US President Donald Trump’s assertiveness in the military domain has to be interpreted as an element of a strategy taking the United States from multilateralism to unilateralism. Be it in trade, the environment, global governance or security, Trump believes unilateralism serves better his slogan of “America First”.
While one has to recognise the consistency of his approach, one should also point at its dangers. More broadly, new forms of nationalism cannot be the answer to a century characterised by global interdependence.
In a speech at the Pentagon on August 9 on the future of the US military in outer space, US Vice President Mike Pence presented the idea of a “Space Force”. Besides the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and the Coast Guard, the Space Force would become the sixth branch of the US Armed Forces.
The message sent by the Trump administration has the advantage of clarity: “It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space; we must have American dominance in space.”
As a 21st century combination of John F Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the Moon” discourse and Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, Trump’s military posture sadly signals the entry into an era marked by the full weaponisation of space. Such an evolution may please what Dwight D Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, but it can only worry those interested in human progress.
Given the seriousness of an issue impacting world security, the international community’s relatively muted reaction is regrettable. Were such a plan articulated by China, what would have been the global media’s reaction? For sure, there would have been an uproar in the name of ethics and international law. But since the US is in a dominant position, it can explicitly call for the extension of “Pax Americana” into space by any means without encountering opprobrium.
Any other country would be condemned for having a similar ambition; this is how soft power taken in the form of legitimacy derives from hard power.
However, a debate on the legality of such a military initiative has to take place. It can be argued, indeed, that a US Space Force would violate the Outer Space Treaty (OST) ratified by Washington, which recognises “the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes”. Even though the US has not signed the Space Preservation Treaty of 2006, it is committed to the OST that remains the basis of international space law.
What can be seen as another provocation of the Trump administration should also trigger a debate on the moral obligation to establish an “Anti-Satellite and Space Weapons Ban”. What the international community has been able to achieve regarding chemical weapons with the Chemical Weapons Convention has to be replicated to limit and control the militarisation of outer space. This is another campaign, which has to be led across the world by those concerned for the future of humankind. Legally questionable and morally unacceptable, the notion of a US Space Force is not only unnecessary but also counterproductive. Its effect will be an arms race, for this initiative will be presented by the other big powers as a justification of their own space military projection. While outer space should be for humankind a catalyst for cooperation, it is becoming under our eyes a potential battlefield.
As a careful effort to strike the right balance between realities and ideals, true leadership should be equal to progress. From the perspective of global governance, it has become obvious that the 45th US president is simply a “great leap backward”.
It is urgent for other world leaders to point at this dangerous regression. And the most effective way to counter Trump’s populism is to formulate concrete propositions in order to reinvent multilateralism for the 21st century.
The extension into outer space of the terrestrial military rivalries does not make our world safer. Wise policies for fairer global trade, a more effective United Nations and better global governance inspired by humanistic values, are the most reliable guarantees for long-term prosperity and security.
The author is the founder of the Europe-China Forum.