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date: 22 January 2019

International Geopolitics and Space Regulation

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Outer space has always assumed a relevant geopolitical value due to strategic and economic reasons. Since the beginning of the so-called Space Age, national space policies have pursued both political and economic objectives, taking into account fundamental security and military considerations. After the Second World War, the international relations were based on the dichotomy between the United States and the Soviet Union. The foundation of activities in outer space finds its roots in the Cold War and reproduces the distinctive geopolitical dynamics of that historical moment. The diverging interests between the two States were reflected in the political tensions that characterized the competition to reach outer space.

The classical geopolitics deals with how States should act in outer space in order to increase their influence in the international arena. According to the theories developed during the Space Race, whoever controls outer space controls the world. In this sense, security on Earth depends on the security in space, ensured by national control over the strategic assets. Space applications had indeed a central role in the context of deterrence. In addition, conducting activities in outer space represented an important tool of foreign policy and for the enhancement of international cooperation, mainly within the blocs. At that time, in fact, the possibility of carrying out space activities was strictly reserved to the most advanced States, from an economic, scientific, and technological point of view.

International geopolitical dynamics were reflected on space regulations developed during the Cold War era, which fixed the basis for the evolution of space activities until today. The 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space (OST) is the main legal instrument, which codifies the general principles in international law of space activities, and it is the result of a compromise between the United States and the Soviet Union. The principles established by the OST were then specified in the following UN treaties and in a number of declarations of principles.

Over the last decades, space activities have changed due to the growing participation of non-State actors to the so-called space economy. The end of the Cold War era produced a structural change on the international relations in the space sector. The traditional scheme of cooperation within the Western or Eastern bloc was overcome by a stronger multilateral cooperation, such in the case of the International Space Station. Furthermore, the end of the Cold War busted the regionalization of space cooperation, begun in Europe during the 1970s, with the creation of the European Space Agency (ESA), and later complemented by the creation of the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) and other regional institutional initiatives.

Nowadays, space activities have become relevant for the well-being of humankind. Many services provided by public and private companies, such as satellite broadcasting, weather forecasts, or satellite navigation, have a strong socioeconomic impact. In addition, the protection of the environment in outer space has become a central theme in the international debate, with a focus on mitigation and removal of space debris. These issues are reflected in a growing amount of legislation, adopted in order to regulate space activities on a national level.

The above-described evolution, along with technological changes, poses political challenges to the actors involved in the space arena, and creates a competitive geopolitical situation in which States aim at protecting their national interests in outer space. In this context, the international space governance plays a fundamental role in bringing together national interests toward a collective interest in protecting and promoting space activities for the benefit of humankind and with due regard to the corresponding interests of all States.