Adam Routh is a Ph.D. candidate at King’s College London preparing to defend his research exploring international governance of emerging space activities.

The space ecosystem has been undergoing considerable change in recent decades except for one crucial area — the international governance of space. The space industry is growing rapidly, as are space domain challenges like space debris or lacking norms of behavior. Yet, the international governance needed to address these changes and ensure space is developed sustainably — because space sustainability is business sustainability — remains largely stagnant. 

The problem is that the forum charged with advancing international space governance, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), can’t advance the governance necessary to meet the needs of today’s space sector. To fix the problem, COPUOS needs to rethink its approach to consensus decision-making.  

Consensus at COPUOS

For COPUOS, the goal should be to change its approach to consensus decision-making, not abandon its pursuit of consensus. The way the forum uses consensus is unique. It’s required at just about every stage in the diplomatic process: from modifying the agenda to advancing a governance measure from inception to adoption. To achieve consensus, COPUOS members do not typically vote but instead, voice objections if they disagree with the item under discussion. For decisions requiring consensus, a single objection from any member can stall the process. 

The strict method COPUOS uses often muddles the diplomatic process by shifting attention away from producing effective governance toward simply reaching agreement on nearly any issue. Indeed, just reaching consensus tends to get COPUOS more attention than the utility of whatever was agreed on. The forum’s strict decision-making style is a major reason why it has failed to keep pace with space governance needs. 

The pros and cons of consensus in international governance 

Consensus is not unique to COPUOS. Consensus sits as a cornerstone in most international governance fora. When governing a global commons, it makes sense to use a process that allows all interested states to have equal say. Developing agreements through consensus can also improve adherence to those measures. 

There are tradeoffs to seeking consensus, too. In a forum like COPUOS, with more than 100 members, seeking consensus can increase diplomatic transaction costs — sometimes to the point of impasse. Higher transaction costs can require diluting governance measures until all members agree. And while consensus can improve adherence, it doesn’t guarantee it

Consensus alone can’t ensure a new set of guidelines, treaty, or standard is effective, either. Nor does producing governance without consensus mean it will be less effective. Consensus is just one factor that shapes how effective or ineffective a governance measure is.

Worse still, because COPUOS struggles with decision-making, the importance of individual outputs (e.g., treaties, standards, or guidelines) becomes inflated, further impairing decision-making. When agreements are rare, states tend to see more risk in those agreements because there is little assurance that governance can be changed as a state’s interests change; it’s the perception that whatever gets produced will be around and affecting a state’s choice for a while. When the risk is higher, so too are transaction costs. 

Conversely, when an organization can effectively make decisions, modifying existing measures or producing new ones tends to be more routine. When changing governance is routine, states tend to perceive less risk in new agreements because they know there is a good possibility of changing governance again in the future. When perceived risk is lower, transaction costs tend to be lower too.

More effective approaches to consensus  

Consensus is an outcome, not a process. This means the processes used to achieve consensus can influence its value. Leveraging consensus for its benefits while limiting the drawbacks requires thoughtful consideration of: 

  • what activities require consensus (e.g., treaties vs. guidelines, agenda changes, etc.)
  • where in the diplomatic process consensus is sought (e.g., at each stage of the discussion vs. only when adopting a measure), and 
  • how it is achieved (e.g., vote, objection, tacit acceptance, assessing the ‘sense’ of the discussion)

When looking at other organizations with similar governance responsibilities, it’s common to see them employ consensus in a manner that reflects thoughtful consideration of the bullets above. 

For example, a non-binding set of guidelines developed through the International Maritime Organization rarely requires full member consensus because they tend to serve a cursory purpose that doesn’t justify higher transaction costs. Similarly, the Generic Names Supporting Organization, which oversees key internet governance, will pick from a menu of decision-making styles at the outset of a working group. Forums will also leverage different ways of achieving consensus based on the measure in question. Some measures benefit from tacit acceptance, while others require a formal vote. The flexibility allows each organization to effectively meet governance needs by tailoring transaction costs with goals of the governance output.   

The key for COPUOS is to change how it leverages consensus so it can effectively balance the value of consensus with the costs of seeking it. Changing the processes within an international organization may seem like a big deal, but it is common as far as international governance goes. To be sure, changing how COPUOS does anything will require a lot of diplomatic work, but the future of the space industry depends on effective international governance.