A Holding Pattern in Space

November 1, 2010
David Wright
Former contributor

Every year since the early 1980s, the United Nations General Assembly’s “First Committee,” which deals with international security issues, has voted on a resolution calling for efforts toward “Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space” (PAROS). Every year since 1983 it has passed overwhelmingly—and without the support of the United States. During that time the U.S. abstained 19 times and voted “no” 8 times (most recently from 2005 to 2008)—sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of a few other states.

The Bush administration opposed discussions on space, maintaining that “there is no arms race in space, and therefore no problem for arms control to solve.”

The Obama administration abstained from voting on the resolution in 2009. However, on June 28, 2010, the administration released its National Space Policy, which indicated a greater openness to diplomacy than its 2006 predecessor:

The United States will pursue bilateral and multilateral transparency and confidence-building measures to encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, space. The United States will consider proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies.

So there was some hope that the administration might support this year’s resolution in the First Committee as a way of showing its interest in getting discussions of these issues started.

The draft PAROS resolution, submitted by Egypt, is not a radical document. The main provision of the resolution:

Invites the Conference on Disarmament to establish a working group under its agenda item entitled “Prevention of an arms race in outer space” as early as possible during its 2011 session

(The Conference on Disarmament (CD) is the body that discusses and negotiates international security agreements.)

However, on October 27 the U.S. once again abstained from voting, along with Israel. The 170 countries that did vote all supported the resolution.

It’s not clear how strong the U.S. allergy to discussing space security at the CD remains. Frank Rose, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Verification, Compliance, and Implementation, recently told the CD:

…let me reaffirm that the United States continues to support the inclusion of a non-negotiating, or discussion, mandate in any CD program of work under the agenda item, “Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space,” known as PAROS.

This seems to leave the door open to international discussions, which would be a welcomed first step in addressing an issue that by its nature is global. You have to wonder what was behind the recent U.S. abstention. Maybe it was a concern that things would go beyond the “discussion” phase.

The other shoe dropped on October 29, when the First Committee voted on a resolution to study transparency and confidence-building measures. In particular, the resolution:

Requests the Secretary-General to establish, on the basis of equitable geographical distribution, a group of governmental experts to conduct a study, commencing in 2012, on outer space transparency and confidence-building measures

Again, hardly radical stuff. A similar resolution was voted on from 2005 to 2008, and each time the U.S. was the only country to vote against it (Israel abstained each year). In 2009, the resolution was adopted without a vote.

Given the clear support for transparency and confidence-building measures expressed in the excerpt from the 2010 National Space Policy quoted above, it seemed like a no-brainer that the administration would support this resolution. But the vote on the resolution showed 167 countries supporting it, none opposing, and the U.S. alone abstaining.

Rumor has it that the U.S. did not want to vote for these resolutions because they “noted” that Russia and China had introduced a draft treaty to the CD that calls for “prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space and of the threat or use of force against outer space objects.” Was the U.S. concerned that a “yes” vote would be seen either as an endorsement of that draft treaty, or of negotiations rather than discussions? This would suggest that the U.S. allergy remains pretty strong.

Unfortunately, in space as in other realms, the United States seems to consistently overestimate its ability to achieve security via technical and military means and underestimate the benefits of diplomacy.