Getting outer space diplomacy off the treadmill

December 1, 2023

By Jessica West

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2023

Invoking Paul Warnke’s famous description of the futility of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race, Professor David Koplow paints a similar picture of contemporary humans in outer space in his essay “Apes on a treadmill in space.” For those of us in the peace community, this description epitomizes space diplomacy over the last four decades.

The current race to nowhere is fueled by strategic competition among military space powers to ensure the minimal number of restrictions on their own actions. This, of course, is not unique to space.

Despite occasional bursts of activity, the two key practical initiatives at the United Nations (UN) today are largely unchanged from those competing for support in 1981: not to place weapons in outer space, and how to rein in anti-satellite weapons. The achievement of either seems remote. How do we get off the treadmill?

A diplomatic treadmill

The United Kingdom tried to chart a new path based on actors’ conduct in space instead of capabilities. The Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on Reducing Space Threats took this approach, but discussions on norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviour ended in September without consensus on a procedural description of the meetings, let alone an outcome report.

A civil society statement on outer space, coordinated by Project Ploughshares, was delivered to the UN First Committee (see p. 9), calling for cooperation and compromise to end the stalemate. Instead, states presented proposals for TWO competing OEWGs, one focused on norms of behaviour and the other on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space.  

We’re up one treadmill but the international community is tired of running.

A role for an ethics of care

A handful of states that support both the development of norms of behaviour in outer space and a formal ban on weapons insist that complementarities can be found across these initiatives. But states must first find a common goal and possess the drive to reach it.

A variety of concepts and approaches can help pave the way. One such approach is informed by the ethics of care.

Pioneered by Sara Ruddick, care as a political concept is rooted in the lived experiences of women doing what is traditionally thought of as women’s work. It rejects state-based military protection in favour of a politics of peace that emphasizes shared vulnerability and the nurturing of others. Carol Cohn argues that such an emphasis allows for new security practices based on preservation – not of oneself, but of others.

From responsible to responsibilities

An ethics of care could help in the development of norms of conduct for space activities. This effort is currently framed by a focus on “responsible behaviour” (see above). But this concept has been divisive and was rejected by Russia during efforts to negotiate an OEWG outcome document in September. India, traditionally in favour of both legal arms control measures and norms of behaviour, also expressed serious concerns with the dichotomy between responsible and irresponsible behaviour embedded in the approach. Such concerns echo work by feminist scholars Penny Griffin, Jane Parpart, and Marysia Zalewski, who argue that the notion of the responsible actor perpetuates distinctions between the responsible Self and the unruly Other.

Progress could follow if these concerns are taken seriously. The problem is not with the objective but with the process used to achieve it. Focusing on shared responsibilities that respond to the vulnerability and needs of others rather than responsible behaviour as a marker of identity can make this process more inclusive. Such a subtle shift can transform the ongoing security standoff in outer space that pits states against each other.

A focus on responsibility for others also resonates with foundational principles of the Outer Space Treaty such as equal access and use, shared benefits, transparency and non-contamination, and due regard.

What might “responsibilities to care” in outer space look like? Not a radical departure from what came up in conversations at the OEWG that mentioned transparency, notification, communication, non-contamination, and non-interference with critical systems. Also valid: unilateral commitments not to conduct destructive tests of anti-satellite missiles in space, which pollute the environment with harmful debris and motivate arms-racing responses.

But a focus on care expands obligations to others – now and in the future. Not only must actors avoid armed conflict and environmental destruction, but they must also work to preserve outer space as a secure environment for all peoples. Care is not only more inclusive – it is more ambitious.

A new discussion on weapons

Banning weapons in space has been a notoriously elusive goal. Dual-purpose capabilities create a considerable complication because they can be used for either peaceful or non-peaceful activities. This makes commitments not to place weapons in outer space difficult for others to evaluate. It is not clear how the owner of a dual-purpose capability gains the trust of observers that only peaceful uses of the technology are intended, or how observers can be confident in such intentions.  

A focus on common responsibilities rooted in an ethics of care might create a context in which all space actors could be assured about how capabilities in space are being used. This  more empathic approach could get beyond the seemingly irreconcilable divisions created by  technical questions of definitions and verification. The position changes from “trust me” to “here is what I am willing to do to demonstrate my commitment to others.” A focus on care can also help to shift the conversation from weapons in the abstract to the types of harmful effects on others that arms control measures can help to avoid. Importantly, these illustrations of peaceful and harmful uses of technology can help to bridge the gap between the competing arms control approaches, one focused on norms of behaviour and one on preventing the placement of any weapons in outer space.

A change of ethics not rhetoric

The steady march toward weapons and warfighting in outer space is propelled by what Cynthia Cockburn has called “dangerous daydreams” – futile quests for dominance and superiority.

Prioritizing nurturing connections between the Self and the Other promotes more inclusive approaches to peace, balancing immediate goals of survival with long-term goals of sustainable peace for all. While this might sound naïve, mutual care is key to human survival; the alternative is catastrophic.

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