U.S. adoption of the European Union’s Code of Conduct appears imminent. Unilateral adoption of the Code by the Obama Administration, likely through executive order, is not necessary to secure U.S. interests in space and potentially undermines those interests in the long run. In Rules of the Road in Space, Institute President Jeff Kueter examines the arguments in favor of U.S. adoption and concludes that the Code’s prospective contributions to U.S. security are not sufficient to warrant its approval.
“The EU Code is a solution in search of a problem. The tangible issues it seeks to address – space debris, space traffic management, and collision avoidance – all can be and to some extent are being addressed in other international and multilateral venues,” Kueter argues. “The Code certainly will keep space diplomats busy, but its practical contributions to U.S. security in space are limited and potentially harmful.”
Advocates of the Code believe it will spur the emergence of best practices and encourage good behavior in space. Evidence supporting that proposition is scarce. The Code itself is little more than a statement of general principles. Much more work is required to develop best practices and socialize good behavior in space, even if such an outcome is achievable. Without those details, subscribing to the Code is premature. The United States would be agreeing to a process whose end is unknown and whose impact on its military and commercial interests can not be weighed. The U.S. has other viable options to marshal the international community to grapple with the practical issues identified in the Code.
The Code purports to facilitate the emergence of responsible behavior in space with the belief that a shared definition will discourage irresponsible actions. “If the Code seeks nothing more than to secure commitment to a set of vague statements, then it offers little contribution to the security of space,” Kueter argues. “Countries that seek to deny the U.S. use of space do so to advance their own security and there is nothing in the Code that precludes them from doing so.”
But, depending on how the Code is implemented in the U.S., it may impose important unilateral constraints on the U.S. that are not shared internationally. And, if the Code evolves into binding commitments, it becomes an arms control agreement and, as such, deserves a much fuller vetting by the public and the Congress than it has received to date.
“Fundamental questions about the content of the Code and its implications remain unknown,” Kueter concludes. “Proceeding to adopt it in its present state is premature and potentially quite harmful to U.S. interests in space.”