The dawn of the space age coincided with fears of a surprise nuclear attack because the vehicle that launched Sputnik could also be used to loft a nuclear warhead. Since 1957, many treaties and less formal agreements have been negotiated to reduce nuclear dangers, while the record of diplomatic accomplishment regarding space has been relatively sparse. U.S. President Barack Obama has a rare opportunity to make greater headway on space security, but success is far from assured.

There are many reasons why the record of accomplishment for space diplomacy is so modest, at least compared to nuclear accords. Reducing nuclear dangers comes at the very top of every presidential “to do” list. In contrast, space-related issues usually have to wait far back in line. Nuclear weapons are also distinctive. Because they have very narrow purposes, it is somewhat easier to place boundaries around negotiations, unlike “space weapons,” which can encompass many multipurpose technologies used for other essential military and nonmilitary purposes. Another reason why space diplomacy has been moribund is because the negotiating forum where such talks are supposed to occur — the 65-nation Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament operates by consensus and has been tied up in knots for more than a decade.

Consequently, the six decades since Sputnik changed our lives have been characterized by long periods of disinterest in space talks and occasional spurts of meaningful diplomacy. Unfortunately, these rare occurrences have often been marked by overreaching by one or more major powers. Ambitious negotiating agendas have also contributed to a sparse record of accomplishment.

For example, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was interested in placing restraints on anti-satellite (A-Sat) weapons, but he was more interested in negotiating limits on strategic arms and nuclear testing. When space talks got under way, Soviet negotiators overreached, claiming at one point that the space shuttle should be considered an A-Sat. Nothing came of the space talks during the Carter administration.

President Obama appears intent to reinvigorate space diplomacy after eight years in which former President George W. Bush’s administration rejected any initiative that might constrain the U.S. military’s freedom of action in space. The Obama administration will be more proactive diplomatically, but familiar impediments to success remain in play: nuclear-related issues will demand the president’s attention, his “to do” list is daunting, “space weapons” remain hard to define, and overreaching can doom prospects for success.

The likelihood of success can increase if the Obama administration chooses sensible criteria to guide space talks and to measure results. If Washington chooses wisely, and if Beijing and Moscow can resist overreaching, a rare diplomatic success is possible.

The overriding criterion used by the Bush administration — no constraints on U.S. freedom of action in space — was, by definition, a declaration of disinterest in diplomacy. The U.S. rejection of constraints facilitated freedom of action by others. Not surprisingly, the net result of this laissez faire approach was reduced U.S. freedom of action in space, as the debris population rose precipitously after a Chinese kinetic energy A-Sat test. The debris population in low Earth orbit also rose dramatically from a satellite collision and by the break-up of a Russian rocket body.

A far wiser, baseline criterion for space talks is that agreements must advance U.S. national and economic security, as well as the personal security of U.S. citizens. Since agreements will not be reached without also serving the perceived national interests of all major spacefaring nations, a zero- sum approach to space diplomacy is a recipe for failure. Results in the near term can only be realized by focusing on common interests and common threats.

Another important criterion is that the focus of space diplomacy be placed squarely on immediate problems that have the potential of becoming far worse. The huge debris-causing incidents in recent years could, if replicated, pose far greater constraints on the activities of all spacefaring nations. Another criterion, tied to the last, is that agreements be negotiated in a timely manner. Since negotiators need to play catch-up ball to the debris and space traffic management problems, the longer talks are extended, the farther behind the curve we might find ourselves.

Another key criterion for negotiating outcomes is that they strengthen international norms of responsible behavior in space. By doing so, resulting agreements can help isolate rule breakers and, if necessary, facilitate responses to irresponsible actions.

Yet another criterion is to avoid overreaching. For the Obama administration, this means avoiding ambitious plans to ban all “space weapons.” Since so many multipurpose technologies can be used as weapons, the definition of a weapon depends on the user’s intent — and U.S. national security cannot rest on the intentions of others.

For Moscow and Beijing, overreaching can be defined as trying to renegotiate parts of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Talks focused on strengthening norms of responsible behavior in space have a reasonable chance of success; efforts to re-impose bans on space-based ballistic missile defenses or “space strike” weapons will likely result in an extended stalemate. The debate over space-based ballistic missile defense remains unresolved in the United States. But the pursuit of such capabilities was unsuccessful in the Bush administration, and the political and cost-effectiveness barriers to U.S. initiatives in this field remain firmly in place. The use of a rare opportunity for space diplomacy to re-fight these battles would be unwise, unnecessary and unsuccessful.

Another common sense criterion for space talks, especially if the agreement under consideration takes the form of a treaty, is effective verification. But less formal compacts also require a satisfactory ability to monitor whether the norms of responsible behavior we seek to establish and strengthen are being honored by others. Opportunities for space diplomacy provide yet another reason to improve U.S. situational awareness in space.

What kinds of agreements might meet these common sense criteria? Two possible accords, which are not mutually exclusive, stand out. One is a Code of Conduct for responsible spacefaring nations that is built around the principles of no purposeful, harmful interference against man-made space objects; more stringent debris mitigation practices; and space traffic management. The second is a verifiable treaty banning kinetic energy A-Sats.


Michael Krepon is co-founder of the
and the author of “Better Safe than Sorry, The Ironies of Living with the Bomb” (
Press, 2009).

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center and the author of “Life Lessons: Recovering from Chemo and Serious Illness.”