American forces have spent much of this century failing to achieve their goals in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Our central problem is that many people in those countries don’t like us, don’t share our goals, and either refuse to help us or take up arms to chase us out. Pesky natives have been the bane of invaders and occupiers throughout history. The ideal place to conquer would not have any. It is an ultimate military fantasy: seize a vast territory with a guarantee that there will be no resistance because no one lives there.
Finally we have found such a place. Last month, Vice President Mike Pence declared America’s determination to establish a “permanent presence” on the moon. Soon afterward President Trump described outer space as “a war-fighting domain just like the land, air and sea.” In a speech to soldiers at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, he launched into a stream-of-consciousness ramble so odd that some in the audience thought he was joking and began to laugh. “I was saying the other day,” Trump began, “I said ‘Maybe we need a new force, we’ll call it the Space Force’. . . And I was not really serious. And then I said, ‘What a great idea! Maybe we’ll have to do that!’” From that “maybe” came his startling order: “I’m hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces.”
In Washington, where protecting bureaucratic turf is a blood sport, few are enthusiastic about the idea. We already have an Air Force and a National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The logical way to pour more money into space exploration, or even to colonize the moon, would be to increase their budgets.
Exploration and scientific research, however, would not be the Space Force’s main job. Trump wants it to be a military enterprise, with a new “assistant secretary of defense for space” in charge. “It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space,” he asserted. “We must have American dominance in space!” Pence explained what that means. The Space Force, he said, would be assigned to “degrade, deny, disrupt, destroy, and manipulate adversary capabilities.” Our goal is not only to militarize space, but to control it so fully that we can use it as a platform to threaten or attack any country we decide is an enemy.
Countries that are potential targets cannot be expected to sit quietly and accept a new order in which the United States uses satellites to monitor their activities and deploys space platforms from which they can be attacked. Our drive for astral primacy will provoke ruinously expensive competition among nations. It may also lead to war, since rival powers will conclude that they must strike before the United States develops the capacity to devastate them from outer space.
America’s desire to dominate space and establish military control over celestial bodies is a projection of our 20th-century foreign policies. Yet those policies brought the world neither peace nor security. They might have led to nuclear war if the United States and the Soviet Union had not signed a series of treaties limiting their arsenals and restricting the ways their weapons could be tested and used. Those treaties represent an alternative to the Space Force, and to the wars that it may provoke.
More than 100 countries, including China and the United States, have ratified the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans the deployment of nuclear weapons outside the earth’s atmosphere. It stipulates that “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation.” That treaty was modeled in part on the 1959 Antarctic Treaty — also ratified by the United States — which declares that Antarctica “shall be used for peaceful purposes only.”
Those treaties would be a fine model for an alternative American space policy. That, however, conflicts with America’s insistence on “full-spectrum dominance.” The idea of negotiating to share resources and prevent war seems almost treasonous in a country long dedicated to the principle that we deserve to have whatever we can take. This abhorrence of negotiation is especially pronounced in the Trump Administration. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has explained the abhorrence clearly: “It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so — because over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrain the United States.”
Trying to control outer space is a bad idea for two reasons. First, it is a mind-bogglingly expensive proposition that would divert urgently needed resources from health care, education, and other vital human needs. Second, it opens a new field of conflict and makes war more likely. We should be looking for ways to restrict competition in outer space, and to share whatever resources exist there. That will enhance our ability to give every American a decent life — and limit our ability to blow up our planet.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.