Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists | published December 11, 2018
At the United Nations, outer space used to be a realm of relative peace and cooperation. Every fall, virtually all the world’s nations are represented at the UN General Assembly’s First Committee meeting, which considers matters related to disarmament and international security, including in outer space. There, many space-related resolutions were typically so uncontroversial as to be adopted without a vote. The high level of cooperation allowed for broad international agreement on space policy, and generated some practical recommendations. For example, in 2013, a UN Group of Governmental Experts agreed on a set of “Transparency and Confidence Building Measures” on outer space, which the General Assembly has encouraged member states to implement. Among other things, the measures promote the exchange of information on space policies and activities, risk reduction efforts (like keeping spacecraft far enough apart to avoid collision), and visits to space launch facilities.
The diplomatic atmosphere, however, was dramatically different at this year’s First Committee session in October. The Committee adopted four resolutions dealing with outer space security—and the United States voted “no” on all four. These resolutions are not legally binding, but do set out policy positions and hence can be viewed as statements of political intent. By rejecting all four, Washington signaled, in effect, that whatever the international community sought to do on space concerns, it opposed. This was in stark contrast to previous years, when the United States did join the consensus on Transparency and Confidence Building Measures, and merely abstained on a resolution seeking to prevent an arms race in outer space.