State Dept. official: ‘We need to have discussions about space’

by
Undersecretary of State Andrea Thompson: "What is a responsible nation state behavior in space?” At the State Department, “Those discussions are just starting.”

WASHINGTON — Space diplomacy has not received much attention at the State Department for some time. But that is likely to change as the Trump administration seeks to establish U.S. leadership in space, said a senior State Department official.

“Space is something we talk about very often,” Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson told reporters at a breakfast meeting on Friday.

Thompson, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, noted that she is not a space expert and would not comment specifically on the militarization of space or the use of space weapons.

But she did stress the need for greater international dialogue on what the rules of behavior should be in space. “We need to have discussions. What is a responsible nation state behavior in space?” Thompson said. At the State Department, “Those discussions are just starting.”

The United States will be participating next week in the United Nations’ first ever conference on space law and policy, to be held in Moscow.

“I look forward to hearing the results from the UN” dialogue, said Thompson.

The UN said the conference will focus on the “legal and policy aspects and implications, both current and anticipated, of activities in outer space.” A central issue is that the resources of outer space are being used by an increasing number of states and non-governmental entities. As more actors engage in space activities, there are concerns that a competition for those resources could lead to international conflicts.

Frank Rose, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, said space diplomacy is an “ever more important piece of the international security picture.” Scores of countries now have their own space programs, he wrote in a SpaceNews op-ed. “The United States must work to shape new norms in space, particularly as Russia and China advance their own brands of space diplomacy.”

Thompson said “space is one of those areas that is moving very quickly, and the policy is trying to keep up.”

The topic of space security is regularly discussed at meetings of the Trump administration’s National Space Council, she said. “We talked about what is the way ahead, what does that look like for arms control, treaties and norms in space? It’s a discussion that we’re having, and it’s very important.”

The issue of international norms of behavior applies both to space and cyber, said Thompson. “What are cyber and space norms for responsible nations states?”

Thompson does not foresee any new international treaties will be signed in the near future, on neither cyber or space security. But she predicts there will be more dialogue. “It may not have to be a treaty. It doesn’t need to be a treaty. But we have to have discussions about acceptable rules and norms. If you want to be part of the global order, this is what do you need to do.”

If space is going to a diplomatic priority, the State Department will have to beef up its expertise. “We need to start bringing in folks now,” said Thompson. “We will need a team in place working space policy years from now.”

She credited Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who replaced former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in April — for “bringing back swagger” at the State Department. “You can see it,” she said. “It’s different, there’s an energy, you can feel it in the hallways.”

Space policy experts said they would like to see the United States take a lead role in multilateral diplomacy regarding space security.

“The existing international space law regime was the result of successful US engagement,” Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, wrote in The Space Review.

“During much of the early Space Age, the United States played a leadership role in initiating and shaping multilateral discussions on space,” Weeden noted. “Recent administrations have been increasingly reluctant to engage in multilateral space discussions that touch on security issues to the same degree.”