The United Nations Conference on Disarmament, the Geneva-based 65-nation group that has been stuck in a diplomatic quagmire for the past decade, announced two surprising breakthroughs two weeks ago.
The first concerned creating rules prohibiting the production of nuclear-grade materials, even among nations with nuclear weapons. The second was the equally dramatic agreement to create a working group to seek an end to weapons in space.
The exact language from the outer space committee states that there is agreement among the member nations “to discuss substantively, without limitation, all issues related to the prevention of an arms race in outer space.”
This program of work for 2009, as it is called, provides insight into the strategy of the Obama administration to deal with longstanding international strategic space issues
For more than a decade the United States has been the principal impediment to United Nations discussions on curtailing the development of space-based weapons. More recently, programs such as the anti-satellite missiles tested by the U.S., Russia and China, have been deemed by American officials to be ground-based, and hence not subject to any treaty. The Washington Post quotes our then-ambassador as stating there was no arms race in space and “therefore, no problem for arms control to solve," said Ambassador Christina Rocca. She added that negotiating any new treaty against weaponizing space was "unnecessary and counterproductive."
Here’s what the announcement tells us, just in case you were not clear already:
Firstly, that the Obama administration believes talk and negotiations to be better than diplomatic stalemate, even with nations like China.
Second, it believes the status quo in the strategic space arena to be unacceptable.
And finally, the administration believes existing institutions are adequate for investing America’s time and resources to solve space-based issues.
For the space community there are only good implications. Sure, it could well take another decade to reach an agreement. But in the meantime it will send a signal of goodwill to other spacefaring nations, with spillover effects for increased cooperation in the civil and commercial sectors.
So remember this terse announcement in the months to come and let’s see together how significant a first step this is.