Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Demilitarizing a Global CommonsThe Need for International Norms Concerning Space Expansion

By George SarbinowskiPublished August 24, 2021

USAF Atlas V rocket
Global powers are racing to install new military infrastructure in space as the frontier becomes more accessible. It is vital that global agreements within and outside the United Nations are created to avoid warfare in this new global commons.

There are few realizations more exciting than knowing that humanity is entering into a new era of space exploration. Given that the United States (US) has not been to the moon since 1972, returning to the moon, let alone another planet, has seemed foreign until recently: in 2017, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration formally announced its plan to return to the moon in 2024. This was followed by the establishment of a “Space Force” as a branch of the US Military in 2019. France, Japan, Canada, Russia, and China followed suit. Militaries worldwide are prioritizing the ability to defend their interests in space as they are considering space a “global commons,” similar to international waters, the Antarctic, and the atmosphere. 

Is space really a global commons? Why should it be? One may think back to humanity's last and impactful age of exploration, between the 15th and 18th centuries, when colonialism and the scramble for resources resulted in warfare and slaughter. Currently, global commons are ravished for resources, from overfishing in the South China Sea to the deforestation of rainforests in South America and Southeast Asia. The lesson is clear: when humanity has access to resources to exploit for profit, they will do so, disregarding natural habitats and the longevity of mankind. 

In 1957, around the onset of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR), the United Nations (UN) created the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPOUS) in an attempt to create norms regarding the new phenomenon of human-made objects in space. This was followed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1979 “Moon Agreement.” These treaties were vital, as they put the concept of peaceful exploration in space onto paper. Unfortunately, these treaties do not do much else. The Moon Agreement sets certain precedents that countries should follow with regards to the moon: a state should not occupy the moon, test weapons or establish military operations, nor disrupt natural resourcesactions which are deemed against “the common heritage of mankind.” Nuclear weapons are prohibited to be stationed or detonated in space as well. It is first worth noting that UN resolutions de facto serve as little more than recommendations, since states are sovereign and the UN has few ways to enforce its resolutions. With private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin dominating modern space infrastructure, traveling or sending materials beyond Earth’s orbit is easier and less expensive than previously conceived. Which items these private companies are able to launch into space depends on the laws of the country they are based out of but, similar to international waters, there is nothing formally restricting what a private company or individual can do once beyond the atmosphere. This regulation is somewhat true for governments as well, as the UN does not have the means to stop a major global power from installing military infrastructure on the moon or beyond.

As is claimed with many military endeavors, forces are placed into an area in the pursuit of peace. In international waters, naval forces secure freedom of navigation, while providing a presence to the military rivals within the region they are in. Space is already a domain of warfare, as military satellites are targets of anti-access area denial doctrines. Where does the militarization of space end? Should a military be able to shoot down civilian satellites in orbit? What about a country’s infrastructure outside of orbit deeper into space? Anti-satellite weaponry has been manufactured since the Cold War. One solution stemming from the Cold War could be international cooperation outside of the UN. The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) took place between the US and USSR to gradually reduce nuclear arsenals. The modern equivalent between the US and Russia, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) serves the same purpose. If the world’s largest nuclear powers are able to ratify binding treaties to reduce their most destructive weapons, surely it is possible that the world’s spacefaring powers can establish binding treaties before they are presented with a conflict. 

An international treaty outside the UN is the only realistic way to ensure that spacefaring military powers establish norms regarding the peaceful use of space. Topics to highlight include: prohibition of offensive military assets stationed in space, a committee to oversee land delegation on orbital bodies, guidelines for the safety and sanctity of human lives in space, regulation of pollution orbiting Earth, and guidelines for the sovereignty of space settlements. Above all, it needs to be established that space is not a commons for exploitation. Extracting resources from space will likely have a positive effect on humanity, but doing so must be done in measured coordination to avoid conflict over resources and environmental destruction. While many of these issues are not yet current, it is crucial to establish rules and precedents before they are necessary. A new generation of young adults is finding itself enamored with the spirit of exploration once again. The leap into the expanses of the solar system will result in unprecedented challenges and opportunities, and nations must meet them as one.

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