The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SM-3 launch
While US officials state that there are no plans to develop space weapons, events like the USA 193 intercept give that perception to many, with difficult to predict effects on the nation’s “soft power”. (credit: US Navy)

Space weapons: soft power versus soft politics

National Security Space Office official Pete Hays, speaking at an International Space University (ISU) symposium in Strasbourg France on February 19th, said unequivocally that the US has “…in terms of funded [space weapons] programs, they’re aren’t any. I can tell you that categorically.” In contrast, Trevor Brown, writing in the spring 2009 issue of the Air and Space Power Journal, published by the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, claims that the US does in fact have plans to weaponize space. The difference may be simply a matter of perception. Trevor Brown sees things like the XSS-11 as being either space weapons prototypes themselves or as precursors to such systems. With some more justification he sees the US missile defense systems, such as the Ground Based Interceptors located in Alaska and California and the Navy’s SM-3 sea-based missiles, as constituting “space weapons”.

If soft power is essentially cultural, then it may be that it is the creative artistic industries of America that are at fault rather than the politicians.

The argument over what is and what is not a “space weapon” is not going to go away. Similarly, the definition of what is and what is not “soft power” is by no means settled. Brown seems to think of soft power as essentially something political, and quotes Joseph Nye to that effect: “Soft power therefore is not just a matter of ephemeral popularity; it is a means of obtaining outcomes the US wants…” This is one version of what it is, but there is another. Soft power, according to this explanation, is above all a cultural phenomena and cannot readily be manipulated by any government. It is the sum result of the creative and imaginative efforts of a whole nation, and its influence, while profound, cannot be easily translated into political actions.

If soft power is essentially cultural, then it may be that it is the creative artistic industries of America that are at fault rather than the politicians. The growing cultural influence of India’s “Bollywood” is caused by the fact that they are giving their customers a product they want to see. Can the same be said for Hollywood? For decades intellectuals throughout the world have complained about US “cultural imperialism”. This influence has been, I believe, at the heart of what has been termed soft power. In 1999, in an article titled “Culture and Geopolitics in the Age of Oprah” published in the Journal of Social, Economic and Political Studies, I wrote that “To Europe’s elites this is deadly serious; it is a question of who will control their children’s minds… It is a last ditch struggle to seize back power over their civilization’s collective dreams.”

The 2006 US Space Policy would not have been better received in Europe if it had been promulgated by a president more popular than George W. Bush, though the hysterical media reaction might have been less. Europe’s dislike of US space power is not based on America’s lack of soft power, but on the reality of its hard power. This is not something that better public relations or better public diplomacy can ever change.

Trevor Brown believes that “The United States would do well to keep a low profile for its military space program and burnish its technological image by showcasing its commercial and scientific space programs. Doing so would enable it to accumulate rather than hemorrhage soft power.” To a very limited extent this is useful advice, but in fact there is little, short of censorship, the US can do to keep its military space operations under wraps. The debates over space power and space weaponization are going to continue under the new administration, and perhaps even gain in public prominence.

Civil space programs are indeed useful tools for enhancing international cooperation, but they cannot in the short term build soft power. Scientific joint ventures, even with states that may not be friends or allies, are not to be sneered at. Commercial space ventures are notoriously difficult to disentangle from their half-hidden military motives. The mess the US has created for itself thanks to the International Trade in Arms Regulations (ITAR) is evidence of this.

Brown quite rightly points out that in a dangerous world “There is, therefore, no question of whether to proceed with space weapons—only a question of how to do so with the requisite political skill in order to retain soft power while expanding hard power.” The problem is not with the goal but rather with the nature of soft power. If it is essentially political, then perhaps clever diplomacy can help reconcile places like Europe to the reality of American space weapons. On the other hand, if this is a cultural concept then the tools of politics and diplomacy are almost entirely useless.

Impressive acts of scientific and technical prowess, such as the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, do contribute to America’s soft power. This is why so many people who, for one reason or another despise the US, claim that the Moon landing never happened. However the impact from that event was never translated into political success. No nation changed its policy on America’s effort to save South Vietnam because of Apollo.

Space activities do indeed contribute to American soft power, but they do so slowly and in unpredictable ways.

At roughly the same time as Apollo, America led an effort called the “Green Revolution” that radically increased food production in many parts of the world and has made mass starvation from natural causes more or less a thing of the past. This should have generated a huge soft power dividend. Yet millions of people whose lives were improved or even saved by this effort detest the nation that filled their bellies. One must conclude that soft power does not grow out of good or impressive deeds.

Space activities do indeed contribute to American soft power, but they do so slowly and in unpredictable ways. Apollo, for example, showed the Russians what the US could do if it was motivated. This convinced them that they could not afford to ignore Ronald Reagan’s 1983 call for missile defenses. Another example of this is way the environmental movement’s iconic images of Earth came from US sources, and influenced power relationships inside that community. (Though in fact the first picture of an Earthrise was Russian.) The fact that these images were American helped give American environmentalists a strong claim to the global leadership of the movement, for good or ill.

In the near future, support for the US space program may be motivated, in part, by the desire for soft power. It would be wise to acknowledge that while this aspect of NASA’s and NOAA’s activities may be useful, it is impossible to measure and will be hard to describe in any rational way. The basic justifications for space exploration have little to do with soft power and everything to do with the need to expand humanity’s field of activities.