Michael KreponThe Long March

The Obama administration has gotten off to a much delayed start by unveiling the unclassified version of its National Space Policy on June 28th. The crafting of specific diplomatic initiatives will follow.

The administration has accentuated the differences between its space posture and that of the George W. Bush administration, most notably with a renewed openness to consider diplomatic initiatives. “W” and his team were opposed to anything that could conceivably limit U.S. military options in space. This stance backfired when a collision between two spacecraft and an egregious Chinese KE-ASAT test happened on Bush’s watch. The value of norms for space traffic management and against KE-ASAT testing have been clearer ever since.

The Pentagon has come a long way since the Bush administration, which demonstrated the habit of warning others not to do what it reserved the right to do in space. Like the European Union’s Code of Conduct, the Obama administration’s NSP appears to endorse the norm of no harmful interference, while asserting that, “Purposeful interference with space systems, including supporting infrastructure, will be considered an infringement of a nation’s rights.”

The new NSP is extremely shy about foreshadowing the kinds of diplomatic initiatives worthy of subsequent endorsement. The Pentagon and the Intelligence Community – the two primary players in this stage of the administration’s prolonged, multi-stage approach to space diplomacy – endorsed transparency and confidence-building measures, but there is only so much sustenance to be had in this thin gruel. Piecemeal approaches will yield, if successful, piecemeal results. A larger construct is required to pull the pieces together and to demonstrate the NSP’s goal of strengthened U.S. international leadership on space issues.

The baton will eventually be passed to the State Department, which has laid down three essential criteria for subsequent arms-control initiatives – that they be “equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies.” Background briefings by senior administration officials have downplayed the prospect of ambitious treaty initiatives, stressing “best practices” and cooperative measures.

The NSP’s reticence to foreshadow what diplomatic initiatives will follow and the absence of an endorsement in principle of a Code of Conduct is not reassuring. One can argue that this was only to be expected from a document that was gnawed upon at dozens of interagency meetings and which was primarily the work of the Pentagon and IC. But there were also endless meetings for the Pentagon-led Nuclear Posture Review, which was more forward-leaning about the accompanying need for diplomatic initiatives and follow-through. The administration’s intention and commitment level on space diplomacy will become clearer in due course.

President Obama has a full plate, and the overambitious space diplomacy initiatives that were initially posted and then banished from the White House’s website clearly constituted overreaching. But the rare instances of successful space diplomacy have happened because of presidential involvement. The NSP raises legitimate questions about how much the White House and NSC staff are willing to back up space diplomacy initiatives. With their help, the State Department might have something to show for its efforts. Without it, the long march in Geneva and Vienna will continue at a snail’s pace. The much-welcomed voluntary debris mitigation guidelines worked out at COPUOS took over 15 years to be concluded.


  1. Jim Oberg (History)

    “The Pentagon has come a long way since the Bush administration, which demonstrated the habit of warning others not to do what it reserved the right to do in space.”

    Sorry, I don’t read the old policy that way at all. It was clearly US-centric, arguably excessively so — but what rights did it claim for the US in space that it denied to other players?

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