutions. According to Washington, Russia violated the treaty by obstructing certain aerial surveillance flights to conceal information from the United States, prompting America’s withdrawal. However, from Moscow’s perspective, the Americans were themselves in violation of the treaty, and staying in the treaty was not an option after the United States had withdrawn.

Yet because of their mutual withdrawal, the world is now a more unpredictable place for Russia, the United States, and the entire international community. Another pillar of the global arms control regime has collapsed. Another forum where the United States, Russia, and other state-parties could jointly work toward building confidence, advancing transparency and predictability, and reducing the risk of conflict is gone. The opportunity for the United States and Russia to constructively address their mutual concerns within the treaty framework no longer exists. Because they missed the chance to resolve compliance issues through existing treaty-related channels, the United States and Russia have now lost this important tool altogether.

The key takeaway for negotiators: Zero-sum thinking might produce short-term advantages. But by not acknowledging the other party’s concerns, you make it more likely for them to believe that they are getting the bad end of the deal. As a result, you risk all your gains as well, leaving both parties worse off.

Director, Negotiation Task Force; Lecturer on Government, Harvard University

Arvid Bell is a scholar and entrepreneur who specializes in complex conflict analysis, negotiation strategy, and international security.