International cooperation in the age of space exploration
Visions of future space travel often focus on the utopian facets associated with traversing the final frontier and exploring the afterlife, but what might happen when international dynamics on Earth extend beyond the stratosphere? That is the question that the Artemis Accords are intended to answer: they are a series of bilateral agreements signed in 2020. The agreements seek to establish cooperation in a US-led effort to return humans to the moon by 2025 with the ultimate goal of interplanetary exploration. The Artemis Accords are established on various principles including peace, transparency, interoperability, emergency assistance, and minimization of resource conflicts. The Artemis Accords currently have 21 participating countries, including the United States, which initially drafted the agreements. However, the most notable nations “involved” are actually two that are not part of the deal: China and Russia. Although one would expect that technological progressions associated with space exploration would automatically improve tense international relations, the reality is that they could exacerbate existing tensions.
One potential area of conflict could be the international battle over the extraction of resources on the moon. The Artemis Accords set that when nations mine on the moon, they do not gain property rights to the materials mined. These Agreements, however, are not legally binding and are merely a formalized understanding between the parties to the agreement. The Accords try to counteract this problem through the creation of “safety zones” where nations cannot interfere with the resource extraction activities of other nations. While buffer zones could resolve international tensions, they could also be the source of a new problem. The Accords lack a clear mechanism for designating which nations get which territory. The distribution of equitable territories and with ample resources does not seem to be a process that lends itself naturally to a neutral result. Also, some to criticize the Artemis Accords for being too US-centric and possibly leading to less than ideal results for other nations, with some of the most ardent opposition coming from China and Russia. As such, the battle for territory on the moon could resemble the conflicts in the South China Sea and Ukraine, as foreign powers fight each other for additional land and resources.
Beyond the potential for conflicts between international governments, the Artemis Accords neglect another important entity: private corporations. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have made headlines with their space exploration efforts through their private companies (SpaceX and Blue Origin, respectively). Previous space agreements have declared that governments are responsible for the activities of private companies in outer space. However, this seems to lack consistency in domains such as space travel, where jurisdictional issues are much more ambiguous. The Artemis Accords shed liability private corporations and creating a scenario in which rogue private entities could violate the terms of the agreement without facing serious consequences. This could create a scenario in which a conflict in outer space between the United States, China and Russia is increasingly complicated by the presence of non-state actors acting on behalf of their own interests. Since the Artemis Accords do not ban military action on the moon, the consequences of an international space conflict extend well beyond diplomatic disputes. However, any possible military conflict would mitigate the power of private corporations, which currently do not have military operations. While the Artemis Accords are intended to serve as an important mediator between state actors, the accords lack a compliance mechanism for non-state actors with their own intentions.
The endless possibilities of space can inspire an overwhelming sense of optimism, but it can also generate a multitude of thoughts about the downsides of space exploration. The final frontier will not necessarily act as a final peacemaker for nations that have fought many explicit and implicit conflicts with each other. The Artemis Accords recognize this possibility and attempt to resolve these tensions through negotiated terms and a formalized signing process, demonstrating the support of nations. However, good intentions can be clouded by pragmatic results and the drive for power. The fight between the United States, Russia and China may not be contained on Earth and their conflict could spill over into outer space. The future of international space cooperation could depend on amending the Artemis Accords or drawing up a new agreement entirely.
Cover photo: Lunar colony, 1995. Photo by NASA/SAIC/Pat Rawlings, NASA Office of Exploration, Johnson Space Center (JSC). The image is in the public domain, accessed through Wikimedia Commons.