Last week, a top State Department official surprised many when she indicated the US did not support a proposed “Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities” endorsed by the European Union. Speaking at a breakfast with reporters on January 12, Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said the proposed EU code was “too restrictive” and that the US would not sign on to it. “We made it very definitive that we were not going to go ahead with the European Code of Conduct,” she said, according to the Space News account of the breakfast. “What we haven’t announced is what we’re going to do, but we will be doing that soon.”
Tauscher’s comments took some by surprise, since it appeared in recent months that the US appeared willing to at least endorse the principles of the EU Code if not explicitly signing on to them. In an article Monday in The Space Review, lawyer Michael Listner speculated that the US would instead propose its own code of conduct in response. Such he move, he argued, might not necessarily win support from other spacefaring nations (which had expressed opposition to, or simply ignored, the EU document) and might also aggravate the Europeans.
On Tuesday, the US made its move. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton formally announced that the US would support the development of an “International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities” in cooperation with the EU and other nations. “A Code of Conduct will help maintain the long-term sustainability, safety, stability, and security of space by establishing guidelines for the responsible use of space,” she said.
News of the new US effort was first reported Tuesday by the Washington Times, who got quotes from several people expressing concern that such a code might jeopardize national security by limiting what the US can do in space. However, Clinton said in her statement that “the United States has made clear to our partners that we will not enter into a code of conduct that in any way constrains our national security-related activities in space or our ability to protect the United States and our allies.”
What isn’t clear is how this “international” code will differ from the EU draft that has been circulating since 2008, including what specifically the US took issue with in the EU document as being too restrictive. A fact sheet about the new initiative in fact praises the EU code. “The European Union’s draft Code of Conduct is a good foundation for the development of a non-legally binding International Code of Conduct focused on the use of voluntary and pragmatic transparency and confidence-building measures to help prevent mishaps, misperceptions, and mistrust in space,” it states.
In at least some respects, then, the US “rejection” of the EU code is hardly a surprise, but part of a long-term effort to craft a more international document. Even EU officials said last year that their proposed code was a draft; one likened it to an “internal memo” that the EU was soliciting feedback upon but not expecting anyone to immediately sign on to. Development of a final international code of conduct might still be well into the future.