On June 18, 2018, in Washington, D.C., President Trump announced the development of a U.S. Space Force to “ensure American dominance in space.” The Space Force is to form a sixth branch of the U.S. military. On the same day, the UNISPACE+50 celebrations began in Vienna. Hosted by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), participants marked half a century of UNISPACE, the UN Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
UNISPACE was first held in Vienna in 1968, following the passing in 1967 of the Outer Space Treaty—full name, the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. That’s right.
There is a whole body of space law dedicated to how humans may use the universe beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Developed during the Cold War, the Space Race, and a critical cultural moment of questioning the viability of war, democracy, and colonialism. In the opening lines of the Treaty, its signatories cite “the great prospects opening up before mankind as a result of man’s entry into outer space” and “the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes.” The treaty aims to ensure that: “the exploration and use of outer space should be carried on for the benefit of all peoples irrespective of the degree of their economic or scientific development.”
In 2018, what could the Outer Space Treaty do for peace on Earth? To be sure, on one hand, there is citizen-astronaut Namira Salim working with UNOOSA to hold the first Peace Summit in outer space by 2030. And on the other, there is President Trump creating the Space Force to protect American interests throughout the universe. In this context, the demands of celestial peace-making look rather different than they did 50 years ago. Many of the key assumptions of last century’s space diplomacy—e.g., nation-state sovereignty, the global ban on weapons of mass destruction, the freedom of space exploration, and the prevention of harmful contamination of celestial bodies—are now being destabilized.
What Constitutes “Peaceful Use?”
In 1997, the 30th anniversary of the Treaty’s signing, the global policymaking academic Shannon K. Orr noted that “almost every use of outer space has a potential military and/or conflict application, and the military services extensive benefits from peaceful research and activities.” Indeed, debate on “the peaceful uses of outer space” preceded the Treaty by some years, and has continued to preoccupy thinkers. At the time of the Treaty’s signing, the legal scholar (and, later, decorated diplomat) Edward R. Finch, Jr., studied the treaty in depth in order to interpret the meaning of the term “peaceful purposes” as it is used in that document. Finch submitted that, while “peaceful purposes” clearly could be understood to mean “nonaggressive,” the use of the term did not “preclude the use of military personnel for outer space exploration,” particularly considering that the Treaty’s leading member states were the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
In such a way, “peaceful use,” according to the Outer Space Treaty and allied instruments of space law, is understood to mean “nonaggressive, but military-friendly.” Within this paradigm, peaceful uses of outer space do not entirely exclude military uses, even though they have been somewhat discouraged by space law. They also do not exclude interests beyond states territories—i.e., those of private enterprise.
Previously a solely national enterprise funded by governments, outer space use and exploration is now increasingly resourced and promoted by private capital. The Washington Post reported in February that the Trump administration plans to have the International Space Station be completely privatized by 2024. At the same time, outer space is becoming populated by new commercial players including many space start-ups, which will offer space tourism, satellite connectivity, and climate surveillance, not to mention asteroid mining. In March 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Bill, while Republican Senator Ted Cruz has been working on an instrument of his own to increase the scope of space commerce. Trump’s Space Force will come into being amid this brave new world of human-space interaction.
So, in 2018, how viable are the peaceful goals of UNISPACE and the Outer Space Treaty? The space policy scholars Hao Liu and Fabio Tronchetti warn that the aforementioned Free Enterprise Bill “provides that outer space is not a global commons.” Indeed, they say, “the bill introduces a new interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty that arguably disputes the way the Treaty has been understood and applied so far. For this reason, if enacted in its current version, the Act is likely to have an impact that goes well beyond the boundaries of US jurisdiction.” Specifically, the bill states that: “1) US citizens have the right to explore and use outer space, including its resources, without conditions; 2) not all the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty are imputable upon US private entities.”
At the same time, POLITICO reports concerns about the Free Enterprise Bill and the Space Force from a number of Treaty experts, such as Cassandra Steer of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania. Steer notes that there has been “a discernible shift in international rhetoric” around the possibility of armed conflict in space. Perhaps this is why the recent session of the UN Disarmament Commission added the prevention of a nuclear arms race in outer space to its agenda for the first time.
Gbenga Oduntan, a reader in International Commercial Law at Kent State University, has also cautioned against the Space Force plans. Writing for Newsweek, he says “it is unclear how they could possibly fit in with existing international legal frameworks.” A quest for American dominance in space, he writes, “deviates dangerously from the historical and legal norm.”
Has “Peaceful Use” Ever Been Realistic?
While the Outer Space Treaty mandates that outer space be used for peaceful purposes only and other space law bans placing nuclear weapons and/or weapons of mass destruction in outer space, this has not stopped the weapons and space industries from developing in tandem with one another, often as state contractors. Companies such as Boeing, BAE Systems, and Lockheed Martin make and sell satellites and spaceships as well as missiles and bombers. One scholarly argument is that, as long as outer space is understood through the lens of modern international relations and diplomacy, it will be viewed by us Earthlings as strategic territory. In the Western European tradition that still dominates international political frameworks, nation-states are territories that “naturally” seek expansion through conflict. On this logic, as outer space becomes more accessible, there will be nationalistic drives to dominate it.
G. Ryan Faith, a research analyst at the Washington-based Space Foundation, puts it as follows:
What is often ignored in the linguistic pieties about the peaceful use of space is that it is the principal thoroughfare for delivering on the ugly threats of mutual assured destruction. Space is also home to numerous tools indispensable to any modern military fighting a conventional war.
What makes this distant and inclement real estate so valuable is that it has—tactically and strategically—the best view in the world.
Perhaps the peacemaking potential of the Outer Space Treaty will always be limited by its main intended protagonists, i.e., state-based military leaders who, within the modern international order, are charged with seeing territory from above. In 50 years of scholarly literature on the Treaty and other aspects of international co-operation in space, concern regularly surfaces about the capacity for space diplomacy to operate in humanity’s interest, especially as weapons technology develops in tandem with machines for exploration and surveillance.
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Then again, there are those who insist on recognizing and continuing to build on the optimistic, peaceful impulses that were present in the creation of UNISPACE and the Outer Space Treaty. Working with UNOOSA, Space Trust leader Namira Salim has secured the support of experienced diplomats. These include Laura Chinchilla, the former President (and first female President) of Costa Rica, and H.E. Luis Alberto Lacalle Herrera, the former President of Uruguay. In a 2018 interview with Ms. magazine, Salim suggests that an extra-terrestrial view of our planet from the International Space Station—like the one she is proposing for the 2030 Peace Summit—will provide the necessary extraterrestrial perspective for building peace between nations. “We need to actually go to space to make peace,” Salim told Ms. “We need to step away from this Earth and see it from space, and be inspired by the overview effect—beyond political boundaries.”
In musing on the Outer Space Treaty, the much-beloved astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “Why do we promise we’ll treat each other nicely in space? If that’s successful, why don’t we have a peaceful use of earth treaty?” Hopes for peace in the galaxy through the Outer Space Treaty may be as hamstrung as those for peace on earth. But perhaps the effort to realize both through human endeavor has only just begun.