Space diplomacy could ensure a safer Earth

Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy and Foreign Policy’s ‘Future Diplomats PeaceGame’ to address threats of space calamities


By Bernardino Leon, Director General of the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy and Former UN Special Representative and Head of the Support Mission in Libya

Foreign Policy Diplomat Peace Games


Our problems and challenges are no longer confined to our planet alone. The space race, which began in the mid-20th century as a competition between Cold-War rivals the United States and the Soviet Union, has not only intensified over the years, but also has grown into a much larger phenomenon. Now, nations and private entities are vying for supremacy in space, for varied reasons and through multiple means.

This development, in turn, makes it essential for countries around our Earth to keep a constant watch over the final frontier, where more than 3,000 satellites orbit, virtually serving all our needs and interests. Furthermore, short-term strategies are insufficient to maintain security and prosperity in space, which have become important to life on Earth and sensitive to long-term trends, such as militarization and other competitive activities.

Space remains a constant in our life — helping us navigate while at sea, in the air and on the road, permitting restaurant orders to be delivered at our doorstep, and helping us in common activities as varied as posting a photo on Instagram, receiving weather alerts, and buying coffee using an ATM card. Military forces rely on space-based assets for reconnaissance, communication, navigation and more. What’s more, space is a new tourism destination and a research-and-development center.

While space offers us conveniences and advantages, there are fears that it is becoming increasingly militarized. We were recently reminded of this when Russia conducted an anti- satellite missile test on November 15 that prompted a seven-member team of astronauts (including two Russian cosmonauts) working at the International Space Station (ISS) to scramble for shelter in their docked spaceship capsules. The test, during which Russia fired a missile into one of its own satellites, reportedly generated a debris field in low-Earth orbit that U.S. officials said endangered the ISS and would pose a hazard to space activities for years. There have been similar space incidents in the past.

Military issues aside, space increasingly is becoming a junkyard of debris, which will have other dire consequences including risking space-based assets that are critical to communications on land, according to retired U.S. astronaut Col. Terry Virts. During a panel discussion at the Future Investment Initiative Institute (FII) summit, held in Saudi Arabia October 26-28, Virts said, “If satellites start running into each other, they create more debris and there is no way to clean it up.”

This note of caution ought to be taken seriously, especially considering the limited scope of space-related international law. However, there is a growing consensus among spacefaring nations that the means to safer and more prosperous life on Earth — and opportunities in space — ought to be through diplomacy.

This conviction is reflected in the growing number of countries that demonstrate a willingness to work with allies and partners to advance international norms that enhance the safety, security, and sustainability of space. In 2020, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a resolution, developed by the United Kingdom and cosponsored by 21 other countries, that calls for member states to share information about their space security policies; examples of space activities that they find responsible, irresponsible, or threatening; and ideas about norms of responsible space behaviors.

That resolution followed another promising diplomatic development. In 2019, the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) Working Group on the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities reached consensus among its 84 member states on 21 “Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities.”

The vital role of space diplomacy will be in the spotlight again when 24 foreign-service students and early-career diplomats from 14 countries around the world converge to game out real-world solutions to peace and complex crisis situations at the Future Diplomats PeaceGame on December 7. The immersive and interactive exercise will be hosted by Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy (AGDA) in the United Arab Emirates, in cooperation with the Foreign Policy Group. Participants will work through potential crisis scenarios and challenge themselves to identify peaceful resolutions to global conflicts and crises linked with the space domain.

The event will occur against the backdrop of an increasingly complex world order, in which space diplomacy will become an important socioeconomic and foreign-policy tool to keep outer space safe, secure, and sustainable. The recent COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, which concluded on November 12, offers an example of the power of diplomacy and cooperation to confront one of humanity’s gravest challenges. If these tools can succeed in achieving our intended objectives for Earth, we can make them work in space, as well.