TCS Daily


Let's Not Squander Our Power Play in Space

By James Pinkerton - August 13, 2001 12:00 AM

If nature abhors a vacuum, so does power. If a strategic emptiness exists somewhere, it will be eventually get filled; somebody will take control of it. That's the story of geographical assets all through history: hilltop and harbors, gold mines and oil fields; if they aren't defended, they will be seized. But this abhorrence of a literal power vacuum in the physical world has a figurative parallel in the mental world; if there's an open question, it will eventually be filled up and answered.

And so it is in politics; any time a new controversy opens up, politicians and rhetoricians rush into the public square, elbowing each other for mindshare. This is a problem for American space-power proponents today; they have right goal, which is to establish a robust tangible presence in space, but they are not necessarily developing a robust presence in the intangible realm of ideas and arguments here on Earth. By contrast, the opponents of space power may have a wrong idea about outer space-that if the U.S. doesn't occupy it, nobody else will, either.- But by dint of articulation and repetition, they are proving effective at occupying much of the mental space that people allot to politics and punditry. Last week, as noted here, the single most powerful content provider in the country, The New York Times, devoted some 8,000 words to warning against "the coming space war." And now, a like-minded chorus of critics has taken up the cry: no "weaponization" of space.

Space-power proponents can't afford to ignore the advance of this opposing argument. After all, the maintenance of a power position must have two elements. First, the powerful must have a physical dominance, which keeps enemies at a geographical distance. And second, power utilizers must have the sort of intellectual dominance described above, which enables them to crowd out rival ideas. These two forms of power need not be dictatorial; indeed, they should be consensual. But when this unity of deeds and doctrine is achieved, power is effective and enduring.

One might consider as a strong precedent the way the Roman Empire kept order in the Mediterranean. For about 500 years, from the 1st century B.C. to the 4th century A.D., the Romans controlled the littorals washed by the Mediterranean. The Romans were generals, to be sure, not admirals; they had no sense of navigation, and their maps were a joke. But they understood power. Everything one needs to know about their grand strategy in regard to the Mediterranean can be summed up in the Latin name for it: "Mare Nostrum"-"Our Sea."

But the Romans, the reader might object, were imperialists. Are we supposed to be like them? The answer is no, and yes. Of course Americans should be nice democrats. And we are, no matter what our space policy might be. But the political nature of the regime isn't the only issue one must consider in world affairs. Another legitimate issue is the preservation of peaceful order; democracy won't last long amidst unchecked anarchy. In keeping the Mediterranean largely free of fighting and piracy for half a millennium, the Romans made the entire region contentedly prosperous, and the proof of that was the absence of violence in the Med. The Roman Empire collapsed because of invasion on its northern frontier, not because of rebellion at its watery core. And after the fall of Rome, the free movement of trade and peoples fell, too.

Americans might apply that lesson to the Pacific Ocean and be reminded yet again of the benefits, to peace as well as prosperity, that come from politico-military structure. At the dawn of the 20th century, many powers vied for control of the Pacific: England, Russia, Japan, France, Germany, and the U.S. Big wars were fought to decide who would dominate that body; the question was mostly answered by the American victory over Japan in 1945. Since then, the U.S. has kept the peace; the idea of a naval battle is all but unthinkable, and there's little crime-piracy-anywhere in 64 million square miles of water, an area that exceeds the total land mass of the planet.

How did the Americans do it? Two reasons: first, the U.S. Navy had the brawn. But second, the United States of America had the brain. That is, the two elements of power--physical and intellectual-worked in tandem. American leaders, acting in the name of the traditional "freedom of the seas" and the newer notion of "the Free World," were, by and large, able to persuade peoples of the Pacific that U.S. policing and order keeping was in their interest.

Of course, such maintaining order does not have to be done by one lone country. One might note that NATO and the European Union are filling up the power vacuum in Eastern Europe left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not only is NATO embracing former Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, but it is also peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia. And it's working. Why? Because for the first time since the Roman days, most Europeans agree on an ideology of peaceful cooperation preserved by force if necessary.

The next open expanse to be claimed, of course, is space. American military strategists, with Pearl Harbor burned into their brains, long ago put aloft a worldwide web of surveillance satellites to warn against sneak attacks. But today those satellites are threatened by hostile powers, so it becomes necessary to think about defending them.

And so comes a big debate. John Pike, of the left-leaning Globalsecurity.org, told The Washington Post recently that the Bush Administration plan to expand U.S. power into the heavens "runs fundamentally against the main theme of our space policy for the last half century--to demonstrate America's power in space in a nonthreatening way." That's a little bit of a rewriting of history, insofar as Cold Warriors Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy understood that the space race was a not-so-friendly competition with the Soviets, but if nobody challenges Pike on such reworking of the record, his words will pass into the public consciousness as fact.

But Pike is correct when says that the situation is changing; that's what Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld has been saying, too. The question that needs to be answered-the public opinion mindshare that needs to be filled --is what the new policy of the U.S. should be.

Two liberal arms controllers, Jonathan Dean and Jonathan Granoff, just offered their response to Rumsfeld. They wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times on August 11, "The community of nations will not tolerate one country's dominance of a weaponized space."

Maybe. But a look at the historical record suggests that when people see a problem, they will turn to a problem-solver. The Romans solved a disorder problem when they turned the Mediterranean into one big community. And the Americans solved another problem-Japanese aggression--when they dominated the Pacific. And the Western Europeans, acting as a single unit, have been solving a third problem, as they dominate Eastern Europe-with weapons, no less.

The right national or international response to the power vacuum in space needs to be debated, but this much is known already: if the proponents of American space power, if the prophets of a new world space order based on American values of peace and freedom, don't occupy the high points overlooking our world, then somebody else will. That's the lesson of history, and we should fill ourselves with its wisdom.

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