Commentary | Political Mechanics

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As recently as the last turn of the century, any space program that didn’t have a link to the United States was no space program at all. But in Beijing, at the 64th International Astronautical Congress last year, America’s absence due to the budget crisis did little to dull the hum of deals being brokered. One participant suggested it was “what a post-American space regime would look like,” with the United Arab Emirates and South Korea cooperating on space ventures and giving many other aspiring space actors a chance to stand out. The flip side was criticism of the United States’ ability to execute a comprehensive and effective foreign policy.

America’s international affairs aren’t doing so well. The nation’s increasing distaste (from both necessity and circumstance) for foreign involvement provides others with opportunities to advance. This decade will see the continued rise of powerful regional actors, and in large part its history will be determined not by others’ advanced planning but by our inability to act, or react.

Over the past year alone, while the U.S. Commercial Crew Program has forced major business and engineering changes at home and abroad, the fastest-growing space actors were Russia (nominally) and Iran (relative to all new space actors). It also happened to be the year China’s Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”) landed on the Moon. At the China-Russia Exposition in Harbin, China, in July, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on satellite navigation, hoping to integrate the Beidou and Glonass systems.

These are just the most recent moves in an emerging alternative to the traditional Europe-North America-Japan tripartite that has held — and continues to hold — sway in space.

As is generally the case, space is just one element of a larger national industrial, technological and foreign policy regime. The emerging fulcrum of Russia-China-Iran is developing along geopolitical fissure lines: energy, technology and military cooperation. Ten billion dollars in energy deals between Russia and Iran in April, another $400 billion in May between Russia and China, aggressive moves near the Black and South China seas, and developments in their respective space sectors as mentioned have made the year’s international headlines seem so retro that newscasters compared them to the Cold War.

The success of this emerging axis may be credited in part by feelings of overextension and self-assuredness in Washington, but is amplified by our strategic imperatives in many theaters to cooperate with our competitors (usually through oversights that were seen long before). U.S. dependency on Russia’s Soyuz, its use of Iran in quelling ongoing turmoil throughout the Middle East and its economic ties to China have allowed all of them to further play their hands in building an independent and interconnected energy network through the heart of Asia (e.g., the Turkmenistan-China pipeline commissioned in 2009, among others), developing parallel technologies and asserting themselves more boldly internationally (Russia in Ukraine and China at sea). By developing the continent inward while pushing outward, they revive old trade routes that much more easily sideline the oceangoing routes established by Europe and America that are still susceptible to U.S. naval power.

From this point of view, it might seem that our global partner-competitors have had more success in integrating their space programs into larger foreign policy objectives. But then again, we’ve also gotten very good at criticizing ourselves. The U.S. government is set to participate in the 65th International Astronautical Congress, Sept. 29 to Oct. 3 in Toronto. We are neither down nor out, developing the most advanced technologies, and across more platforms by far than anyone else. Add to that our flare for private-sector endeavors; there’s truth to the buzzwords that our best space assets today (aside from having the three biggest space agencies in the world) are our companies. They provide a potential for future hegemony that our policymakers simply can’t right now.

While I count myself among private sector enthusiasts, the recent attempt by U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) to add Federal Acquisition Regulation requirements to many “new space” companies underscores one important fact: Companies are not national agencies, and embody only by chance the will of the public at large, the nation and its interests. And yet nurturing American industries is today the nation’s best avenue in creating space policy that resonates with our larger foreign policy objectives simply because of its ease in attracting bipartisan cooperation, unlike many other space policies and programs brought down for political reasons.

We can shoot for stars, but should be mindful of our true stripes. We can see the areas that provide promise in practice and in politics, whether from necessity (launch capability), popularity (economic growth) or opportunity. The success of the American space sector, and the United States’ position globally, depends on improving our ability to integrate space (and other sectors) with our strategic technical and economic goals.

We best accomplish this through partners that, as many do today, consider the United States necessary (if not sufficient) to accomplish their own strategic objectives. This is a decidedly American “aggressive laissez-faire” approach, where national policy seeks to provide opportunity most. The strategy of the consummate enabler will work best. The fastest-growing centers of space follow larger geopolitical movements in energy, military and technological capabilities worldwide: It is something we can work to our advantage thanks to our sheer size, but even more so if we stick to the decentralized enabler model we have always favored. It’s why we’re one of the few places where multiple alternatives can be tried simultaneously.

“I am more afraid of our own mistakes than of our enemy’s plans.” Although that’s Pericles speaking before the Assembly in Athens in favor of war, it’s a good guide to avoiding war, too. As other countries become more secure, we have allowed our weaknesses to grow — particularly in information technologies and security. Not only those threats in the “higher walls around fewer things” doctrine of the last few years, but a look at cyberattacks worldwide over the last few weeks shows that after China, the United States is its own premier attacker. We clearly have the talent and tools for a strong global policy, but have failed to fit all the pieces together — if you think we were even trying.

As for most of the new players, the hardest thing to emulate will not be technological, economic or even diplomatic. The biggest drawback they endemically can’t shake is the inability to give up a little power to get a lot of result. Where opacity and misdirection serve some better, transparency and accountability serve best. We can’t expect to stay at the top just because we are at the top. Like anywhere else that features competition, we have to earn our place continually.

It’s said the greatest victories are won without fighting. The greatest victory for a would-be leader is to be asked to lead. Using strengths like our ability to take on the most challenging aspects of missions and projects, we can make policies that make any emerging alternative to working with us superfluous.

We cannot be guaranteed the same outcome, nor can we counterbalance the weight of history for very long on our own, but that same history can guide us to that same success. Taking the time to step back and look at the parochial big picture, the way we space cadets love to say we do, is as essential as it ever has been. At the very least, we’ll need perspective.

 

Jordan Sotudeh is a master’s candidate at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.