International Order & Conflict
Commentary

Will the Bush Administration Endorse a Space Code of Conduct?

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Space News
March 5, 2007

US President George W. Bush is not interested in winning a popularity contest on multilateral agreements dealing with space. To the contrary, the most recent United Nations resolution calling for the Prevention of an Arms Race in Space resulted in a 178-1-1 vote, with the United States voting in the negative and Israel abstaining. To be sure, vital US national security interests ought never to be governed by votes in the General Assembly. But when, in the course of human events, as America’s founding fathers said in the Declaration of Independence, the United States shows this much disregard for the “decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” it might be wise to reassess US policy and the reasoning behind it.

Support is growing for a specific kind of multilateral space agreement that borrows heavily from the Bush administration’s own preferences. The mechanism in question is a Code of Conduct for responsible spacefaring nations that could either take the form of political compacts or executive agreements among like-minded states that wish to continue to enjoy the national security and economic benefits that satellites provide.

Like the Bush administration’s Proliferation Security Initiative, a Code of Conduct for space could be designed by a core group of states to clarify responsible and irresponsible behavior. The core group might then invite any other spacefaring nation that wishes to abide by these high standards to join the group.

The European Union has now joined Canada in endorsing a Code of Conduct for responsible spacefaring nations. The commercial satellite industry also has expressed a strong interest in “rules of the road” for space.

The Bush administration has further distanced itself from America’s friends and allies by continuing to insist that new multilateral agreements related to space are “unnecessary and counterproductive.” No other nation in the world has adopted such a negative stance. Saying “hell no” to new multilateral agreements for space seems particularly questionable after China’s irresponsible test of an anti-satellite (A-Sat) weapon that endangers spaceflight in low Earth orbit for decades to come.

George Washington’s farewell address warned against indulging in “habitual hatred” resulting in a slavish animosity that leads the United States to “stray from its duty and interest.” Rejecting a Code of Conduct for space because it smacks of arms control would seem to violate Washington’s sound admonition. The Bush administration has not yet taken a position towards a Code of Conduct for responsible spacefaring nations. Because rules of the road for space make so much sense, and because the Bush administration has championed other codes of conduct to prevent proliferation, it might still join in the emerging consensus on this issue.

The administration’s reasoning against new multilateral agreements for space boils down to five arguments, none of which applies to the Code of Conduct.

First, administration officials argue that there is no likelihood of an arms race in space, therefore, there is no need for new multilateral arrangements. It is true that an arms race is unlikely, since arms racing has now been replaced by asymmetric warfare. But an arms race is not needed to do lasting damage to space, as the Chinese A-Sat test demonstrated. We can now see clearly that it takes very few kinetic energy kill tests and A-Sat  weapons to result in significant damage to low Earth orbit. New diplomatic initiatives are needed precisely because an arms race isn’t needed to prevent the peaceful uses of outer space.

The second argument advanced by the Bush administration is that arms control is a vestige of the Cold War and not terribly relevant to contemporary security concerns. Again, there is partial truth in this argument, because classic arms control arrangements dealt with a superpower competition that ended with the demise of the Soviet Union.

What used to be known as arms control has now morphed into cooperative threat reduction agreements, including rules of the road clarifying responsible behavior. Semantic arguments aside, the administration has itself championed multilateral agreements in the form of codes of conduct to prevent proliferation, such as The Hague Code of Conduct, as well as the Proliferation Security Initiative. We do not have to argue over whether these codes of conduct constitute arms control to conclude that these creative arrangements were sensible initiatives.

A Code of Conduct for space also would be quite useful in making the Chinese kinetic-kill A-Sat test the very last of its kind. If codes of conduct relating to missiles and exports make sense for preventing proliferation – and do not, in the Bush administration’s vocabulary, constitute arms control – then surely a code of conduct also makes sense for activities in space. After all, troubling activities in space also could prompt vertical and horizontal proliferation on the ground.

The third argument that the Bush administration advances against new diplomatic initiatives for space activity is that there can be no agreed to definition of what constitutes “space weapons.” Moreover, verification is extremely problematic. Consequently, no multilateral agreement can be negotiated barring such weapons.

The administration is correct in pointing to the difficulties in defining and verifying space weapons. A code of conduct, however, focuses on activities, not on definitions of what constitutes a space weapon. For example, one key element of a Code of Conduct would surely be that responsible spacefaring nations do not engage in activities that deliberately produce persistent space debris, such as the Chinese A-Sat test.

This key element makes it unnecessary to define space weapons, since actions, not definitions, lie at the core of a rules of the road approach. Verification of noncompliance with this key element is quite straightforward, since it is very hard to hide the deliberate generation of persistent space debris.

The fourth argument advanced by the Bush administration to oppose new diplomatic initiatives for space is that the United States must preserve its right to self-defense – including the right to defend space assets. This argument is certainly valid, but it doesn’t justify rejecting a Code of Conduct. With such a code, the United States still would possess more capabilities than ever before to deter and, if necessary, punish states that take actions against US satellites. The right of self-defense, however, is more likely to be invoked, and will be more difficult to execute, if there are no agreed rules of the road for outer space.

Lastly, the Bush administration contends that new diplomatic initiatives are unwise because US freedom of action in space must not be constrained. By this standard, the Nonproliferation Treaty, the Outer Space Treaty, President Ronald Reagan’s Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and President George H. W. Bush’s Strategic Arms Reduction treaties were all dreadful errors in judgment, since every one of these agreements limit the US military’s freedom of action in some key respects.

Using the Bush administration’s reasoning, the Geneva Conventions for US armed forces also are unwise, as are codes of conduct long in place for the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines and gravity-bound Air Force. If freedom of action were the topmost US national security objective, we would ditch all of these treaties and codes of conduct. Of course, no responsible political leader or public official would consider doing this. So why should we use this standard to oppose new diplomatic initiatives in space?

Michael Krepon is the co-founder of the Stimson Center and the author of Cooperative Threat Reduction, Missile Defense, and the Nuclear Future.

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