Countries around the world are making unprecedented commitments to space exploration, operationalization, weaponization, and militarization. As the world’s gaze turns beyond the earth we stand on, states have a unique opportunity to articulate challenges and capabilities in outer space, identify security gaps, and lay out their military’s space plans in their annual defense strategy and security documents.
President Joe Biden’s 2023 fiscal year Department of Defense budget request stands at $773 billion, which includes $24.5 billion for the US Space Force and the Space Development Agency. That’s a $5 billion increase within a span of one year to — as the White House budget summary document stipulates — increase the resilience of US space architectures, bolster deterrence, and increase survivability during hostilities. The Pentagon deems space vital and integral to US national security and modern warfare, particularly in view of the intensely growing international competition and the potential for aggressive space exploits by China and Russia.
The publication of the United Kingdoms’s first integrated Defense Space Strategy in February 2022 is a reflection of the realization of space as the domain of increasing commercial opportunity and significant risk posed to national security by nefarious and hostile actors. The document recognizes the need for close collaboration with the United States and the Five Eyes partners, the Combined Space Operations nations, and NATO, among others, to integrate and broaden defensive space capabilities and deepen resilience.
Beyond the increasingly profitable investment in commercial and military space capabilities, however, the spacefaring countries of the international diplomatic community have an obligation to anticipate problems, debate, and establish globally agreed-upon norms of behavior for space security and stability through the UN or cognate multilateral mechanisms. After all, western democratic nations are not the sole forward-looking entities perturbed by the negative impact of unmitigated and unregulated civil, commercial, and military space programs.
THE BLUEPRINT OF SPACE DIPLOMACY
In their joint statement following a bilateral meeting between China and Russia in February 2022, both countries opposed any plans to turn outer space into an arena of armed confrontation and pledged to make “all necessary efforts to prevent the weaponization of space and an arms race in outer space.” They affirmed the need to launch negotiations on the Russian-Chinese draft treaty on the prevention of placement of weapons in outer space and recognized that for the bold initiative to result in an effective and legally binding regime governing space activities would require greater transparency and confidence-building measures and political commitment. Both sides endorsed the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space as the appropriate mechanism for promoting international cooperation and developing international space law.
A new grand strategy for space will require new diplomatic instruments. However, the promising new framework is already under threat due to tense relations between the US and China.
A new grand strategy for space will require new diplomatic instruments. In this area, the US State Department and NASA have spearheaded the Artemis Accords, or a non-binding declaration of principles and rules grounded in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, meant to ensure safe and transparent civil space exploration, and promote “peaceful cooperation in space exploration and scientific endeavors.” Its signatories include 19 nation-states of Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Singapore, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States, who commit to principles of transparency, interoperability, and emergency assistance in space, among others.
The newly established US Department of State Office of Space Affairs, with a mission to conduct space diplomacy aimed at strengthening American leadership in space exploration and encouraging the foreign use of US space capabilities, plays a complementary role to the White House Space Council, which is tasked with formulating and implementing space policy and strategy. To avoid the pitfalls of another great power competition in space, the nation’s space diplomacy efforts must look beyond the narrowly defined political, military, and commercial interests, and work in tandem with other multilateral tools and coordination mechanisms already in place, such as the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs or the EU/ESA Space Council.
Despite the development of this promising framework, tense relations between the United States and China are converting outer space into yet another theater of competition. In a recent interview for Germany’s Bild newspaper, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson accused China of militarizing its space program, stealing ideas and technology, and intending to appropriate ownership of the moon. A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, retorted by rejecting any insinuations of militarization of outer space and dismissed Nelson’s remarks as an irresponsible smear campaign.
Nelson’s comments illustrate a continuation of a highly problematic aspect of US foreign policy, which is in dire need of prompt and comprehensive reform. In the last seven decades, the United States foreign policy establishment has demonstrated a lamentable record in assessing the capabilities of its adversaries and threats to the nation. The imperial self-infatuation and off-putting arrogance of US political elites, who not only routinely misread and misrepresent the rivals’ intentions, exaggerate threats, inflate dangers, and chronically mistrust US partners while adopting a provocative and unnecessarily belligerent attitude, will prove counterproductive to national security and stable international space relations.
OPEN QUESTIONS FOR DIALOGUE
Sustainable use of space activities need not lead to an antagonistic international confrontation on ideological or political grounds. Regulating behavior and rules of military engagement, preventing an arms race in outer space, or defining the frontiers for intelligence-gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations between discrete state Space Forces will require considerable national and international effort as existing rules are simply no longer fit for the new and ever-evolving space environment. Opting for dialogue on overlapping interests instead of conflict — and humility instead of hubris — might be a far more credible strategy for the United States. Since the international community overtly scrutinizes and criticizes US conduct, it has an opportunity to set the example of leading with diplomacy in outer space.
Whether the international community will seek to create appropriate mechanisms akin to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court to express general principles of international criminal law as applicable to outer space is yet to be seen. And creating special tribunals for arbitration of public and private international law violations (including any relevant laws of armed conflict) will require the input of policymakers, lawyers, and international law scholars. Expanding the remit of existing courts and legal mechanisms following the blueprint of the International Court of Justice to settle disagreements between states and provide advisory opinions on international legal issues is a good option, but also remains in the air. Working on a feasible framework for diplomacy in space, therefore, is an urgent matter and an opportunity for all stakeholders.
Joanna Rozpedowski is a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and international law scholar based in Washington, DC.