The International Politics of Space
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The International Politics of Space

Michael Sheehan

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eBook - ePub

The International Politics of Space

Michael Sheehan

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The year 2007 saw thefiftieth anniversary of the Space Age, which began with the launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in October 1957. Space is crucial to the politics of the postmodern world. It has seen competition and cooperation in the past fifty years, and is in danger of becoming a battlefield in the next fifty. The International Po

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Chapter 1
Perceptions of space and international political theory

Space is a great emptiness into which we often project our dreams.1


How should we think about space? It makes a difference how we do, because although we as humans live in a physical universe, much of the ‘world’ we inhabit is intersubjectively constructed through our mutual understandings of what constitutes reality. We act in terms of our beliefs, values, theories and understandings of the ‘reality’ we perceive. It is also important to remember that the way in which such a consensus on understandings of reality is constructed is not an entirely innocent exercise. As Cox pointed out in relation to the production of theory, ‘theory is always for someone and for some purpose’.2 By firmly establishing a specific perception of outer space, a dominant narrative helps to shape a particular reality. We perceive outer space in a particular way, as a particular kind of realm, in which certain types of activity are possible, even expected, while others are frowned upon or specifically forbidden.
When there are alternative conceptions available, a particular visualisation is likely to favour the interests of some states more than others. In 1957 space was essentially a tabula rasa, a blank page on which humanity was free to write whatever it chose. But it brought with it pre-existing values and behaviour patterns. The major powers who first entered outer space had policies and belief systems structured by the ‘lessons’ of previous decades, and particularly by the catastrophe of the Second World War and the bitter peace that came to be called the Cold War. In the decades that have followed, policy makers, scientists and advocates of space exploration have contested opposing understandings of the meaning and purpose of outer space for humanity. The image we have of the extra-terrestrial realm ought to be such a contested terrain, for what we perceive space to be shapes our views of how it should be exploited, and this has very real implications for political, economic and environmental development on Earth.
It was only with the advent of the first satellite that space became an ontological reality directly experienced by mankind. But even prior to that point it had never been truly a vacuum in terms of the way that it was perceived by humanity. Space was both an environment in which many possibilities could be imagined and a fruitful source of metaphorical meanings, such as freedom, opportunity and infinite possibilities, and its multitude of possible interpretations included those that were ambiguous or incompatible.3 For millennia humans had speculated about the nature of what lay beyond their world, and had habitually placed the realm of the gods that they worshipped in the dimension that lay out of sight above their heads. The night skies were a place of beauty and mystery, and these cultural understandings of space have played a part in maintaining resistance to certain developments in the use of space, most notably the extension of terrestrial weapons and warfare beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Such a development can be seen as threatening what the Dutch call vergankelijkheid, the transitory nature of what is beautiful and magnificent.4 The desire to maintain space as a war-free sanctuary certainly existed immediately prior to the beginning of the space age. As early as 1952 the International Congress on Astronautics voted to ban its members from using astronautical research for military purposes.5
The idea of preserving certain geographical areas as demilitarised sanctuaries has a historical pedigree as old as the space age itself. An entire class of arms control agreements, the ‘non-armament treaties’ have been concluded over the past five decades, designed to ‘prevent military competition from being introduced into an area that had hitherto been free of such activity’.6 This group of treaties includes the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, but the first such agreement had come as early as 1959, with the Antarctic Treaty. All the agreements were based on the belief that it was both desirable and possible to maintain certain parts of the human environment as sanctuaries in terms of military activity.
Advocates of space militarisation have been very aware of the power of these conceptualisations. One such advocate noted that the idea of preserving space as a sanctuary from militarisation is commonly held, and that ‘in using the term “sanctuary”, critics of the military use of space mean not only a place of refuge or asylum, but a sacred and holy place secure from the baser instincts of men. No wonder military programs such as Star Wars or antisatellite (ASAT) warfare have elicited such a strong reaction’.7 Even President Eisenhower’s science adviser felt that the launch of Sputnik I by the Soviet Union in 1957 had stirred ‘atavistic, subtle emotions about cosmic mysteries’ and ‘an instinctive, human response to astronomical phenomena that transcend man’s natural ken’.8
The ambiguity and incompatibility of differing interpretations however lent itself to political exploitation. While the United States agreed with other states that space belonged ‘to all mankind’ for example, what it understood by this phase was no more than the celestial equivalent of the idea of the ‘freedom of the seas’,9 while other countries invested far greater philosophical and political meaning into the concept – and assumed that the United States did the same. The ambiguity and conflicting motivations that have historically surrounded space exploration mean that it is not always the case that there is a single or simple explanation for particular space programmes or missions.
In discussions of space policy, idealism and realism continue to clash. The debates remain potent, because apart from the brief American Apollo expeditions to the Moon between 1969 and 1972, human beings have remained locked in low-Earth orbit even a half century after the beginning of the space age. To date only 24 human beings have ever viewed their planet from the deep space beyond Earth orbit, and the difference in perspective between Earth orbit and deep space is tremendous. ‘The orbital astronaut experiences the planet as huge and majestic, while from afar it is tiny, beautiful and shockingly alone’.10 It is obvious that to date the history of space exploration and utilisation suggests a conclusion that ‘the Space Age would neither abolish nor magnify human conflict, but only extend politics-as-usual to a new realm’.11 Nevertheless, so long as almost all of the Solar System and beyond remains essentially virgin territory, advocates of the ‘sanctuary’ perspective can argue that all is not lost, despite the unpromising historical track record of humanity in conquering new territories in the quest for knowledge.12
In international relations theory, it was customary during the late Cold War period to speak of an ‘inter-paradigm debate’, between contending world views of international relations, realism, liberalism and Marxism. The concept is somewhat misleading, in that little or no genuine ‘debate’ has occurred between the proponents of the different ‘paradigms’, other than perhaps between the squabbling siblings of realism and liberalism; nevertheless the idea of clearly distinct theories is analytically useful in allowing comparison of different perspectives and relating them to differing policy implications. It is worthwhile therefore to consider how the different paradigms of international relations might influence our understanding and interpretation of space, and also to consider what are the paradigms within which space itself has been considered in the past half-century.
Looked at from a chronological historical perspective there is some logic to addressing the claims of realism first. The Space Age began with the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, at a time when the Cold War was at its height and realism exercised a hegemonic dominance within the academic discipline of international relations. Studies of the early ‘space race’ between the superpowers typically employ key realist themes to explain the space competition. This is made easier by the fact that in this period it was classical realism that was dominant, exemplified by the writings of Hans Morgenthau and Raymond Aron, and this version of realism was richer and more nuanced than the narrow neorealism characteristic of the 1980s and thereafter. Realists like Morgenthau saw politics as ‘a struggle for power and unilateral advantage’,13 in which the operation of the balance of power was central. In the absence of world government an ‘international anarchy’ exists and this self-help system produces a ‘security dilemma’ in which attempts by states to increase their own security lead to increasing insecurity because each state views its own defence efforts as legitimate and non-threatening, but those of other states as unnecessary and hostile.14
From the classical realist perspective the space race is explained by the competition for power between the superpowers, but the ‘power’ in question is a multifaceted amalgam of different forces ranging from tangible military capability to unquantifiable degrees of prestige. A space programme could contribute to overall power by confirming or suggesting capabilities in a range of other areas, such as long-range missiles and technological expertise. In the classical-realist approach domestic political explanations are also significant in a way that they are not in neorealism and therefore the internal political dynamics of the American and Soviet political systems are also an important part of the equation.
There are aspects of the history of national space programmes that seem to validate elements of both classical realist and neorealist international relations theory. The early superpower space programmes clearly lend themselves to a realist interpretation. The USA and USSR saw themselves as acting within an international anarchy in which the security dilemma was particularly dramatic as the implications of mutual nuclear capability sank in. ‘National security’, defined as military security from the armed forces of the opposing superpower, became the unquestioned priority of both states’ leaderships. The relationship between the USA and USSR was understood in both countries as being competitive at best, conflictual at worst. The motivating driver of both programmes was the acquisition of military capability, both in terms of missiles able to deliver nuclear weapons, and satellites capable of securely performing reconnaissance missions over the adversaries’ territory. While public attention focussed on the unmanned and manned competitive space programmes, these too were simply part of the global competition for international leadership in an era when direct military confrontation was increasingly unthinkable. The civilian and military programmes were linked to the extent that the former diverted attention from the latter, and in some cases, such as the US Explorer/Corona satellite, was used as a deliberate cover for military activities.
For realism, states living in the fearful world produced by the international anarchy will seek ‘opportunities to shift the balance of power in their favour. At the very least, states want to ensure that no other state gains power at their expense’.15 What was critical about the 1950s was that the superpowers’ possession of nuclear weapons led them to believe that maintenance of the balance of power by traditional warfighting methods might prove suicidal, and therefore alternative conceptions of the balance and the way that it might be manipulated became crucial. In this respect, a superpower competition in space launching was an attractive alternative to a nuclear conflict in terms of demonstrating relative power capabilities.
The movement into space was very much an outgrowth of the terrestrial superpower competition for planetary hegemony and their respective space capabilities grew out of the strategic nuclear arms competition.16 Nevertheless, as a theatre of political interaction, the space environment was responsive to changes in the world system, as was reflected in the emergence of Europe, China, India and others as players in the drama. Again, realism had no difficulty in explaining this in terms of the gradual evolution of the international system from a fairly rigid bipolarity in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, to a more complex multipolarity as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s.
The vacuum of space did not remain a vacuum in political terms once the Soviet Union issued the ideological challenge represented by the launching of Sputnik in 1957. On the contrary, it soon became an emblematic example of the same power politics that characterised relations between the major powers on Earth. In addition, the movement into space brought about a new criterion for determining the gradation of power and the allocation of prestige in the global community. As Knorr noted early in the space era, ‘if space activities are conducted on a large scale and on top (actually, as part) of the arms race, only a few individual countries will be able to muster the resources for effective participation’.17
This was an early example of the kind of thinking that in the late Cold War and post-Cold War era would be called ‘techno-nationalism’. In this view, the economic and political power associated with access to the most advanced technology has made it the crucial determinant of international power and status. In the contemporary international system the development of advanced technology has now become the key system variable in the way that military power and alliance membership previously was, and geo-technological manoeuvring has replaced geopolitical rivalry in the global competition for status and political influence.18
Technonationalism at first sight seems remote from the traditional realist preoccupation with military capabilities as the ultimate measures of power within the international system. However, it is certainly possible to include it within the broader measurement of power associated with classical forms of realism. In addition, while it is distinct from a purely military measurement of power, there is nevertheless a significant overlap between the kinds of technologies typically advanced by technonationalist regimes and contemporary indicators of military prowess. The space programmes of India, China and Europe, for example, have delivered enhanced military capabilities through the development of long-range launchers and satellite systems with a wide variety of military utility, including reconnaissance, communications, navigation and meteorology. The complex interrelationship between technonationalism as such, and enhanced military capability, helps to explain why developing countries such as China and India chose to invest in expensive space programmes in the face of the enormous domestic poverty and underdevelopment with which they were struggling. The realist emphasis on the importance of reputation and prestige explains why such countries would eventually choose to move into the hugely expensive commitment of a manned spaceflight programme, as bot...

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