From Sparta to Space: Astropolitics and IR Theory


What does the world of Thucydides have in common with that of Wehrner von Braun or Sergei Korolev; of the realm of the trireme with the Delta IV rocket? Much like the popular misconception that satellites in orbit have ‘escaped’ the influence of Earth’s gravity, there is a common perception that outer space is a politically different or separate realm to Earth. I argue that our affairs as a species in outer space have not escaped the influence of homo politicus; that reaching outer space is not a road to absolution as many hope. Astropolitics is what humans seek to make of it. So far, it reflects some of the prevailing features of international relations and an anarchic system that dates back to antiquity; there may be nothing politically new under our sun.

As explored in a previous post for Defence in Depth, I explained that the foundational analogy that we can make between human behaviour on Earth and in space is Clausewitz’s conception of war as a political, emotional, and chaotic activity; that space warfare is the continuation of Terran politics by other means. By understanding space warfare and spacepower as being ultimately political activities regarding the exploitation of a geographic place and medium, it opens one’s mind to the conceptual (not historical) analogies one can make between other politically-enthused concepts from IR theory into outer space. Space is not a place that is uniquely free of humanity’s fears and interests, though popular perceptions may give the impression that outer space is defined as a scientific frontier where the great scientific powers cooperate in manned exploration and interplanetary science.

Ideas and arguments across recorded history that examine and question the larger concepts of power, security, and politics are either of direct use or contain insights into new scenarios and locations – including those that escape the atmosphere of Earth. This is not merely an entertaining allegory one might make between the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Klingon Empire in the early 2390s; the past can contain useful insights and education for thinking about and examining contemporary politics, even in outer space. My research is predicated on the conception that very little has changed in the core motivations of humans in dealing with politics, power, and resources across time and geographies. Whether it is to check the growth in the power of Sparta or to match the prowess of the Soviets in space, it is the same base motivations that still influence, if not define, strategic behaviour and the pursuit of armaments. Four examples below show how activities in space can be understood through some timeless concepts from a realist approach to International Relations theory.

Thucydides famously described the motivations for Greek empire-building in the wake of the Persian retreat and the Peloponnesian War (431-403BC) as being motivated by fear, honour, and interest. He believed that, due to the unchanging nature of humans, these general parameters leading to war, or at least lenses guiding perceptions of insecurity, would recur in one way or another again ad infinitum. Though not comprehensive, these three motivations certainly capture some of the most fundamental drivers of strategic behaviour from the dawn of the Space Age to today. The United States and the Soviet Union invested heavily in space technology by the late 1950s as a result of their mutual fear, their competition over technological prestige, and the pursuit of their own further interests as a result of their exploitation of outer space in the international system.

Without a long-range bomber force to strike in kind against the American homeland, the Soviet Union would always fear the possibility of nuclear blackmail. Such American technological advantage had to be negated, and harnessing the physics of orbital mechanics and ballistic rocketry was a way to do so. In October 1957, it was America’s turn to fear the technological prowess of the Soviet Union. Sergei Korolev, the USSR’s chief rocket scientist, had succeeded in launching humanity’s first artificial satellite – Sputnik. This triggered a scare among the American population, who had taken American and capitalist society as the technological leader of the world. Yet there was a Red Moon in orbit. The Soviet Union had engineered a coup for its image as a technological powerhouse, which unsettled the United States. Furthermore, and more importantly, this demonstrated to Eisenhower that the Soviet Union was on-track to developing the capability to deliver nuclear warheads to the continental United States.

By the early 1960s, American fear – and no small desire to regain lost prestige – drove the simultaneous development of American rocket science (under the leadership of the former German SS officer Wernher von Braun) and satellite reconnaissance systems. Working under the guise of the International Geophysical Year, the United States was able to develop the first US orbital-capable rocket and the means to build spy satellites in secret, whilst also being able to claim contributions to scientific advancement. The Corona programme gave the United States the means of spying on the closed Soviet Union. Lyndon Baines Johnson would later praise the American satellite reconnaissance programme for quelling the fears the United States had in the so-called missile gap that was an election issue in 1960 between Nixon and Kennedy. Indeed, the missile gap existed – but US satellite reconnaissance had shown the American leadership that the gap was in their favour. This helped reassure Washington that Khrushchev’s bark was worse than his bite, as far as the security of the continental US was concerned.

Following the Space Race, and the victory of the United States in securing its prestige with American bootprints on the Moon, the US and the USSR continued to pursue varying interests in outer space. But by the 1970s more states were developing interests in orbit. In 1976, a coalition of equatorial states attempted to enshrine the recognition of their sovereignty from their airspace upwards to infinity in the Bogota Declaration. This would allow the equatorial states to control and set conditions for the use of the geosynchronous and geostationary orbital slots that were directly above their territories at an altitude of approximately 36,000km. The declaration failed. The two superpowers had supreme national interests in continuing to have unfettered access to their strategic communications and early warning satellites in geostationary orbit, and to recognise a spatial form of sovereignty – as opposed to platform-based – would give too much influence to the equatorial states upon the space-faring states of the global North. Europe and Japan were beginning to develop their own space sectors at this time as well, and did not support the declaration through their own self-interests in using outer space for strategic and commercial purposes.

Also in the 1970s, Europe and the United States demonstrated the roles of diverging interests in their pursuit of spacepower. The United States was willing to launch European satellites on the condition that they were scientific satellites. This effectively barred European states from launching their own communications and reconnaissance satellites for both military and commercial purposes. Europe, under the leadership of France, West Germany, and Italy, pursued the development of a European launcher, giving birth to the Ariane family of launchers in use today. Early European rocket development was supported by the donation of the abandoned Blue Streak data and materials by the British. The United States had not assisted European rocket development, and France even turned to the Soviet Union from 1974 onwards for the supply of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (a crucial compound for rocket fuel). The United States’ interests were being threatened by the entry of European competition into the commercial satellite communications launch business, and would also allow European states to collectively follow a different strategic path to the United States should European militaries develop independent spacepower infrastructure. Such concerns played out again in the Galileo satellite navigation negotiations between the United States and the European Union. Only after extensive negotiations, and a flirtation with Chinese cooperation, did Europe and the United States agree to make Galileo and GPS interoperable. Galileo, if integrated into European militaries, will allow greater freedom of action in tactical and operational terms from the United States’ ubiquitous GPS service.

Some of the core concepts of political life derived from the classical era can be just as useful to frame understandings of contemporary astropolitics, and makes the case for viewing outer space as just another place where human politics continues as it does on Earth. The choice of Thucydides to highlight this does not mean that astropolitics is only about human competition or cooperation – but that it is just as complicated and diverse as the politics of any other place. Outer space is not a place of unfettered cooperation or unrivalled competition, and is not an aberration of human political life. Space is used for military purposes and motivations driven by fear, honour, and interest. It has been since the dawn of the Space Age. This understanding – that space is used for military purposes by all major powers – takes the hyperbolic sting out of contemporary official statements and denouncements in space arms control proceedings about the supposed doom facing peace on Earth if outer space is ‘militarised’ or ‘weaponised.’ For better and worse, humanity’s use of outer space is shaped by Terran politics, and is a rich vista waiting for the humanities to join the engineers and scientists.

Further reading on the various topics raised in this post:

Michael Sheehan, The International Politics of Space (Routledge, 2007)

Shen-Chi Wang, Transatlantic Space Politics (Routledge, 2013)

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (Ballantine, 1997)

Walter McDougall, …The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (Johns Hopkins UP, 1985)

Everett C. Dolman, Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age (Frank Cass, 2002)

Image: Thermopylae – Monument of Leonidas, via flickr.

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