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Sheehan, M. The International Politics of Space

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NOTE: two articles here--the first from SAASS grad Col Kevin "Rocky" Rhoades as published in A&SPJ; the other anonymous. v/r--JL

The International Politics of Space by Michael Sheehan

Distant heavens have captured human imagination for millennia, but not until just over 50 years ago were man-made objects—and, later, men and women sent into space. Since then, the world has become increasingly dependent on space power for everyday utilities, management of global commerce, and national security affairs, as well as domestic stability and prosperity. But humankind’s ability to venture into space created a complex dilemma for its “proper” use. Optimists view space as a global commons that should be free from human divisiveness and accessible by all. Pessimists—and perhaps pragmatists—on the other hand, predict that space eventually will be prone to weaponization, conflict, and other sorts of misuse, as were land, sea, and air previously. These competing views set the stage for critical analysis on the topic. The differing perspectives also point out that space is inextricably tied to politics in the rising tide of globalization in the twenty-first century.

The International Politics of Space provides readers an authoritative departure from previous analysts’ treatments of the subject by examining historical developments of national space programs through international relations and national security lenses in order to glean lessons applicable to the continued maturation of the space age. This analysis includes space policy, doctrine, and technology as they relate to fundamental political motives. Sheehan’s conclusions are pertinent to today’s complex international structure because there are direct and indirect political outcomes from space programs and their underlying policies that influence national behavior in the ever-changing global balance of power. Political and military leaders of the future will face many challenges vis-à-vis space, and informed consideration of previous space policies may help shape their decisions.

The book begins with a brief survey of major political theories and then analyzes their relationship to space policies during the space race between the United States and Soviet Union and beyond. Sheehan’s work also includes chapters on the European Space Agency, India, China, the military use of space and its supporting doctrine, space treaties and laws, and cooperative efforts among various nations.

Readers will find well-researched analysis with supporting evidence illuminating the many political motives for national and international space policies of the past. The most important of these include political equities in the form of national prestige and propaganda, development of indigenous science and technology, political independence from friendly and rival spacefaring nations, and even rationale supporting the merits of each superpower’s foundational political philosophy.

Sheehan concludes that the public space policies of many nations are not necessarily the true underlying reason for pursuing a space program. Perhaps the most noble of stated intentions—“to benefit mankind through exploration”—gets short shrift in favor of purely realist pursuits to enhance one’s own internal and external national security at the expense of one’s rivals. For instance, the USSR’s strategy sought to achieve a list of “firsts” in order to quell public commentary in the West about the inferiority of the Soviet technology base. Indeed, the Soviets had some impressive firsts, including the first satellite, first mammal, first person, first woman, and first extravehicular activity in space. Crucially, Nikita Khrushchev used these achievements to gain political clout by extrapolating them as proof of communism’s ideological triumph over capitalism and democracy. He did so for both internal and external audiences in order to consolidate Soviet power within the union and around the world. On the other hand, the United States was surprised and motivated out of fear after the launch of Sputnik I in 1957. The near hysteria that followed made the United States reassess its initial conclusions about the state of the USSR’s science-and-technology infrastructure and capabilities.

Another major theme woven through the book is the natural tension associated with the development of booster and spacecraft technology. Obviously, these capabilities have natural military utility, but acquiring them can run aground politically when confronted with the internationally recognized and promulgated concept of the space sanctuary. From a political perspective, crossing—or even approaching—the indeterminate threshold between militarizing space and weaponizing space can cause political angst and public outcry. Sheehan’s exploration of this scenario provides valuable insight as perceived through his look at the European Space Agency.

The bibliography and endnotes contain all the major authoritative works on this topic such as James Oberg, Bruce DeBlois, Everett Dolman, and Walter McDougall, as well as historically important treaties, laws, and doctrine publications. The result of such comprehensive research is reflected in the depth of analysis, which is unlike any other as it pertains to politics.

Disappointingly, Sheehan somewhat glosses over powerful economic motivations for and against space programs as they relate to power politics, both global and domestic. Tangible lessons are available, and this area needs further revelation.

The International Politics of Space achieves its stated goal of avoiding analysis of military uses of space and its subset—weaponization of space—in favor of considering the larger political significance of the major national space programs around the world. By doing so, this volume contributes significantly to the body of knowledge associated with the development of space policy. Although this is not the final episode in the refinement of space policy, students and practitioners alike will benefit from Professor Sheehan’s work as the space era moves into its sixth decade. Undoubtedly, his comprehensive work will fuel additional and needed analysis of space policy and its impact on global politics.

Lt Col Kevin M. Rhoades, USAF

Human activities in space have not transcended terrestrial international politics; instead they have reflected those politics.

Sheehan notes that the exploration and use of space have reflected Clausewitz's "continuation of politics with an admixture of other means"

Power is more than just the capacity to threaten or exert force- it is the ability to influence outcomes in a desired direction.

The Realist view: It was the pursuit of power that encouraged both the US and the USSR to seek to achieve advances in space exploration in the hope of increasing their military/technological capabilities.

Prestige is a reputation for power.

Perceptions of space have largely followed terrestrial analogies (the sea, Antarctica), shaping space as a realm of political activity, but perhaps limting its possibilities as a result.

Activities in space have been marked by both competition and cooperation:

As competitive as the 1950's and 60's were, Kennedy and Khruschev still contemplated opportunities to cooperate in space
US-USSR cooperation in space throughout the 1970's reflected a spirit of detente between the two parties
The 1980's marked a low point in cooperation between the US and others, but the seeds for the Int'l Space Station were planted by the middle of the decade
The 1990's saw the development of the ISS as a purely political creation- really cooperation for cooperation's sake

Whereas space has been militarized from the beginning, it has not yet been weaponized.

A large number of satellites hve been orbited that perform a primary or even exclusively military function, in turn militarizing space.
However, no destructive devices have been placed on orbit that could be aimed against other space objects or against targets on earth.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty forbids the placement of WMD in space, but conventioanl weapons are only banned from "celestial bodies," such as asteroids or the moon.

Sheehan asserts that a US decision to weaponize will be determined by the American cultural and political systems, not external pressures or treaty obligations.

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