International politics in space

Dr. Paikowsky provides a unique perspective of the past, current, and future of space exploration and technological development in world politics.

International politics is a tough game; countries have no one to turn to but themselves. Despite best efforts to create international institutions that promote more cooperative behavior, countries inevitably, it seems, revert to pursuing self-interest first and foremost. Today’s rise in nationalism, in stark contrast to the heady days of post-Cold War globalization, clearly indicates that persistent anarchism continues to define the international system.

Although potential militarization of outer space indicates otherwise, human activity in space actually has the potential to overcome some of the divisive elements of the international system. To succeed in space requires international cooperation. Whether it be reaching other celestial bodies, coordinating deep-space communication, or just keeping orbits clear of space junk, countries cannot do much alone.

As the space scene gets increasingly crowded – with new major space powers like China and India exerting their muscle and smaller emergent powers like Nigeria and South Africa establishing their reputations – countries will have to learn to how to balance cooperation and self-interest off-planet. No doubt international politics will be a major determinant of how quickly humans develop into a species no longer confined to a single planet.

Filling Space spoke with Deganit Paikowsky, an Israeli academic specializing in international space politics. She recently published her book The Power of the Space Club, an analysis of international politics in space. Dr. Paikowsky shared her thoughts about space politics.

Why do governments choose to develop space programs and is it worth it to do so?

Governments choose to develop space programs for a variety of reasons, including to gain military, economic, and development benefits. There is also a fundamentally strategic value of having a space program. This is shown by the fact that governments often choose to emphasize the political aspect of their accomplishments, and also that they justify their efforts to acquire space capabilities by arguing for the value of membership in the space club.

In my latest book The Power of the Space Club, I show that the political logic of joining the space club is that space technological development and exploration is simply seen as what powerful countries do. A country that sees itself as a power deserving a seat at the table of world governance is expected to race for space. Based on a rich and detailed analysis of a range of space programs of states which are not usually at the focus of world politics research, I argue it is legitimate and rational for countries to consider joining the space club, which explains national decision-making about and national prioritization of space activity. In the decision to embark on a space program, a state acts in keeping with its perceptions of what others expect it to do and what it perceives as necessary to do for geostrategic reasons. A state’s national aspirations are rooted in its domestic political discourse, its national narratives, its history, and its culture.

How do national space programs affect relations between countries back here on Earth?

The history of national space exploration and technology development is an expression of well-known international exclusionary politics on Earth. Motivated by considerations of national security, economics, international status, and national honor, space politics is highly competitive and nationalistic. It is centered on setting boundaries and highlighting the concept of “us” versus “them.” However, some features of the physics of space demand international cooperation even among rivals. For example, in order to monitor and mitigate the issue of space debris there is a strong need for international cooperation. With this in mind, looking far away into the future with a twist of science fiction, it is worth considering whether the future journey deeper into space will allow humans to leave behind them the existing boundaries between groups on Earth in favor of more inclusive politics.

Based on your experience, what do you recommend to individuals interested in specializing in space politics?

Experts in space politics serve as a bridge between technologists or scientists on one side and decision-makers on the other side. Therefore, I recommend individuals who are interested in space politics to learn about strategy and international relations as well as to learn about the physics of space. They do not need to become engineers or scientists, but they do need to understand the way space technology works and the way it can be applied.