It’s never a good sign when the United States votes in lonely isolation at the United Nations. This can only mean one of three things: that the rest of the world is spineless, or that the White House is obtuse or timid.
During the Bush administration, this solo act reflected an ideological opposition to arms control. Now the United States is the odd man out at the UN on space issues because the Obama administration does not wish to provide Jon Kyl with more ammunition to derail New START.
Two resolutions tell the tale. Both were innocuous, and one was downright helpful. The first, offered by Egypt, invited the Conference on Disarmament to establish a working group on “prevention of an arms race in outer space” as early as possible. The U.S.
abstained from this vote, along with Israel.
The second resolution, championed by Russia, was the usual fare about transparency and confidence-building measures in space, which makes good sense. The new wrinkle was a request for the Secretary-General “to establish, on the basis of equitable geographical distribution, a group of governmental experts to conduct a study, commencing in 2012, on outer space transparency and confidence-building measures.” On this vote, the United States was the only abstention.
The sticking point for Washington was the resolution’s acknowledgement of the fact that Russia and China have tabled a draft treaty to ban weapons and the threat of their use in outer space.
(The resolution also acknowledged the European Union’s efforts to craft a Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations.) The Obama administration, like the Bush administration, has been utterly clear that this draft treaty in unverifiable and unacceptable. But the mere inclusion of a reference to the existence of this draft treaty was sufficient for the Obama administration to abstain from voting yea.
The Heritage Foundation and other irreconcilable treaty opponents have made a mountain out of the molehill of New START’s preambular language re-stating the incontrovertible linkage between strategic offensive forces and national missile defenses. The operative clauses of the Treaty contain absolutely no limits on missile defenses that the executive and legislative branches may wish to fund.
Nonetheless, the language in the preamble has provided a pretext for those who wish to derail New START. The votes at the UN clarify the lengths to which the State Department will go to avoid further pretexts.
The administration and Senate Democrats, badly wounded by the election results, still hope for votes on New START during the lame duck session of Congress. Since Senate procedures, at their worst, can require unanimous consent, this game plan could unravel. In this event, it would be extremely wise for responsible Senate leaders to commit to up or down votes on the treaty and related appropriations in the first session of the new Congress in 2011. Otherwise, the longer Senate Republicans seek to derail New START, the longer Congressional Democrats are likely to hold nuclear-related appropriations hostage, leading to further escalation. This scenario benefits no-one, and could get very ugly.
For its part, the Obama administration would be wise to forgo further abstentions at the UN. Timidity of this sort doesn’t secure votes in the Senate or prevent fictitious assertions. Abstention is not a good strategy for space diplomacy, either. At present, and quite remarkably, the Pentagon’s leadership has more good things to say about the Code of Conduct than the seventh floor of the State Department. Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lynn has spoken publicly in favor of the Code, most recently at a STRATCOM symposium on November 3rd. The Secretary and Deputy Secretary of State have yet to clear their throats about this initiative.
The Obama administration has been waiting patiently for the European Union to complete its work on the Code, but Russia, China, Brazil, and India feel no ownership in the EU’s handiwork. The UN resolution creating a Group of Governmental Experts could become a forum to broaden support for the Code, but like the Senate, the GGE’s agenda requires unanimous consent. If the GGE isn’t the place to de-regionalize the EU’s initiative, and if the CD remains moribund, another forum is likely to be needed for this purpose.
Success will require, at a minimum, more of a top-down impulse than is now evident from Washington. The Obama administration has produced an exemplary National Space Posture. Its constituent elements have yet to be aggregated and elevated into a diplomatic initiative. The Code of Conduct is the only game in town. After two years, it’s time for the Obama administration to pull up a chair and have a seat at the table.
Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center and author of Better Safe than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb (Stanford University Press, 2009). A version of this essay appeared in armscontrolwonk.com.