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White House Moves To Reassure Hill, Allies on Space Code

Posted by Colin Clark on

The State and Defense departments scrambled to “correct misperceptions” on Capitol Hill, in foreign capitals and throughout the international space community about American intentions regarding an international space code of conduct. That’s the way a source familiar with the government’s discussions put it.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Defense Department spokesman George Little overcame the poor international press yesterday and today with what looked like an important policy declaration about the U.S. commitment to an international code of conduct governing space operations.

Not so much.

What the administration really wanted to do was counter the truth stated by last week by State Department Undersecretary for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher that the US had rejected the idea of adopting a space code penned by the European Union. Tauscher mentioned the rejection of the EU code as an aside at a breakfast with defense reporters and I asked her to clarify what she meant. She did, very clearly: “We’ve made very definitive that we’re not going to go along with the European code of conduct.”

The many sentences issued by both the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom yesterday do not contradict Tauscher. They just shout out loud and clear that the U.S. really, really does want a code of conduct of some kind.

Here’s the core of what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “In response to these challenges, the United States has decided to join with the European Union and other nations to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. A Code of Conduct will help maintain the long-term sustainability, safety, stability, and security of space by establishing guidelines for the responsible use of space.”

She does not commit the U.S. to the EU code; but to a code.

Let it be said here that the Bush administration — not known for its worries about international law or standards — committed the U.S. to most of the elements that would make up a code of conduct, know collectively in the space policy world as transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBM). Of course, this came after China’s notorious anti-satellite test, which left something like 15,000 bits of potentially dangerous space junk floating through the Earth’s orbit.

The Obama administration came in optimistically talking about using the EU code as the potential basis for an international code of conduct. The Joint Staff recently completed an analysis of the EU code and found it overly restrictive. That is the principal reason the U.S. has decided against using the European effort as is.

Clinton’s statement yesterday makes a backward reference to this: “As we begin this work, the United States has made clear to our partners that we will not enter into a code of conduct that in any way constrains our national security-related activities in space or our ability to protect the United States and our allies. We are, however, committed to working together to reverse the troubling trends that are damaging our space environment and to preserve the limitless benefits and promise of space for future generations.”

Take away for the allies: the U.S. won’t adopt your code but we really like some elements of it and will use it as one base for moving forward toward an international code we are comfortable with.

As Pentagon spokesman George Little put it: “The draft EU Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities is a promising basis for an international code.” A Pentagon Fact Sheet issued at the same time notes that Strategic Command head Gen. Kehler “has testified that he supports pursuing an international Code and sees it as consistent with strategy and plans.”

The Fact Sheet also says that the military is, “evaluating the EU’s draft as a promising basis for an international Code.” Well, not really. The decision has already been made, if not officially acknowledged, something we confirmed with several government officials.

But if you want a quick glimpse of the international political situation that has led us to this point you only need read this: “The EU draft is not legally binding and recognizes the right of self-defense. It focuses on activities not unverifiable capabilities. It better serves our interests than the legally-binding ban on space weapons proposed by others.” Russia and China have proposed a treaty that almost no one else in the world supports, in what has clearly been a pretty serious diplomatic battle. So the EU code is a lot better than what those guys have proposed even if we aren’t going to adopt it wholesale.

Where is the U.S. going to head as it builds a code acceptable to us and to the other major space-faring nations? The United States government “has been closely consulted by the EU on its draft, and we will continue to shape an international Code through active participation in international negotiations,” the Fact Sheet states.

Oh, and by the way, the Fact Sheet says that “the Administration is committed to keeping Congress informed” as it crafts a code. If you want to know why this was included in the Fact Sheet, have a look at this statement from Rep. Mike Turner, chairman of the House Armed Forces strategic forces subcommittee.

Turner says he is “deeply concerned” that the EU code could have a binding influence on US military, intelligence and commercial space operations. “These apparent impacts also suggest that, without Congressional approval, the President quite likely doesn’t have the authority to impose a Code of Conduct-type arms control arrangement on the United States,” Turner said, urging the president “to work with the Congress to determine what it is he’s trying to accomplish and then seek Congressional approval on the merits.”

What do you think?