Arms control agenda items rise to the top when they can’t be postponed. Achievements are hard won and exhausting, followed by the displacement of arms control by other pressing issues, and preoccupation with upcoming elections.

U.S. President Barack Obama faced two time-sensitive and essential arms control agenda items — negotiating a strategic arms reduction treaty to replace one that was due to expire in December 2009, and engineering a positive Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in May 2010 after the train wreck of the previous conference in 2005. He succeeded on both fronts. Along the way, the president oversaw policy reviews, hosted a meaningful nuclear security summit and articulated his vision of eliminating nuclear weapons. When there is so much to do, it is not surprising that presidential candidate Obama’s promise to pursue a code of conduct for responsible spacefaring nations has flagged.

The Pentagon has been considering operational issues associated with the code for over two years. For equally as long, State Department officials have claimed to be “leading from behind” by tacitly supporting the European Union’s (EU) draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. Fine print and operational details matter greatly, but U.S. leadership matters more. Without it, a rare conjunction of need and opportunity will be lost.

The EU deserves credit for moving the ball up the field, but it can’t seem to score the winning goal. Moscow has engineered the creation of a group of governmental experts at the United Nations, which will begin its deliberations on space in 2012. This forum of 15 nations — one-quarter the size of the Geneva Conference on Disarmament, where space diplomacy has been tied up in knots — will include all the key states needed to deregionalize the EU’s draft code. The group of governmental experts could become a vehicle for this purpose. Alternatively, Moscow and Beijing could try to use this forum to promote their proposed treaty to prevent space weapons that cannot be usefully defined or properly verified. In other words, the group of governmental experts could become a steppingstone toward a negotiating achievement or another stone in a blank wall of diplomatic obstruction.

For the Obama administration to approach this forum merely as the deliberation of technical experts would be most unwise, but entirely in keeping with traits of bureaucratic timidity and high-level fatigue. Naysayers thrive under these conditions. The code of conduct has a few hard-core opponents who speak louder when the Obama administration has lost its voice.

During the administration of President George W. Bush, opponents of a code of conduct argued that if something wasn’t broken, it didn’t need fixing. By which they meant that the United States needed to maximize freedom of action in outer space and to reject any restraining measures, including a code of conduct. The results of this approach are now evident in the form of an unprecedented increase in space debris, satellite collision and tests or pseudo-tests of anti-satellite weapons.

It is clear to most space watchers that something definitely is broken and in need of fixing, most immediately in low Earth orbit, where debris hazards, collisions, anti-satellite capabilities and space traffic management have become serious concerns. Opposition to whatever President Obama tries to do in space, as on Earth, is endemic among some Washingtonians. Space diplomacy offers the Obama administration a welcome reprieve from trench warfare, since executive agreements like the space code of conduct are not treaties, do not require the approval of two-thirds of the Senate and are a clear presidential prerogative.

The high-water mark of space diplomacy occurred in a brief five-year window framed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1972 ABM Treaty. There has been far too little effort ever since to lend order to this essential but chaotic domain. In the absence of rules of the road for space, U.S. national and economic security will be jeopardized. A code of conduct could therefore be a considerable as well as an essential diplomatic achievement. But at this juncture in the code’s evolution, the State Department and the Pentagon are still stuck in first gear.


Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.

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