‘Macbeth’ is not a strategy for outer space

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A view of Earth from outer space. A United Nations working group will meet to discuss reducing threats from irresponsible state behavior in space.

Naturally, we are curious to know the future. Perhaps like Shakespeare’s Banquo in “Macbeth,” who entreats the Fates to predict the course of time, “If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow, and which will not, speak.” Presently, the war in Ukraine looms center stage, adding additional friction to already strained relations in outer space between Russia and the United States.

As forewarned in the Defense Department’s 2020 Space Strategy, space increasingly is becoming a contested domain with China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. Recently, the head of the Russian space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, announced that Russia intends to leave the historic International Space Station in response to sanctions. But there is hope. On May 9, United Nations stakeholders plan to host a dialogue in Geneva on norms of responsible state behavior in space. After Russia’s destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test in November 2021, 163 members of the U.N. General Assembly voted to establish an open-ended working group on reducing space threats. The group’s first meeting was scheduled for Feb. 14, but was delayed by the Russian delegation’s multiple objections and the escalating crisis in Ukraine.

To avoid writing a tragedy like Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” a global dialogue on norms of responsible state behavior in space is essential. Interestingly, China and Russia opposed the working group’s formation. Why?

Setting the stage, Beijing and Moscow signaled their joint commitment for exploring space in March 2021 when Russia’s Roscosmos space agency and the China National Space Administration signed an agreement to establish a shared lunar research center and pursue deep space exploration. This space partnership was affirmed on Feb. 4, when Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a joint statement on entering a new era of international relations — including in outer space. The two leaders declared their opposition toward U.S. plans to develop global missile defense and “attempts by some states to turn outer space into an arena of armed confrontation,” according to a translation by Air University.

Then on Feb. 22, the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany and France signaled their commitment to maintaining the safety and sustainability of space by jointly releasing the Combined Space Operations Vision 2031. The vision statement warns that “the lack of widely accepted norms of responsible behavior and historical practice increases the possibility of misperceptions and the risks of escalation.” Communicating with spacefaring nations can enhance safety and stability.

Furthermore, cooperation is a critical and necessary strategy, as discussed in the Biden administration’s Space Priorities Framework. For example, NASA’s Artemis program is an international space exploration initiative begun under the Trump administration to return astronauts to the moon and conduct the first human mission to Mars. Central to the program is a series of non-binding principles, called the Artemis Accords: Principles for a Safe, Peaceful and Prosperous Future. These principles articulate standards of behavior to support deep space exploration and peaceful relations among nations. Presently there are 17 signatory countries; the most recent addition is Bahrain, which signed the Accords on March 2. The others are: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. 

Apart from NASA’s Artemis program, the China Manned Space agency also put out a call for other nations to join its space exploration program. In celebration of completing the Shenzhou-13 mission on April 16, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin declared that China is “willing to work with any country and region that is dedicated to the peaceful use of space to carry out more international cooperation and exchanges.”

As the U.N.’s new space group prepares to convene next week, the challenge ahead is how to unite disparate visions of space stability in pursuit of one common goal. To that point, the Biden administration is committed to building what could be dubbed the “Four S’s of Space” — ensuring the safety, security, stability and sustainability of outer space — in concert with norms, rules and law. The Putin-Xi joint statement also signals a shared interest in advancing the “long-term sustainability” of space. 

Only through communication — however problem-riddled it may be — can we work toward advancing norms, rules and principles for the security and sustainability of space. “Macbeth’s” zero-sum strategy of “Stars, hide your fires, Let not light see my black and deep desires,” should not serve as a space strategy for any nation.

Zhanna L. Malekos Smith is a senior associate with the Strategic Technologies Program and the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, an assistant professor in the Department of Systems Engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and an affiliate faculty with the Modern War Institute. The views expressed here are solely the author’s and not those of CSIS, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. Research assistant Cadet Mary E. Bell contributed to this article.

Tags Artemis program China Russia Space warfare United Nations Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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