"The Politics of Space"

Presentation by Paul Meyer,
Senior Fellow, The Simons Foundation
at the Space: Obstacles and Opportunities, Canada-UK Colloquium
Glasgow, UK
November 20-21, 2015

No discussion of the politics of space can be engaged without acknowledging the special status that outer space enjoys, a status that is relatively rare when compared with the prevailing political models here on earth. The status is one of a “global commons” or in the language of the foundational Outer Space Treaty of 1967:”the province of all mankind”, “not subject to national appropriation”.  The use of outer space is to be “for peaceful purposes” and “shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries”.  This special regime represents something of a high-mark of international cooperation and an act of preventive diplomacy that has served the interests of the international community for several decades. 

This regime, centred on the Outer Space Treaty is however marked by both dynamic and static aspects. The last decade or so of outer space activities give stark examples of both conditions. The dynamic side is represented by the impressive growth in the number of states engaged in space operations and the tandem expansion of the number of involved non-state actors. There has been a commensurate and rapid growth in the range of services being delivered from space and societal dependence on uninterrupted access to these services. All of these developments should also translate into a natural expansion of the stakeholders for maintaining security in outer space. The Outer Space Treaty, with its ban on Weapons of Mass Destruction in orbit or the militarization of celestial bodies, had a goal of peaceful use, but state practice has permitted non-aggressive military use of space and the possibility of placing non-WMD weapons in space remains a potential vulnerability. 

Some of these concerns have been stoked by developments of a more negative nature. For example, recent years have witnessed a re-emergence of a threat that had been dormant for over three decades. I refer in particular to the anti-satellite weapon or ASAT tests of 2007 (China) and 2008 (US) respectively.  These demonstrations of the capability to target and destroy satellites in orbit served to draw attention to the fact that such damaging acts have not been ruled out of order by the international community and that it was reliant on state restraint to prevent catastrophic actions in the outer space environment.

In contrast to these developments is the largely static situation that has characterized the legal-diplomatic framework for outer space. While we can rightly celebrate the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, we have to acknowledge that little has been done since then to develop the normative regime for outer space.  Continue reading...