Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement that the Obama administration will lend its support to international efforts to craft a Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations is welcome news. The fourth year of a presidential term is not the best time to announce an important diplomatic initiative, but the administration has had its hands full with nuclear negotiations and deadline-driven events, not to mention other crucibles at home and abroad. As written in this space (Second Wind, 9/21/11), the Code of Conduct initiative has always had to wait patiently in line. Chicago Cubs fans can relate to this phenomenon. In the meantime, the Code received a thorough Pentagon scrubbing and methodical interagency reviews to confirm the wisdom of this diplomatic initiative. President Obama and his team deserve kudos for fulfilling this campaign promise.
The timing isn’t bad, despite this being an election year. This summer, a group of governmental experts dealing with space issues will convene in New York. This forum, consisting of representatives from fifteen nations, has a workable mandate, unlike the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. One topic of conversation will no doubt be an ambitious and unverifiable treaty to ban weapons and threats from space championed by Russia and China. Another will be transparency and confidence-building measures in space, a subject that both Moscow and Washington can agree on, but probably not in every particular. A third topic of discussion will be the European Union’s draft Code of Conduct, which has been endorsed by Japan and Canada. The GGE could become another forum for wrangling and a wasted opportunity. It could also become the springboard to engage countries not involved in the EU’s effort to help shape a consensus diplomatic initiative on space.
International endorsement of a Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations is not small change. There is a clear need to strengthen norms for space debris mitigation, traffic management and responsible stewardship of this endangered global commons. The Code of Conduct initiative could also help ameliorate US-Russian relations and provide China a way to step up to its responsibilities in space. To become a stakeholder, Beijing will have to drop its aversion to engage on realistic proposals. Like Moscow at the beginning of the SALT negotiations, Beijing will find deliberations over a Code of Conduct to be a challenge with respect to civil-military coordination and the acceptance of greater transparency.
After the US presidential elections, we will have a better sense of whether Washington will continue to champion the Code of Conduct and whether Moscow and Beijing will come on board. The pendulum swings of American electoral politics could foreclose the former and make a powerful case for the latter.