Washington sparks a space spat at the United Nations

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.

The change in approach comes as senior US officials have started referring to outer space as “a warfighting domain,” and in a year that US President Donald Trump has declared it his goal to achieve American dominance in space and establish a Space Force that is “separate but equal” to other branches of the US armed services. It is not clear that he will succeed in the face of Congress or military leaders who don’t support a stand-alone service, but he is quite serious: Last week, Politico revealed a draft presidential directive outlining proposed details of the new force.

What America said “no” to. So how, specifically, did Washington signal its new disinclination to cooperate? Below is a brief recap of the resolutions that were under consideration and the rationales the United States put forward for rejecting them.

The international community has long feared an arms race in outer space that could turn this global commons into a battleground. To ward off the threat, Egypt and Sri Lanka regularly submit the resolution “Prevention of an arms race in outer space,” which sets out basic policy on how to achieve this goal. For 30-plus years, the resolution has had overwhelming support. This year, of the United Nation’s 193 voting members, 181 voted yes. The United States has never been part of that majority support, but in recent years was content to register its view with an abstention. This year, though there was no textual change to the resolution, the United States decided to cast a “no” vote.

The UN General Assembly frequently establishes Groups of Governmental Experts comprised of subsets of states (15 to 25) to study specific issues and make recommendations on how they should be managed. Such groups normally operate over a two-year period and only issue a report if all participating states agree. At the 2017 General Assembly, Russia led a successful initiative to create a Group of Governmental Experts to consider “substantial elements of an international legally binding instrument on the prevention of an arms race in outer space.” The group had its initial meeting in August and is not due to report back until 2019. So this year, sponsor states submitted the resolution “Further practical measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space,” essentially a place-holder to maintain a slot on the Committee’s agenda. Washington had opposed creation of this Group of Governmental Experts, but is still participating in it. Nonetheless, this year, the United States was one of only three states (along with Ukraine and Israel) to cast a negative vote.

UN members have long been concerned over keeping outer space a weapons-free zone. While the foundational Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits weapons of mass destruction in space, it is silent on other types of weaponry. Capitalizing on this concern, since 2014 Russia has annually submitted a resolution on “No first placement of weapons in outer space.” It encourages states to uphold “a political commitment not to be the first to place weapons in space.” Several countries have criticized this resolution for its failure to define a “space weapon,” and because—as some interpret it—it could prompt states to develop space weapons in order to respond if another country crosses the threshold first. The United States and 11 other countries rejected this resolution this year, with 40 states abstaining.

Finally, one promising avenue states have espoused, at least in their public statements, is the adoption of cooperative measures to promote transparency and confidence concerning outer space activity. As it has done since 2005, this year Russia submitted a resolution on “Transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space.” The resolution essentially supports the measures agreed by the Group of Governmental Experts in 2013, and encourages states to exchange information on implementation. Ever since it was first introduced, this resolution has been adopted without a vote, as transparency and confidence-building are ideas that enjoy consensus support. The United States in particular has stressed its support for them, which it prefers to legally-binding measures. Although 176 states supported the resolution this year, this display of common purpose and comity among nations was apparently too much for the Grinch advisors to the US delegation, and the United States and sidekick Israel cast “no” votes.

A threat to the collective interest. UN delegates may offer statements when they cast their votes, and these “explanations of vote” illuminate the political currents underlying Washington’s rejectionist stance. In her November 6th explanation of vote, US representative Cynthia Plath said that American support for transparency and confidence-building measures “ends when such efforts are tied to proposals for legally-binding arms control constraints and limitations.” In American eyes, the culprits here are “fundamentally flawed arms control proposals” put forward by Russia and China. Moscow and Beijing first proposed their draft treaty on preventing placement of weapons in outer space at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in 2008; Washington has characterized it as a “hollow and hypocritical effort.” In her explanation of vote, the US delegate quoted US Vice President Mike Pence when she accused Russia and China of “aggressively developing and deploying technologies that have transformed space into a warfighting domain.” This echoes what the White House said in the National Space Strategy revealed in March, which blamed “competitors and adversaries” for turning space into a “warfighting domain.” Given its own rhetoric and actions, though, it would appear to be the Trump Administration that wants space to be seen this way.

The Russian delegation, for its part, not surprisingly attributed the worsening climate for space security to American action. In an October 24 statement, the Russian Deputy Head of Delegation Andrey Belousov drew attention to the fact “that US operational documents regulating space operations and special military directives in this regard have been for a long time providing for the use of preemptive and anticipatory measures in outer space on the basis of subjective assessments.” He went on to stress that “Continuing the policy towards ensuring … US ‘space dominance’ does not contribute to a constructive dialogue on strategic stability at all.” The Russian delegate also criticized US development of space-based ballistic missile interceptors, concluding, “If this trend continues, the work at all the negotiation tracks pertaining to outer space will end up with no results and return to zero level.”

This open and strident US-Russian dispute, and its wrecking-ball effect on prospects for space cooperation, was certainly a matter of concern for other delegations, although their statements were circumspect. Several US partners signaled their distance from the hostile stance towards legally-binding measures for space security that has increasingly marked Washington’s statements. Japan’s delegate said, “The importance of enhancing the rule of law in outer space needs to be reaffirmed.” Australia’s statement, while sharing a critical assessment of the Sino-Russian draft treaty, said, “Australia is committed to a rules-based global order, which extends to space.” The EU delegate said, “we believe that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and other international space law as developed in the UN framework will remain the cornerstone of global governance of outer space.”

Other states, less closely allied with Washington, were even more explicit in their support of new international legal instruments. The Egyptian delegate said, “there is a clear need for a legally binding instrument that would complement the existing international legal framework by preventing an arms race in outer space and filling the existing legal gaps in this area, especially taking into consideration the alarming announcements by some States in relation to their plans of weaponizing outer space, in addition to the continued development of military capabilities devoted to attack[ing] outer space assets.” The South African delegate said, “we believe that a Treaty on the Prevention of an arms race in outer space would complement and reaffirm the importance of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which aims to preserve space for peaceful uses by prohibiting the use of space weapons and the development of space-weapon technology.”

It is not clear why the United States decided to take such a negative stance on space security at this fall’s First Committee. Beyond the animus the Trump Administration has displayed towards multilateralism in general and arms control agreements in particular, space is an environment on which the United States and the West are disproportionately dependent—as they own the vast majority of satellites—and where the preservation of a non-weaponized status would seem to be in the national interest. While Washington purports to support the adoption of non-legally-binding transparency and confidence-building measures, its gratuitous rejection of relatively anodyne UN resolutions simply because they refer to proposals it doesn’t like will not foster the kind of cooperation with other states required to advance its agenda. The escalating rhetoric and threat perception, coupled with aggressive-sounding “space dominance” policies, are hardly conducive to sustaining a cooperative international effort to prevent a destructive space conflict. US allies should caution Washington against engaging in such a counter-productive strategy that threatens the collective interest.