Update 75, Leadership and Norm Building in Space: Shaping the Future of International Relations

Leadership and Norm Building in Space: Shaping the Future of International Relations

Space has become an increasingly critical determinant in shaping the behavior of states in the realm of international relations. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 brought this dynamic to the forefront, showcasing how states strategically utilize space activities to exert influence and change the responses of other nations. This article explores the impact of the Ukraine conflict on space cooperation, the strategic alignments and space capabilities of major spacefaring nations, and the role of leadership, norm-building, and the United Nations in shaping space governance.

One notable incident that underscored the impact of the Ukraine conflict on space cooperation was when Dmitry Rogozin, the Director General of Roscosmos, tweeted about the adverse effects of U.S. sanctions on the Russian aerospace industry. He hinted at the possibility of Russia withdrawing support for the International Space Station (ISS), a joint project involving the U.S., Russia, Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency (ESA). The implied threat of an uncontrolled fall of the ISS towards Earth had potential implications for countries like the U.S., India, and China, which depend on the station for research and exploration. While NASA refuted these claims, it shed light on how geopolitical tensions on Earth can have repercussions on space collaborations.

The strain between Russia and Western countries due to the Ukraine conflict led to a disruption in space cooperation between Russia and the ESA. High-level space cooperation was canceled, affecting joint lunar missions and the ExoMars program. Russia withdrew its staff from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana and suspended all space collaboration with ESA. This incident exemplifies how geopolitical fissures between great powers can inadvertently affect space cooperation and reveal a state’s willingness to leverage space assets for strategic bargaining.

In light of the competition and conflicts between major spacefaring nations, space capabilities are increasingly viewed as critical infrastructure and a national security asset. The strategic alignments of nations in the space domain have been evident even before the Ukraine conflict. For instance, Russia and India signed a defense agreement to collaborate on high-end defense technologies and space cooperation. Similarly, China and Russia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to jointly develop a lunar research base. The U.S., on the other hand, announced its Artemis Lunar program, signing bilateral agreements with democratic space nations for lunar exploration.

Leadership and norm-building in space have also become essential components of great power strategies. Space is now seen as an integral part of projecting leadership and establishing norms. Unlike the Cold War era when space was primarily a battleground for ideological prestige, today’s great powers emphasize the economic contributions of space to the global economy. For example, China has ambitious plans for space resource utilization and space-based solar power, while the U.S. passed legislation to allow its citizens to own resources mined in space. India, positioning itself as a leading power, aims to play a key role in shaping space regulations and norms for space governance.

The United Nations has also become a significant platform for space governance discussions and initiatives. Concerns over ASAT tests and space debris have led countries like the UK to introduce resolutions aimed at responsible state behavior in space. Various UN bodies and working groups are actively engaging in shaping space norms and guidelines.

As space continues to play a vital role in shaping geopolitical dynamics and cooperation, strategic alignments, and the quest for leadership, it remains crucial for the international community to strike a balance between competition and cooperation. The future of space collaboration depends on how great powers can offer compelling visions and inclusive approaches while maintaining strategic interests and investing in the space infrastructure of partner nations. As the dynamics of space in international relations evolve, it will become even more essential to foster responsible behavior and global cooperation to ensure the peaceful and sustainable use of outer space for the benefit of all humankind.

In addition to the competition and conflicts between major space powers, a significant trend is the emergence of space blocs – groups of nations with similar strategic interests on Earth coming together to further their interests in space. One such example is the European Space Agency, which includes 22 nations and is among the first space blocs. However, a more pronounced shift toward this type of power structure can be seen after the end of the Cold War. Countries that share interests on the ground are forming space blocs to pursue specific mission objectives in space. Some notable space blocs include the African Space Agency with 55 member states, the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency with seven member states, and the Arab Space Coordination Group with 12 Middle Eastern member states.

While space blocs allow for collaboration within their respective groups, they also compete with one another. The Artemis Accords and the Sino-Russian lunar agreement are examples of such competition. The Artemis Accords, launched in October 2020 and led by the U.S., aim to return people to the Moon by 2025 and establish a governing framework for exploring and mining on the Moon and Mars. In contrast, Russia and China have collaborated on a mission to send people to the south pole of the Moon by 2026. These blocs’ divergent goals and lack of collaboration indicate how strategic interests and rivalries on the ground are transposed to space.

Space blocs also have implications for the ground, as countries use them to strengthen their spheres of influence. For instance, the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, led by China, includes countries like Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, and Turkey. While its broad goal is satellite development and launch, its major aim is to expand and normalize the use of the Chinese BeiDou navigation system. This approach could lead to countries becoming dependent on China’s system, mirroring geopolitical influences on the Earth.

In addition to states, private space companies have grown significantly in the past decade, engaging in various commercial activities in space. Some scholars believe that future space cooperation will be defined by shared commercial interests, with commercial entities acting as intermediaries between states, uniting them behind specific commercial projects in space. However, given the current legal framework, where companies operating in space fall under the jurisdiction of their home nation’s government, states are likely to continue dictating the rules in space affairs.

To maintain cooperation in space and avoid conflicts, it is essential for existing space blocs to remain flexible and open to all, prioritizing scientific goals and exchanges within and between blocs while keeping political rivalries at bay. History has taught us that rigid alliances can lead to conflicts, and the growing rigidity of alliances at the end of the 19th century was a trigger for World War I. Therefore, fostering a spirit of cooperation and collaboration among spacefaring nations is crucial to ensure the future of international cooperation in space.

In conclusion, space has become an arena where geopolitical dynamics play out, with competition and cooperation between great powers significantly impacting space cooperation and strategic alignments. Space capabilities are increasingly viewed as critical infrastructure and national security assets, and leadership and norm-building in space are becoming essential components of great power strategies. The United Nations is playing a significant role in shaping space governance and promoting responsible state behavior in space activities. The emergence of space blocs is another dimension of the evolving space landscape, influencing ground geopolitics and collaboration in space. To navigate these complex dynamics successfully, states must strike a balance between competition and cooperation, foster inclusivity, and prioritize scientific goals and peaceful exploration for the benefit of all humankind. The future of space cooperation and governance depends on the choices made by great powers and the willingness of nations to work together for a shared and sustainable future in space.

Taken inspiration from research papers published by Perry World House at UPenn available here.


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