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A 'Bretton Woods' for space in Biden's first 100 days

A 'Bretton Woods' for space in Biden's first 100 days
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Leadership means communicating a set of values, inviting partners to co-create a vision around those values and iterating that vision as time progresses.

The incoming Biden administration should undertake a Bretton Woods-style convening for space in its first 100 days, demonstrating this type of leadership that America can offer the world as it seeks to break from the Trump administration’s “America First” take-it-or-leave-it approach to world affairs. 

Biden has a unique opportunity in his first 100 days to repair and reset the United States’s international relations, using space as an historically accepted area of cooperation. A Bretton Woods-style convening would allow America to lead partners and competitors alike in co-creating a vision for how nations could and should operate responsibly and productively in space.  

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The Artemis Accords, America’s international effort for a return to the Moon, offer a strong basis from which to launch this multilateral effort. The accords have attracted eight signatories including the United States, but they send an exclusive, rather than inclusive, message abroad. Signatories are expected to adopt and subscribe to disputed American positions on space resource utilization and safety zones applied to the Moon, asteroids and Mars, reservations expressed by allies and competitors alike. 

The Artemis Accords carry the hallmarks of the America First principle. America First has mistakenly substituted tactics for strategy, incorrectly supposing that America’s interests will ultimately be served by forcing to-be international partners to make a choice between subscribing to the United States’s preferred interpretation of international space law or risk being excluded from any potential benefits of an exclusive club. 

A Bretton Woods-style convening would successfully transition from the problematic Trump administration approach, and recognize that America’s interests are best served in a wide-ranging and all-encompassing system developed by and inclusive of the United States and both its partners and competitors. Although America entered the post-WWII era as a leading superpower, the Bretton Woods systems and institutions sustained the nation’s continued success and eventual hegemony post-Cold War. Bretton Woods institutions also demonstrated that American rivals could still play and abide by rules in an American-influenced system, ranging from accessing debt relief and loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to the eventual introduction of trading oil in dollars in the 1970s and the later creation of the World Trade Organization in the 1990s.  

Similarly, a Bretton Woods-style system for space would serve American interests in addition to the diverse interests of the global community. Such a convening could establish dedicated and effective multilateral fora while augmenting United Nations bodies such as the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space that have been criticized for moving too slowly on pressing space issues, including space debris. Issues such as space traffic management and situational awareness, resource utilization, deconfliction, commercialization of Low Earth Orbit, weaponization and balancing of scientific and private industry priorities in an age of satellite mega-constellations could all feature within this system.  

A convening of this scope would require the United States’s revisiting its policy toward perhaps its most significant competitor, China. Reforming the Wolf Amendment, the provision banning civilian space cooperation with China, would need to occur to establish a truly inclusive and effective system of international space cooperation. Coupled with a relaxation of tariffs, the incoming Biden administration has a suite of policy options to incentivize China’s participation in such a convening while trying to secure improved protections around intellectual property and other areas of concern. While China will continue to develop as a global competitor to the United States, it could still serve as a partner in space similar to how the Soviet Union, and its successor Russia, were partners as competitors. Common interests around Earth observation could form the basis of such a relationship. Inclusion of China in such an approach could also serve broader American economic interests, fending off the rise of a two-tiered global economic system in which China enlists its own group of adherents at the exclusion of the United States.  

The new Biden foreign policy team will enter office with its own priorities to reverse many Trump administration decisions ranging from climate change to Iran, yet it should use space as an historically accepted arena for cooperation as a basis for its efforts to initiate renewed international engagement. American leadership in space, achieved through a Bretton Woods-style convening, would build off the momentum from the Artemis Accords and offer an opportunity to reengage competitors in a constructive manner toward the peaceful and productive use of outer space.  

David Lindgren is a space policy researcher based in the Washington, D.C., metro region, and has published on topics ranging from international space law to the application of space activities for development. Follow him on Twitter @djlindgren