Trump administration continues support of outer space norms of behavior

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WASHINGTON – A former Obama administration official is optimistic that the Trump administration will continue to pursue the development of non-binding international agreements to promote norms of behavior in outer space.

In a Feb. 1 speech at a U.S.-Japan space policy forum here, Frank Rose, chief of government relations at the Aerospace Corporation and a former assistant secretary of state and deputy assistant secretary for space and defense policy, said he was encouraged by statements by administration officials calling for continued development of such agreements on issues like orbital debris and proximity operations.

“I think it’s fair to say there has been a significant amount of continuity in their approach to the development of norms for outer space, similar to the Obama and Bush administrations,” he said of the current administration. He noted that “several senior-level administration officials” have emphasized the benefits of such agreements in public comments in recent months.

Among those officials is Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the National Space Council. Rose cited a Dec. 13 speech at a space law conference where Pace said the administration “seeks to develop non-binding international norms that are complementary to the existing legal regime through both ‘bottom-up’ best practices developed cooperatively with other space actors, and ‘top-down’ non-legally binding confidence-building measures.”

In addition, Rose said that Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson has also talked about the development of such norms. He noted that while the administration has not discussed what sort of norms of outer space behavior it will pursue agreements about, “the trajectory is very clear.”

Pace, in his December speech, suggested issues like proximity operations and the implications of large constellations of small satellites might be best addressed through guidelines that are not legally binding.

“In a rapidly changing environment of nanosats, ‘mega constellations,’ and commercially available on-orbit servicing or rendezvous and proximity operations, creating new legally binding agreements is unlikely to be timely or successful,” he stated in his prepared remarks for that speech. “On the other hand, non-legally binding guidelines, based on international consensus, can be reflected in national law and regulation. In this way, we can address rapid technical changes without subordinating U.S. activities to new trans-national authorities.”

Frank A. Rose, U.S. assistant secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance
Frank Rose, who worked on space policy issues at the State Department during the Obama administration, sees the Trump administration taking a similar approach on issues like the development of norms of behavior. Credit: SpaceNews/Tom Kimmell

Rose offered a similar rationale. “Non-legally binding approaches are probably the most practical way to build norms,” he said. “If we look back over the last decade, the most successful norm-building exercises have been non-legally binding. Even though these norms are not legally binding, it has not prohibited nations from incorporating those norms into domestic law and regulations.”

Rose, like Pace, also noted that the rapidly changing nature of some space activities and technologies works against development of legally-binding accords, which take far longer to negotiate.

Rose added, though, that the United States needs to first determine its own position on some issues, in particular satellite servicing and debris removal, before it seeks to establish international norms. “The United States first needs to get its own house in order on this,” he said. The Obama administration, he said, could not come to consensus on how to deal with it, but noted that the Trump administration is devoting “some real brainpower” to the topic.

Once the United States settles on a position, Rose emphasized the need to do outreach with major spacefaring nations, and then the broader international community, to win support for establishing norms around those positions. He argued the lack of such outreach by the European Union doomed its proposed “Code of Conduct” for outer space activities several years ago.

“I believe there was a window of opportunity in the 2008-2010 timeframe to bring Russia and potentially China on board with the code,” he said, but the EU didn’t effectively discuss the code with those countries. He added that representatives of a number of other countries told him that they hadn’t been approached by EU officials about the proposed code. “These process issues were the ultimate reasons for the code’s eventual failure.”

Rose also emphasized the benefits of bilateral, versus multilateral, agreements. “The Obama administration’s most important work with the development of space norms was done at the bilateral level,” he said. That included work with emerging space nations as well as “potential adversaries” Russia and China.

He emphasized the progress the Obama administration made with China, including the first space security talks between the nations and a joint statement in 2016 where the countries committed to reducing the creation of long-lived space debris. “It is my hope that the Trump administration will continue with these types of bilateral engagements with China and other nations.”