Space Nationalism or Multilateralism?

Both Russia and China, among the world’s premier space powers, are now aiming for their own space stations, with the latter having already launched the first of several modules.

After the U.S., Russia is the biggest contributor to the International Space Station, which by some measures the most successful and fruitful space project, and among the most expensive scientific endeavors ever.

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Half the ISS—which involves five space agencies and fifteen countries—is Russian-built and operated, and to this day Russia does most of the legwork in launching both crew and cargo. It was a rare and enduring example of cooperation between two erstwhile rivals, an interesting if fragile antidote to the petty politics on the ground. (Scientists and astronauts from both countries get along pretty well and have consistently collaborated even through the worst flareups of tensions and hostility.)

China was never part of the ISS—a notable absence given its hefty financial resources and technical knowledge—due to a controversial NASA policy implemented by Congress in 2011 that excludes any form of cooperation with any Chinese institution or organization. So I imagine its ambitious attempt at a national space station, like so many of its actions abroad, clearly has a triumphalist “We’ll show you!” aspect to it.

But China’s Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace”, which is set for completion in just a year, will have only one-sixth the mass of the ISS, and roughly a quarter of its habitable space. This isn’t to say it won’t be an impressive feat—especially for a developing country that remains a byword for cheap consumer goods—but its full potential is likely limited given the sheer costs and complexity of building (and regularly maintaining) a human habitat in space.

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Source: South China Morning Post

Meanwhile, Russia’s plans are less clear: Though it holds many records in space stations—including launching the first one, having the most in total, and having the most experience with space walks and the like—it no longer has the financial resources to back this knowhow. (That’s what made the ISS so successful: What Russia lacked in America’s vast resources it made up for with its proven expertise, and visa versa.)

Even the otherwise prideful U.S.—albeit namely its pragmatic scientists at NASA—has now seemingly realized that space is too big, costly, and complex an endeavor for even superpowers to handle.

Aside from being a key founder of the ISS, which was created to replace a planned U.S. station that would have been too costly, NASA plans to return to humans to the moon for the first time in fifty years through the Artemis Program—a decidedly international effort.

While it will be led primarily by NASA and its mostly American commercial contractors, it will include personnel, tech, and resources from Europe, Japan, Canada, Italy, Australia, the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, and Brazil. (Believe it or not, those last three do carry a lot of technological heft in space; the UAE has a probe orbiting Mars as we speak, and India is notable for accomplishing many difficult space ventures at fairly low cost.) More countries have been invited and are are expected to join.

The Artemis Program not only aims to put humans (including the first woman) on the Moon by 2024, but has the long-term goal of establishing a lunar base that will be a launchpad for crewed missions to Mars.

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Surprisingly, all this was promulgated during the tenure of a Trump-appointed, former Oklahoma congressman as NASA Administrator, who explicitly modeled the “Artemis Accords”, which broaden international participation in the program, on the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (on which most space law is grounded).

To be sure, neither the Artemis Program, nor the Accords that essentially “internationalize” it, are without their criticisms. Many international legal scholars see them as a way for America to apply its own self-interested interpretation of space law that permits commercial exploitation of celestial bodies; as The Verge reports:

[The] Outer Space Treaty is pretty vague — purposefully so — which means there is a lot of room for interpretation on various clauses. The goal of the Artemis Accords is to provide a little more clarity on how the US wants to explore the Moon without going through the slow treaty-making process. “We are doing this in keeping with the Outer Space Treaty,” said Bridenstine, adding that NASA is trying to “create a dynamic where the Outer Space Treaty can actually be enforced.”

One big thing NASA wanted to make clear in the accords is that countries can own and use resources that are derived from the Moon. As part of the Artemis program, NASA hopes to extract lunar materials, such as the Moon’s dirt or water ice that’s thought to be lurking in the shadows of lunar craters. The Outer Space Treaty forbids nations from staking claim to another planetary body, but the policy of the US is that countries and companies can own the materials they extract from other worlds. “Article II of the Outer Space Treaty says that you cannot appropriate the Moon for national sovereignty,” Bridenstine said. “We fully agree with that and embrace it. We also believe that, just like in the ocean, you can extract resources from the ocean. But that doesn’t mean you own the ocean. You should be able to extract resources from the Moon. Own the resources but not own the Moon.”

It’s an interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty that not everyone may agree on. A pair of researchers writing in the journal Science last week have called on countries to speak up about their objections to this interpretation, and that the United States should go through the United Nations treaty process in order to negotiate on space mining. “NASA’s actions must be seen for what they are—a concerted, strategic effort to redirect international space cooperation in favor of short-term U.S. commercial interests, with little regard for the risks involved,” the researchers wrote in Science.

Still, the overall substance and spirit of the Accords — which at just seven pages, makes for an easy read) — seems like the sensible way forward. I know, I know count on the internationalist to reach that conclusion! But really, if we want to maximize humanity’s potential in space, we must do so as, well, humans: unified in our resources, knowhow, innovation, and vision. Given how much has been accomplished by just a handful of nations on their ow — and the number of countries joining the space club grows annually — imagine what a united front can offer?

Given that China and Russia have lunar aspirations of their own—including a joint lunar base that sort of speaks to my point—it will be interesting to see which vision will play out successfully: The Star Trek-style pan-humanist approach, or the more familiar competitiveness and nationalism that characterized the Cold War or even the colonial era.

What are your thoughts?

A Short and Hasty Guide on the Suez Canal Saga

I know I’m quite a bit late to the party (though I definitely indulged in all the glorious memes), but I think any time is a good time to learn about the otherwise overlooked bit of our global infrastructure that suddenly became a global phenomenon.

World Water Day

Yesterday was World Water Day, launched by the UN in 1993 to raise awareness about the importance of water both environmentally and for humanity as a whole.

I think our strictly terrestrial species is ill-equipped to truly grasp the significance of water, from its role in generating most of our oxygen, to the fact that most living things that have ever lived have been aquatic or amphibious.

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As a middle class person in a developed part of the world, it is also east to take for granted just how elusive access to clean water is; for most of human history, most humans died or were sickened (sometimes permanently) by diseases related to dirty water.

While we’ve made tremendous progress over the past century alone, well over a million humans still die annually from water-borne diseases (many of them children), and nearly one out of four people lack the access to clean water that most us take as a given. The effects of climate change and overexploitation risks depleting an already strained water supply—making World Water Day’s mission of awareness all the more invaluable.

Below is a big data dump concerning all things water, including the progress we’ve made in expanding clean water access, and the challenges that remain in continuing this development while doing so sustainably.

An American Parliament

As the U.S. once again finds itself between two widely unpopular choices, it is worth reflecting on this 2016 hypothetical from the Economist, a British newspaper: parties centered on narrower but more representative ideas.

Image may contain: 4 people, text that says 'WHAT IF THE UNITED STATES HAD A PARLIAMENT? PREDICTED PARLIAMENT* TOTAL SEATS 435 113 49 124 LEFT CENTRE-LEFT "Social "Liberal Democratic Party" Party" BERNIE SANDERS HILLARY CLINTON 26% of vote 28% 37 112 CENTRE-RIGHT RIGHT POPULIST "Conservative "Christian "People's Party" Coalition" Party" JOHN KASICH TED CRUZ DONALD 8% 11% TRUMP 26% Sources: YouGov; CPS; The Economist Pic credits: Getty Images; Reuters *based on April 22-26th 2016 polling; seats allocated Economist The proportionally by census region (North, Midwest, South, West)'

America’s presidential system, along with its winner-take-all elections and Electoral College, tends to lead to gridlock and polarization. These mechanisms and institutions were devised before political parties were a thing—or at least as rigid as they are now—and thus never seriously took them into account. Hence, we are stuck with two big parties that are far from representative of the complex spectrum of policies and ideologies.

Rather than the proportional representation you see above, members of Congress are elected in single-member districts according to the “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) principle, meaning that the candidate with the plurality of votes—i.e. not even the majority—wins the congressional seat. The losing party or parties, and by extension their voters, get no representation at all. This tends to produce a small number of major parties, in what’s known in political science as Duverger’s Law.

With the Electoral College, there is a similar dynamic at play: a presidential candidate needs no more than half the vote plus one to win the entire state and its electors. Some states are considering making it proportional, but only Maine and Nebraska have already done so.

This is why you see so many seemingly contradictory interests lumped into one or the other party. In other systems, you may have a party centered on labor rights, another on the environment, yet another for “conventional” left-wing or right-wing platforms, etc. The fragmentation might be messy, but it also forces parties to either appeal to a larger group of voters (so they can have a majority) or form coalitions with other parties to shore up their legislative votes (which gives a voice to smaller parties and their supporters).

Note that this is a huge oversimplification, as literally whole books have been written about all the reasons we are stuck with a two-party system most do not like. And of course, a parliament would not fix all our political problems, which go as deep as our culture and society.

But I personally think we may be better off with a parliamentary-style multiparty system—uncoincidentally the most common in the world, especially among established democracies—than what we have now.

What are your thoughts?

Compulsory Voting

As I see folks share that they voted, I’m reminded of the idea of mandatory voting, in which all eligible citizens are required to vote unless they have a valid excuse.

In ancient Athens, it was seen as the duty of every eligible citizen to participate in politics; while there was no explicit requirement, you could be subject to public criticism or even a fine.

Today, only a few countries require citizens to vote, most of them in Latin America; but of this already small number, only a handful actually enforce it with penalties.

Image may contain: text that says 'Nodata No data No compulsory voting No sanctions Source: -Dem Dataset Version 8 (2018) Minimal sanctions Costly sanctions'
Note: The light blue countries require voting but don’t enforce it. (Source: Wikimedia)

Moreover, just five of the world’s 35 established democracies have compulsory voting: Australia, Luxembourg, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Belgium (which has the oldest existing compulsory voting system, dating back to 1893.) In Belgium, registered voters must present themselves at their polling station, and while they don’t have to cast a vote, those who fail to at least show up without proper justification can face prosecution and a moderate fine. (To make it easier, elections are always held on Sundays.) If they fail to vote in at least four elections, they can lose the right to vote for 10 years, and might face difficulties getting a job in government (though in practice fines are no longer issued).

The arguments for compulsory voting is that democratic elections are the responsibility of citizens—akin to jury duty or paying taxes—rather than a right. The idea is that making voting obligatory means all citizens have responsibility for the government they choose; in a sense, it makes the government more legitimate, since it represents the vast majority of people.

The counterargument is that no one should be forced to take part in a process they don’t believe in or otherwise don’t want to be a part of; basically, not voting is itself a form of expression. Unsurprisingly, this view is prevalent in the U.S., where many believe compulsory voting violates freedom of speech because the freedom to speak necessarily includes the freedom not to speak. Similarly, many citizens will vote solely because they have to, with total ignorance about the issues or candidates. In many cases, they might deliberately skew their ballot to slow the polling process and disrupt the election, or vote for frivolous or jokey candidates. This is prevalent in Brazil, the largest democracy with mandatory voting, where people increasingly have become cynical about politics, elect joke candidates, and still choose not to vote despite the penalty.

Some have argued that compulsory elections help prevent polarization and extremism, since politicians have to appeal to a broader base (i.e. the entire electorate). It does not pay to energize your base to the exclusion of all other voters, since elections cannot be determined by turnout alone. This is allegedly one reason Australian politics are relatively more balanced, with strong social policies but also a strong conservative movement.

Finally, there is the claim that making people vote might also make them more interested in politics. It’s been shown that while lots of folks resent jury duty for example, once they’re in the jury, they typically take the process seriously. Similarly, they may hate mandatory voting in theory but in practice will find themselves trying to make the best of it.

International Day of Clear Blue Skies

Aside from Labor Day in the U.S., today is the first International Day of Clear Blue Skies, which was established by the United Nations General Assembly to bring awareness to the largest environmental risk to public health globally: air pollution.

Over 90% of our world is exposed to polluted air, which causes an estimated seven million premature deaths every year (more than cigarette smoking) and leaves millions more with chronic health problems like asthma and cognitive decline.

Fortunately, the world has a precedent for successful action: Over 30 years ago this month, the UN-sponsored Montreal Protocol saw literally every country commit to working together to eliminate CFCs, which were causing severe depletion of the ozone layer; it remains one of the few treaties with universal agreement. It took only 14 years between the discovery of the problem and the world committing to resolve it—and we’ve already seen the results.

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A few years ago, it was confirmed that the ozone layer is slowly recovering, and most projections show it fully healing within the next four decades. In an era of rising conflict and poor global leadership, this unlikely and little known success story of international cooperation is a glimmer of hope.

Fated for Conflict?

Nearly two centuries ago, a French traveler to America noted that the U.S. and Russia were destined to become great powers, fueled by their own conflicting but similar sense of manifest destiny and exceptionalism.

In many respects, the two countries are foils of each other, with their visions shaped by very different historical and geographic forces.

The U.S. benefited from inheriting a fairly liberal constitutional monarchy (by European standards) and an entire continent to itself, protected by two big oceans and lacking any rival powers in the entire hemisphere. It made experimenting with democracy far easier.

Russia was hemmed in by nomadic tribes and left open to raids and conquests by its flat steppes. Hence the eventual reliance on strongmen who could provide peace and security (such as the Rus Vikings) and the obsession with expanding as far out as possible to create buffers of security. Hence also a more cynical foreign policy, shaped by a history of foreign invasions.

Here’s what Alexis de Tocqueville had to say in his 1835 treatise, Democracy in America:

There are at the present time two great nations in the world, which started from different points, but seem to tend towards the same end. I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and whilst the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly placed themselves in the front rank among the nations, and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time.

All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and they have only to maintain their power; but these are still in the act of growth. All the others have stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these alone are proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which no limit can be perceived … Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.

This also goes to show how much geography shapes destiny. It is difficult to imagine we would could have developed a representative political system if we were subject to the constant existential threats that prompted Russia’s embrace of authoritarian security. We already significantly constrain civil liberties over threats much further away or less drastic.

Patriotism v. Globalism?

Americans have created this false dichotomy between patriotism and “globalism”, as if caring about international law, global public opinion, and the ideas of other nations is somehow intrinsically “un-American”. This would have been absurd to the Founding Fathers, who by today’s standards would be labeled globalist elites.

None other than James Madison, the father of the constitution, insisted that “no nation was so enlightened that it could ignore the impartial judgments of other nations and still expect to govern itself wisely and effectively”. In Federalist 63, he stressed the importance of respecting the consensus views of other countries and even believed that global public opinion could help keep ourselves in check:

An attention to the judgment of other nations is important to every government for two reasons: The one is, that independently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desirable on various accounts, that it should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy: The second is, that in doubtful cases, particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion, or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world, may be the best guide that can be followed.

Madison even adds that America would flourish if it considered the judgments and views of the world:

What has not America lost by her want of character with foreign nations? And how many errors and follies would she not have avoided, if the justice and propriety of her measures had in every instance been previously tried by the light in which they would probably appear to the unbiassed part of mankind?

Madison was far from alone in this view. Most of the founders, including Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, John Jay, and Thomas Jefferson, shared this sentiment, which is reflected in the U.S. Constitution. The Supremacy Clause states that international treaties are the supreme law of the land, even superseding conflicting domestic laws. The little known Offences Clause commits Congress to safeguard the “law of nations”, which we now cause international law. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld America’s commitments to international law; in one of its first cases, Ware v. Hylton, it ruled that the U.S. was bound by the terms of its peace treaty with Britain—even if it meant striking down a patriotic but conflicting state law. Many other cases—Missouri v. Holland, U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright, and The Paquete Habana, among others—followed suit.

Back in Madison’s day, most nations were monarchies in some form. Yet even then Americans saw the merit in garnering their respect or learning from them. Now that we have a more diverse community of nations—including dozens of democracies and allies—we have even more reason to take seriously our commitments to the world and our openness to its ideas.

The Unsung Mediators

As with most things, it is easier to focus on the failures than the successes—especially when success is measured by the bad things that never happened. The absence of tragedy does not feel as salient as its occurrence, which makes it easy to take for granted.

This is especially the case with diplomacy and global conflict resolution, which usually happens behind closed doors to allow the parties to save face. Imagine how many wars never happened because cooler heads prevailed, often with the help of nameless and faceless diplomats.

The Cuban Missile Crisis brought us to the brink of World War III, but few know, let alone appreciate, that it was the newly appointed Secretary-General of the United Nations—a soft-spoken career diplomat from Burma named U Thant—who persuaded both sides to walk back from the brink and provided a mutually acceptable resolution. American and Russian officials credited the UN, and Thant in particular, for helping deescalate the conflict; JFK remarked that “U Thant has put the world deeply in his debt.”

We see this again with UNIFIL, a multinational UN force that has been stationed at the Lebanon-Israel border since 1978 to keep the peace between the two nations. On its face, the mission has been an abject failure: skirmishes between Lebanese militias and Israeli forces continue to this day, even leading to outright war in 2006. Both sides, as well as the U.S., regard UNIFIL as worthless and often call for its mandate to end.

But an official in the Lebanese government noted that there were plenty of flare ups that had been diffused, or even prevented, through negotiations mediated by local UN forces. For all the conflicts it failed to avert—and that subsequently capture all the attention—there were just as many, if not more, that never happened because of UNIFIL intervention behind the scenes.

These are just two examples. Who knows how many more “almost-wars” and tragedies are being avoided every day, even as we speak, by thankless diplomats, negotiators, and mediators.