Beginning with Dwight D. Eisenhower, U.S. presidents have pursued diplomatic initiatives, including tacit and explicit agreements, to establish common restraints protective of satellites. The most successful of these form the cornerstones of the international legal regime which facilitates the peaceful use of outer space. While the Bush administration has not been open to diplomatic initiatives that would limit U.S. military freedom of action in space, previous presidents have concluded that doing so is in the national security interests of the United States if the restraints apply to all space-faring nations. Whether, and to what extent, the next president reverts to a more traditional U.S. approach toward space diplomacy remain open questions.
The administration of President Eisenhower concluded that U.S. national security interests would best be served by accepting – and indeed, exploiting – satellite operations, even at the risk of allowing unimpeded Soviet satellite operations. The Eisenhower administration promoted the concept of “freedom of space” as early as 1955, and adopted the principle that all nations had the right to use space for “peaceful” purposes. However, the National Security Council urged that care be taken “not to prejudice U.S. freedom of action…to continue with its military satellite programs.” This interpretation of “peaceful,” one that accepts the use of space for some military functions, has subsequently been widely accepted. The U.S.S.R. initially objected to this interpretation, but in October 1963 dropped its position that satellites and aircraft should be treated equivalently (and that therefore satellite overflights were illegal).
Eisenhower’s diplomacy had mixed results. Some of his initiatives, like a push to establish an international body to inspect all rocket payloads, failed completely. Others, like the creation of the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), required sustained support to get off the ground. COPUOS was established in December 1958 but failed to meet for three years due to a Soviet boycott.
In July 1962, Secretary of State Dean Rusk told President John F. Kennedy that “the U.S. probably cannot keep the Soviets from attempting physical anti-satellite measures if they decide to do so.” The Kennedy administration decided that the United States should conduct diplomacy while also hedging its bets. In a major breakthrough, Kennedy negotiated the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which banned any nuclear tests in outer space. This treaty established a norm against harming satellites by means of the damaging effects of nuclear explosions. In a way, this norm was reinforced by the ability of both superpowers to carry out the very actions they had pledged to forsake. The Kennedy administration also led discussions on banning the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space that led in 1963 to the passage of a resolution by the U.N. General Assembly, “Stationing Weapons of Mass Destruction in Outer Space.” The resolution endorsed statements made by the United States and Soviet Union in which both stated their intentions not to place weapons of mass destruction in orbit.
Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the U.S. built on the foundation laid out by the 1963 General Assembly resolution. Negotiators concluded an agreement which set the basic parameters bounding space operations, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Parties to the treaty have pledged to use space “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries” and “in the interest of maintaining international peace and security.” The treaty limits all sovereign claims and some military activities in space. The Outer Space Treaty also laid the groundwork for later treaties, including the Moon Treaty, Registration Convention, and Liability Convention. President Richard M. Nixon built upon this foundation and oversaw the negotiation of several arms control agreements which established the principle that certain types of satellites were deserving of protected status to help monitor compliance with arms control obligations.
Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter both supported the pursuit of hedging strategies to support diplomatic initiatives. Two days before the end of his term, Ford approved a new U.S. policy on ASAT capabilities. It directed the Secretary of Defense to acquire a non-nuclear ASAT while simultaneously urging the consideration of diplomatic initiatives that would “raise the crisis threshold for use of an anti-satellite” and restrict the development of high-altitude ASATs. President Carter continued this approach. In Presidential Directive/NSC-33 he authorized an ASAT testing schedule for the explicit purpose of using the tests as leverage in negotiations with the Soviets. This leverage was insufficient to produce a deal before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought an end to efforts to negotiate an agreement restricting anti-satellite weapons and ratify the second strategic arms limitation treaty.
The tradition of favoring space diplomacy initiatives was briefly interrupted during the first term of President Ronald Reagan. While his 1982 National Space Policy didn’t rule out space arms control entirely, it was not closely linked to other military space programs and support for it was heavily qualified. Reagan also pursued, under the aegis of the Strategic Defense Initiatives, space-based weapons, including those that could be used to attack satellites. During Reagan’s second term, he authorized the Nuclear and Space Talks, which failed to produce a substantive agreement on space issues, but which facilitated subsequent agreements securing deep cuts in deployed nuclear forces.
After the Cold War ended, President Bill Clinton saw no reason to pursue a treaty banning ASATs. Clinton’s 1996 National Space Policy set “improving our ability to support military operations worldwide, monitor and respond to strategic military threats, and monitor arms control and non-proliferation agreements” as key priorities for U.S. space activities. The policy also declared that “consistent with treaty obligations, the United States will develop, operate, and maintain space control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space.”
The policy of President George W. Bush has focused primarily on ensuring U.S. military freedom of action in space. The Bush administration has been open to transparency and confidence-building measures, but only when they are voluntary in nature and don’t curtail U.S. military freedom of action. The administration has opposed space diplomacy when not in conformity with these parameters. At the same time, the Bush administration has not implemented key recommendations of the Rumsfeld Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, which called for, among other things, developing “weapons systems that operate in space and that can defend assets in orbit.”
Diplomacy is time-consuming and potentially unreliable – states have the option to break their word if they so choose. Diplomatic initiatives can also be disingenuous, serving as a cover for pursuing offensive capabilities. While recognizing these limitations, most U.S. presidents have found significant value in setting norms conducive to space assurance. Norms cannot be set by military actions alone. Indeed, the absence of diplomatic norms makes resorting to force more likely and more difficult to succeed. If unacceptable behavior isn’t first clarified by diplomacy, isolating and punishing bad actors can be much more difficult. While diplomacy has its limits, and new diplomatic initiatives may fail, they ought not to fail for want of trying.
This article was adapted from a section of a longer article submitted to High Frontier, publication forthcoming.