The New U.S. Space Policy: A Turn toward Militancy?

By Johnson-Freese, Joan | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The New U.S. Space Policy: A Turn toward Militancy?


Johnson-Freese, Joan, Issues in Science and Technology


At first reading, the Bush administration's new National Space Policy looks much like the Clinton policy enunciated a decade ago. Supporters of the Bush policy in fact state that it is little different, except that the language is perhaps a bit less diplomatic. On closer examination, however, and more importantly, in the context of actions taken during the past six years, the changes are dramatic. Some ambiguous language and departures from current policies and programs reveal a kind of incoherence and disingenuousness--and militancy--about U.S. space policy in the 21st century.

Released by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy late on a Friday afternoon before the 2006 Columbus Day weekend, the policy provides overarching guidance for the United States's multiple space programs. Initially, there was little reaction, which was almost certainly the point of burying the story on a slow weekend. The document was actually signed by President Bush on August 31 but then held for a few weeks and released with as little fanfare as possible, thus continuing the administration's approach of maintaining a low-profile space policy to avoid too much scrutiny and controversy. But why?

First and foremost, the Bush policy describes a U.S. space program that is focused on security. Although this makes obvious sense, the blunt and even confrontational language of the new policy puts the United States at odds with the priorities of the other spacefaring nations. For many countries, space assets are regarded primarily as tools of globalization. To be fair, the new policy recognizes that "those who effectively utilize space will enjoy added prosperity and security and will hold a substantial advantage over those who do not." But this is almost a throwaway sentence, given that the rest of the document emphasizes the military uses of space. "Freedom of action in space," the authors write, "is as important to the United States as air power and sea power." Well, yes, but does that mean that other countries can then demand similar rights and expectations regarding their security in space as well? To assert a right in the international community is to assume that others can assert a similar right.

Consider this language from the new space policy: "The United States rejects any claims to sovereignty by any nation over outer space or celestial bodies, or any portion thereof, and rejects any limitations on the fundamental rights of the United States to operate in and acquire data from space." This is a firm and unwavering warning, perhaps one desperately needed, to the Russians or the Chinese that they should forget about colonizing Jupiter. Well and good, but closer to home, the U.S. language begs an important question: If the United States can claim complete freedom to operate in space, does this right then extend to every other nation on Earth as well?

A key principle in the new policy states: "The United States considers space systems to have the rights of passage through and operations in space without interference. Consistent with this principle, the United States will view the purposeful interference with its space systems as an infringement on its rights." In other words, the United States considers space to be something like the high seas. And yet, when it is in the U.S. national interest, the United States acts against vessels in the maritime commons, as when it--rightly--forces North Korean ships to submit to inspection. But does such an absolute declaration of sovereign right really help the cause of cooperation in space? Even on Earth, the high seas are not immune to international governance; why should space be any different?

In response to questions from the press and in related public statements at the United Nations and elsewhere, the administration does clarify that these rights of passage apply to all nations, not just the United States. However, the United States is emphatic that these rights it asserts cannot and will not be guaranteed by international law but by the threat of force, thereby providing a rationale for the development of new enforcement capabilities. …

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