Space Diplomacy

I guess I need to get out more, because I learned only recently that the State Department has an Office of Space Affairs -- not the folks who allocate offices and meeting rooms, but rather a part of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. OES/SA houses those who carry out, as their mission statement puts it, “diplomatic and public diplomacy efforts to strengthen American leadership in space exploration, applications, and commercialization.”

It stands to reason. For one thing, big bucks: The global space economy was valued at $422 billion in 2022, and is projected to reach $1 trillion by the 2040s.  There are currently over 8000 satellites in earth orbit (about half of them inactive), operated by nearly 100 countries and organizations around the world. And, don’t forget the military:  19 countries have an estimated 320 military satellites up there, of these, the US has the lion’s share – 123 – Russia has 74, and China 68.

Plus, there’s the US Space Force, the newest member of the American armed forces institutional family, established in 2019. Last year USSF announced it would begin placing Space Attachés in selected embassies, and the US has signed “enhanced space cooperation” memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with Australia, Canada, and the UK.

International relations professors Saadia Pekkanen, of the University of Washington, and Mai'a K. Davis Cross, of Northeastern University, write that “A quantum leap is under way in space as a domain of human activity… At no time has it been more necessary to take up the challenge of better understanding diplomacy’s scope and limits than in the unfolding realities of what some are calling a new space race.”

The technologies being developed for and by the space industry “hold promise for the exploration of space and for tackling the economic and digital divides around us,” they write. “On the other hand, the dual-use nature of some of these same space technologies calls peaceful prospects in outer space into serious question.”

The authors see a logical nexus between science and diplomacy, with science being a fine example of soft power. They quote from a 2010 report of The Royal Society: “‘[S]cience provides a nonideological environment for the participation and free exchange of ideas between people, regardless of cultural, national or religious backgrounds.’ The soft power of science can enrich traditional diplomacy, public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy even at the most difficult times.”

Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor credited with coining the term “soft power,” gets a salute: “Nye’s concept of soft power is useful in understanding the nature of space capabilities as a form of attractive power,” according to Pekkanen and Cross. “Nye includes cultural products, ideology, and institutions of a nation as comprising soft power resources. Soft power is defined as attractive power, as opposed to its counterpart hard power, which is coercive.”

Communication, they point out, is key to diplomacy, and once again PD steps up to take a bow: “Mutual engagement with the public often happens in the form of public diplomacy, which includes cultural and scientific diplomacy and is broadly defined as ‘the communication of narratives that embody key norms about a society.’ In the context of space diplomacy, these narratives are about… the history, inspiration, meaning, value, identity, and progress behind human aspirations in space.”

So, to these scholars, at least, space is opening new vistas for diplomacy, and new opportunities for PD practitioners. They conclude, “As space becomes increasingly indispensable to daily life on Earth, being able to forecast the extent to which it promotes peaceful interactions across borders versus conflict and nationalistic militarism will allow policy-makers to prepare for future scenarios.”

You can read their complete study, “Space Diplomacy – The Final Frontier of Theory and Practice”, here.

For more about State’s Office of Space Affairs, take a look at this article by David A. Epstein in the Foreign Service Journal, May 2022.

Finally, for a special treat, listen to the new, official US Space Force song, Semper Supra. And remember:  In space, no one can hear you sing. 

* * * * * *
Bill Wanlund is a PDCA Board Member, retired Foreign Service Officer, and freelance writer in the Washington, DC area. His column, Worth Noting, appears in the PDCA Weekly Update and the PDCA Blog; it seeks to address topics of interest to PDCA members.