Biden's biggest foreign-policy challenge will be out of this world

  • President-elect Joe Biden will enter office and face a panoply of challenges all over the world, in addition to an array of problems at home.
  • But growing competition in space, on which everyday life is increasingly reliant, presents a long-term challenge that the US needs to address, writes Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

President-elect Joe Biden is a down-to-earth guy, but the fate of the heavens may end up being one of his main foreign policy challenges.

The United States has long sought to maintain outer space as an open, stable and rules-bound domain. Unfortunately, this cooperative vision is under stress. The emergence of new space-faring nations, an explosion of private commercial activity and a brewing arms race, among other issues, are all leaving outdated international institutions in the space dust.

Biden has made a "return to multilateralism" the core theme of his proposed foreign policy. Closing glaring gaps in outer space governance should be part of this agenda. Without broad agreement on principles, norms and rules of responsible behavior, today's final frontier will soon resemble the Wild West of yesteryear.

Outer space has never been more important to the United States, or humanity at large. Space-based systems undergird national security and defense, sustain commercial exchange and economic growth, and provide new tools to better understand the Earth system, including climate change.

Every day, billions of people worldwide rely on satellites to transfer money, establish their locations, communicate with friends and advance countless other goals.

These benefits are all at risk, however, as space becomes more crowded, complex and conflictual. America remains the world's leading space power, but it has plenty of company. More than 30 space-faring nations have emerged in recent years, and 84 countries currently operate satellites above Earth.

Nearly all nations depend on space-based assets for position, navigation and timing services, as well as telecommunications and other services. Outer space is now part of their critical infrastructure.

Private sector activity is also skyrocketing. More than 3,200 operational satellites are in orbit, but this number will increase 10-fold over the coming decade, as corporations like SpaceX launch so-called mega-constellations of satellites. Companies are also planning mining operations on asteroids, and on the moon, even as nations disagree on what rules should govern these activities.

All the while, space debris continues to accumulate, posing growing risks for the management of space traffic in an increasingly crowded orbit. The United States currently tracks at least 25,000 pieces of space debris larger than 10 cm in diameter, each of which could destroy a satellite. Another 900,000 untracked objects between 1 and 10 cm could severely damage one.

Most worryingly, rising geopolitical tensions on Earth are intensifying a space arms race, pitting the United States and its allies against China and Russia.

As each side comes to depend more on space-based assets, and mutual mistrust increases, the temptation builds to develop and deploy more sophisticated counterspace weapons. The pervasiveness of dual-use technologies like rockets only increases the risk of miscalculation and escalation.

Existing multilateral institutions, like the UN's Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and its Conference on Disarmament, have struggled to adapt to these trends. The Outer Space Treaty is over a half a century old.

Although that 1967 convention contains useful provisions, including prohibitions on sovereignty claims in space and the deployment of nuclear weapons, it lacks a dispute settlement mechanism and is silent on orbital debris and vehicle collisions. It also lacks adequate provisions to govern satellite mega-constellations or asteroid mining. Most worrisome of all, it does little to prevent the militarization of space, including interference with other countries' space assets.

The 1979 Moon Agreement, which aimed to govern activities there, has been ratified by only 18 countries, none of them major space powers.

Other multilateral frameworks are also flailing. Despite four decades of deliberations, the UN Disarmament Commission has failed to produce an international legal instrument to prevent an arms race in space. The most recent effort, a flawed draft treaty to prohibit the placement of weapons in outer space, which had been proposed by China and Russia, collapsed in 2019 because it failed to address verification challenges and ignored the threat of ground-based anti-satellite weapons.

Nor have more informal multilateral frameworks fared much better. A proposed International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, a brainchild of the EU, collapsed in 2015 due to insufficient buy-in from new space-faring nations.

American leadership will be essential to fixing this situation and advancing security and sustainability in outer space. For the US to be credible, however, Biden will need to disavow his predecessor's pugnacious rhetoric.

In June 2018, President Donald Trump declared, "It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space; we must have American dominance in space." Compounding this error, Pentagon officials regularly refer to outer space as a "war-fighting domain" and describe the moon as the ultimate "high ground."

Biden should reframe America's goals as universal ones. He should commit the United States to forging new norms and rules of collective security in order to manage the shared risks and advance the common purposes of all peace-loving nations.

At the same time, Biden should build on one of Trump's rare, promising international initiatives: the Artemis Accords, a set of bilateral agreements in which the United States and each signatory reaffirm established legal principles of outer space governance. They are part of a broader US initiative, the Artemis Program, which proposes to return humans to the moon by 2024, as a prelude to sending astronauts to Mars.

Crucially, the Trump administration has framed this initiative as a cooperative venture, open to other nations. The premise of the Artemis Accords, which NASA unveiled in May, is that space powers have certain common responsibilities. They commit signatories to many forms of cooperation in space, including to pursue only peaceful purposes, provide emergency assistance, share scientific data, avoid activities that might interfere with others' lunar operations, and respect U.N. guidelines on space debris.

In effect, as legal scholar David Fidler writes, the United States is using a bilateral mechanism and American leverage to consolidate an international legal foundation for the next phase of outer space exploration. The incoming Biden administration should endorse this framework and seek to attract emerging space powers like India and Brazil to it.

There is much more to be done, of course, to promote security and sustainability in space. One immediate priority should be to promote transparency and confidence-building measures. The United Kingdom recently helped engineer passage at the UN General Assembly of a resolution on "reducing space threats" that directs the UN Secretary-General to solicit input from governments on what constitutes "responsible" and "irresponsible" conduct in outer space, and then deliver a report to member states with recommendations by September 2021. The Biden administration should support this promising effort.

Simultaneously, the incoming administration will need to grapple with the governance dilemmas posed by space congestion, orbital debris and private sector activities.

It should promote universal adherence with 21 voluntary guidelines adopted last year by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to promote long-term sustainability in space. The United States should also push to harmonize regulations to ensure that private commercial operators are treated equally and held to similar obligations as states, while seeking to resolve persistent disagreements over the legality of property claims and extractive activities on the moon and other celestial bodies.

Like space itself, the agenda there is vast. But the stakes for the United States, and the world, could not be higher.

Stewart Patrick is the James H. Binger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World" (Brookings Press: 2018). His weekly WPR column appears every Monday.

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