Building Lunar Security and Cooperation Through an Astropolitical Lens- the role of normative behaviours in creating stability.

This blog posts series will analyse the political backdrop for an independent multi-stakeholder Lunar activity registry, highlighting why it’s needed and how it might help. These are the precursors to a more comprehensive White Paper which we’ll be working on over the coming months.

I’m Samuel Jardine, a Research Fellow at Open Lunar. Outside the organisation, I am the Head of Research for London Politica, a political risk consultancy, as well as a Defence Consultant at RUSI and one of its Military Sciences “Rising Stars” programme mentees. I have the privilege to be delving into the geopolitical contexts for two of the Open Lunar Foundation’s exciting new initiatives. One of these has me analysing the political waters for the impact which an independent multi-stakeholder Lunar activity registry may have. These first few blog posts will form a series analysing the political backdrop for such a registry, highlighting why it’s needed and how it might help. These are the precursors to a larger, more comprehensive, (and more fascinating, promise!) White Paper which we’ll be working on over the coming months.  

Building Lunar Security and Cooperation Through an Astropolitical Lens- the role of normative behaviours in creating stability.

As interest in the Moon from state and corporate stakeholders increases (often framed as a second “race”), so too does the urgency to create the tools and frameworks that would facilitate the building of a coherent community of actors and establish de facto normative behaviours “norms”. Doing so would create accepted parameters for growing competition, if not promote cooperation, within the space domain, politically stabilising it for state and private actors. 

Norms are, as adeptly defined by the US Director of National Intelligence, widely shared expectations about what constitutes appropriate behaviour by a community of actors (in our case, governments and certain non-state actors at the international level).  They seek to attempt to guide “desirable behaviour” through non-binding frameworks, that can sometimes lay the foundation for later binding agreements (which are the provenance of legal treaties, binding rules, or laws).

Norms provide the building blocks on which international treaties, such as the Outer Space Treaty (OST), can be strengthened through;

  1. Developing a community-agreed interpretation of articles. Currently, the OST is incredibly broad, leaving its articles open to different interpretations. This is partly due to the nature of multilateral binding treaties as getting agreement by states on specific issues can be incredibly difficult. An example with the OST is the international differences in how its Article II that forbids claims of sovereignty “by use or occupation, or by any other means”. This has meant that initiatives like the Artemis Accords, whose Sections 10 and 11 on resources and “safety zones” have courted both legal and international controversy, with typically-aligned states wary or critical of the initiative as well as competitors (who are seeking their own alternative ruleset; the OST leading to potentially two or more competing regulatory regimes seeking to specify how it should be interpreted).

  2. Implementing an expanded vision of the OST’s parameters. Something that is easier achieved through establishing normative behaviours and understandings, than through attempting to get states to negotiate a signed treaty in our current period of growing multipolar competition. Particularly, when space-related governance is already becoming politicised; such as with the split between the US, other “western” states and China and Russia over the adoption of PPWT or UN Resolution 73/76 as a basis to regulate potential attacks on space-based infrastructure.

  3. Given “teeth” from a political point of view. An example of this can be seen with the voluntary reporting of new reactors and civilian plutonium stockpiles that many states with nuclear industries undertake for the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA). This is a non-mandated act, that has become a norm among civilian nuclear powers (supporting the Non-nuclear proliferation Treaty it’s voluntary IAEA-based “Additional Protocol” as it provides transparency regarding activity (as nuclear energy is inherently dual-use) and so ensures stability and security. This has allowed nuclear energy-related development without states (mostly) becoming stuck in a security dilemma. Interestingly, in 2017 China ceased to provide the IAEA with this information. While this highlights the fragility of norms, particularly when geopolitical competition is on the rise, the fact that it raised the alarm among the international community, and signposted a potential change in nuclear policy from a major state which has allowed adjustment, and pressure to begin to be brought to bear, shows the value of having the norms in the first place.

  4. Norms also allow for adaptability in a way that would be more difficult through treaties and formal agreements- Amending or adapting formal treaties to a changing environment is, especially at times of wider competition or increasing conflicts of interest, easily politicised and so very difficult to coordinate and agree on. To utilise the Antarctic Treaty System’s (ATS) Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources as an example; climate change is seeing the region's ocean life geographically shift, like Krill (who are fundamental to the Antarctic ecosystem). This requires changes to the ATS’ current Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to prevent overfishing, particularly as Krill stocks are the commercial target of some signatories' expanded domestic fishing policies. However, as the ATS is a legally binding treaty which requires consensus from all parties, agreeing on new MPAs can take years, if at all. This puts the Antarctic’s already fragile ecosystem at greater risk. When agreements do happen it is after the expenditure of significant political capital and horse-trading, that itself could see the treaty weakened through a steady shifting over time of its parameters to accommodate a vocal minority who knows they can use the treaty's legal mechanisms and forced consensus in this way. Promoting and fostering norms of behaviour, however, would not merely allow for a faster and more flexible response as the “formal” arena that a treaty renegotiation provides for other political points to be tied into it is greatly diminished, as is the framework that would allow for “lawfare” to take place.

Due to issues like that described above, there has been no new binding multilateral agreements regarding space since the 1970s due to diplomatic rivalries between states. Normative behaviours have become a vital, and really only, way to develop a cooperative understanding of how space can be utilised.  

Without the establishment of normative behaviours, treaties that seek to promote cooperation and stable governance are more easily discarded, or ignored, due to the lack of persuasion or pressure. Norms legitimise existing agreements and allow them to be used when actors seek to act at odds with such understandings. In my next post now that the groundwork is laid for their importance, I will dive into why the Moon needs norms.

Read the next blog post in the series, here.