The Outbreaks That Never Happened and the Unseen Success of Global Institutions

Given all the death and dysfunction resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is worth appreciating the many potential outbreaks that never happened, thanks to the efforts of Kenya, Mozambique, and Niger, alongside the United Nations and other international partners

In December 2019, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic came in full swing, these nations managed to halt an outbreak of a rare strain of “vaccine-derived polio”, which occurs “where overall immunization is low and that have inadequate sanitation, leading to transmission of the mutated polio virus”. It is all the more commendable given that Niger is among the ten poorest countries in the world.

The fact that polio remains both rare and relatively easy to quash is the results of a U.N.-backed campaign announced in 2005 to immunize 34 million children from the debilitating disease, which often leaves victims permanently disabled. The effort was led by  by World Health Organization the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Rotary International, and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A nurse administers an oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV) to a baby at the Kaloko Clinic, Ndola, Zambia.
© UNICEF/Karin Schermbrucke

A little over fifteen years later, two out of three strains of polio have been eradicated—one as recently as last year—while the remaining strain is in just three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. This once widespread disease is on its way to becoming only the second human disease to be eradicated, after smallpox, which once killed tens of millions annually. That feat, accomplished only in 1979, was also a multinational effort led by the U.N., even involving Cold War rivals America and Russia.

Even now, the much-maligned WHO actively monitors the entire world for “acute public health events” or other health emergences of concern that could portend a future pandemic. As recently as one month ago, the U.N. agency issued an alert and assessment concerning cases of MERS-Cov (a respirator illness related to COVID-19) in Saudi Arabia. Dozens of other detailed reports have been published the past year through WHO’s “Disease Outbreak News” service, spanning everything from Ebola in Guinea to “Monkeypox” in the United States. (WHO also has an influenza monitoring network spanning over half the world’s countries, including the U.S.).

Not bad for an agency with an annual budget of slightly over two billion—smaller than many large U.S. hospitals. (And contrary to popular belief in the U.S., the WHO did in fact move relatively quickly with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic:

On 31 December 2019, WHO’s China office picked up a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission mentioning viral pneumonia. After seeking more information, WHO notified partners in the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN), which includes major public health institutes and laboratories around the world, on 2 January. Chinese officials formally reported on the viral pneumonia of unknown cause on 3 January. WHO alerted the global community through Twitter on 4 January and provided detailed information to all countries through the international event communication system on 5 January. Where there were delays, one important reason was that national governments seemed reluctant to provide information

Of course, it goes without saying that the WHO, and global institutions generally, have their shortcomings and failings (as I previously discussed). But much of that stems from structural weaknesses imposed by the very governments that criticize these international organizations in the first place:

WHO also exemplifies the reluctance of member states to fully trust one another. For example, member states do not grant WHO powers to scrutinise national data, even when they are widely questioned, or to conduct investigations into infectious diseases if national authorities do not agree, or to compel participation in its initiatives. Despite passing a resolution on the need for solidarity in response to covid-19, many member states have chosen self-centred paths instead. Against WHO’s strongest advice, vaccine nationalism has risen to the fore, with nations and regional blocks seeking to monopolise promising candidates. Similarly, nationalistic competition has arisen over existing medicines with the potential to benefit patients with covid-19. Forgoing cooperation for selfishness, some nations have been slow to support the WHO organised common vaccine development pool, with some flatly refusing to join.

The tensions between what member states say and do is reflected in inequalities in the international governance of health that have been exploited to weaken WHO systematically, particularly after it identified the prevailing world economic order as a major threat to health and wellbeing in its 1978 Health for All declaration. WHO’s work on a code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes around the same time increased concern among major trade powers that WHO would use its health authority to curtail private industry. Starting in 1981, the US and aligned countries began interfering with WHO’s budget, announcing a policy of “zero growth” to freeze the assessed contributions that underpinned its independence and reorienting its activities through earmarked funds. The result is a WHO shaped by nations that can pay for their own priorities. This includes the preference that WHO focus on specific diseases rather than the large social, political, and commercial determinants of health or the broad public health capacities in surveillance, preparedness, and other areas needed for pandemic prevention and management

In fact, it was this prolonged period of chronic underfunding, and of WHO member states prioritizing nonemergency programs, that precipitated the agency’s abysmal failings in the early phases of the 2014 Ebola outbreak. But once that crisis ended, member states, rather than defund or abandon the organization, opted to reform and strengthen its emergency functions; this overhaul resulted in the Health Emergencies Program, which was tested by the pandemic and thus far proven relatively robust:

On 31 December 2019, WHO’s China office picked up a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission mentioning viral pneumonia. After seeking more information, WHO notified partners in the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN), which includes major public health institutes and laboratories around the world, on 2 January. Chinese officials formally reported on the viral pneumonia of unknown cause on 3 January. WHO alerted the global community through Twitter on 4 January and provided detailed information to all countries through the international event communication system on 5 January. Where there were delays, one important reason was that national governments seemed reluctant to provide information.

I know I am digressing into a defense of WHO, but that ties into the wider problem of too many governments and their voters believing that global governance is ineffective at best and harmfully dysfunctional at worst. We Americans, in particular, as constituents of the richest country in the world, have more sway than any society in how institutions like the U.N. function—or indeed whether they are even allowed to function.

As our progress with polio, smallpox, and many other diseases makes clear, what many Americans decry as “globalism” is actually more practical and effective than we think, and increasingly more relevant than ever. We fortunately have many potential outbreaks that never happened to prove it.

The Only Woman Executed in the French Revolution for Her Politics

Olympe de Gouges.png

On this day in 1793, French playwright, journalist, and outspoken feminist Olympe de Gouges (born Marie Gouze) published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, hoping to expose the failures of the French Revolution to recognize gender equality.

Initially hopeful that the French Revolution would usher equality between men and women, Gouges became disenchanted upon discovering that the key revolutionary tenant of egalite would not be extended to women. In 1791, in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizenan otherwise seminal work in human rights— she wrote a counter-declaration that proposed full legal, social, and political equality between men and women. She also published her treatise, Social Contract, named after the famous work of Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, calling for marriage based upon gender equality.

Even before the revolution, Gouges was well ahead of her time both ideologically and professionally. She dared write plays and publish political pamphlets at a time when women were denied full participation in the public and political space. After releasing a play critical of slavery, she was widely denounced and even threatened for both her anti-slavery stance and being involved in the male profession of theatre in the first place. Gouges remained defiant: “I’m determined to be a success, and I’ll do it in spite of my enemies”. Unfortunately, threats and outright sabotage from the slavery lobby forced the theatre to abandon her play after just three days.

Heck, even her name was an act of defiance against prevailing social norms, as explained by Columbia College:

…Gouges took on her mother’s middle name, changed the spelling of her father’s and added the aristocratic “de.”  Adding to this already audacious gesture, the name “Gouges” may also have been a sly and provocative joke.  The word “gouge” in Occitan was an offensive slang term used to refer to lowly, bawdy women.  

Unsurprisingly, once the French Revolution came into full swing, Gouges wasted no time in seizing the moment. Aside from her already-bold feminist views, she rigorously supported a wage of policies and rights that proved radical even for the revolution:

She produced numerous broadsides and pamphlets between 1789 and 1792 that called for, among other things, houses of refuge for women and children at risk;  a tax to fund workshops for the unemployed;  the legitimation of children born out of wedlock;  inheritance equality;  the legalization and regulation of prostitution;  the legalization of divorce;  clean streets;  a national theater and the opening of professions to everyone regardless of race, class or gender.  She also began to sign her letters “citoyenne,” the feminine version of the conventional revolutionary honorific “citoyen.”  

Gouges’ opposition to the revolution’s growing and bloody radicalism, and support for a constitutional monarchy, put a target on her back. Above all she openly disliked, Maximillian Robespierre, in effect the most powerful man in the country, going so far as to use the informal tu when referring to him in an open letter. This proved the last straw; she was tried, convicted, and executed for treason as one of only three women to be executed during the Reign of Terror, and the only one executed for her politics.

Nonetheless, Gouges’ legacy lived on for decades, influencing women’s rights movements across Europe and North America: the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York—the first convention dedicated to women’s rights—based its “Declaration of Sentiments” on her “Declaration of the Rights of Woman”. 

Map: How Nuclear Powers Pledge to Use Their Nukes

The world has been fortunate to only see nukes used aggressively against one nation, nearly eighty years ago, during the waning days of the Second World War (of course this is small comfort to the hundreds of thousands of victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

This is all the more surprising considering we now have nine countries with nuclear weapons, some of which have been governed by certifiable mass murders (e.g., Stalin and Mao) or by men with questionable moral positions on ordering nuclear strikes (e.g., Nixon). One would think sheer probability would have resulted in at least an accidental launch (of which we have had several close calls).

This got me wondering how this select group of nuclear-armed countries approach the weighty issue of using their nukes against another nation. The most recent and reliable source I could find is a 2018 article from the Council on Foreign Relations, which offers a country-by-country breakdown on the “no first use” policy, the position that nukes should never be used first in any conflict but only in retaliation to a nuclear strike.

Based on the article, I made the following map, which shows the distressing rarity of that commitment:

It’s my first map, so I welcome any feedback or suggestions!

As explained in the article:

A so-called NFU pledge, first publicly made by China in 1964, refers to any authoritative statement by a nuclear weapon state to never be the first to use these weapons in a conflict, reserving them strictly to retaliate in the aftermath of a nuclear attack against its territory or military personnel. These pledges are a component of nuclear declaratory policies. As such, there can be no diplomatic arrangement to verify or enforce a declaratory NFU pledge, and such pledges alone do not affect capabilities. States with such pledges would be technically able to still use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, and their adversaries have generally not trusted NFU assurances. Today, China is the only nuclear weapon state to maintain an unconditional NFU pledge.

Given that such pledges are not binding, it is odd that more nations do not make them anyway; China’s lone commitment to this stance—which only India comes close to echoing—may not count for much, but clearly it carries enough significance for other nuclear powers to avoid it.

In fact, the United States had previously considered adopting an NFU policy, but has refrained from doing so out of fear that it might indicate insufficient deterrence of foreign threats:

During the Cold War and even today, the credible threat of the United States using its nuclear weapons first against an adversary has been an important component of reassuring allies. At the height of the Cold War, the threat of U.S. tactical nuclear use was conceived of as a critical bulwark against a conventional Soviet offensive through the Fulda Gap, a strategically significant lowland corridor in Germany that would allow Warsaw Pact forces to enter Western Europe. A nuclear first-use policy was thought to be a cornerstone of the defensive posture of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), given the large number of bases of Warsaw Pact conventional military forces. Accordingly, NATO has always opposed a U.S. NFU declaration and has never ruled out U.S. first use under its “flexible response” posture since 1967. Today, U.S. allies in East Asia and Europe alike rely on credible commitments from the United States to use nuclear weapons first to deter major nonnuclear threats against them.

I guess these pledges are not so vacuous after all.

The Rise of Killer Drones

Alright, so I am being a bit cheeky here. (Come on, even the big-name media brands use hyperbolic headlines!)

But, buried within a 548-page United Nations report on the Libyan Civil War is a troubling account about an autonomous military drone (specifically an “unmanned aerial vehicle”, or UAV) attacking soldiers without any direct human command.

Described as “a lethal autonomous weapons system”, the drone was powered by artificial intelligence and used by government-backed forces against an enemy militia. According to the report, these fighters “were hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems” and even when they retreated, the drones subjected them to “continual harassment”; no casualties are mentioned.

See the source image
The alleged killer drone, the Turkish-built Kargu-2

The report further states that the weapon systems “were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munitions”—in other words, it was a “fire and forget”.

However, it is unclear whether the drone was allowed to select its target autonomously or did so “on its own”, so to speak. Either way, some observers already consider it the first attack in history carried out by a drone on their own initiative.

It is worth mentioning that the drone in question is a Kargu-2, a small rotary drone built by a Turkish company closely affiliated with that country’s government. Turkey has emerged as an unlikely pioneer in drone technology: another one of its drones, the larger and better armed Bayraktar TB2, is credited with helping Azerbaijan win its war with Armenia in 2020; after years of literally losing ground against a militarily superior foe, Turkey’s ally gained a decisive edge because of these drones.

Drone strikes — targeting Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh soldiers and destroying tanks, artillery and air defense systems — provided a huge advantage for Azerbaijan in the 44-day war and offered the clearest evidence yet of how battlefields are being transformed by unmanned attack drones rolling off assembly lines around the world.

The expanding array of relatively low-cost drones can offer countries air power at a fraction of the cost of maintaining a traditional air force. The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh also underscored how drones can suddenly shift a long-standing conflict and leave ground forces highly exposed.[…]“

Drones offer small countries very cheap access to tactical aviation and precision guided weapons, enabling them to destroy an opponent’s much-costlier equipment such as tanks and air defense systems,” said Michael Kofman, military analyst and director of Russia studies at CNA, a defense think tank in Arlington, Va.

“An air force is a very expensive thing,” he added. “And they permit the utility of air power to smaller, much poorer nations.”

In Azerbaijan, the videos of the drone strikes have been posted daily on the website of the country’s Defense Ministry, broadcast on big screens in the capital, Baku, and tweeted and retweeted online.

Washington Post

Little wonder why Ukraine is rumored to be seeking these same drones to take back territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists, or why Iraq is considering acquiring some to hunt down ISIS militants and even to shore up gaps in its fledging air force. (Unsurprisingly, Turkey has seized on the success and prestige of its drone industry by proclaiming itself one of the world’s three leaders in combat drone technology.)

To be sure, the U.S. is still far and above the dominant user of combat drones, due in large part to the massive expense of acquiring and maintaining the highest-end systems. Within a decade it may have up to 1,000 drones at its disposal, well above the less than 100 employed by chief rivals China and Russia.

Infographic: The Countries Set To Dominate Drone Warfare  | Statista

Of course, a lot can happen between now and 2028; a technology that was once exclusive to just a handful of nations is now proliferating across the world, thanks to innovations that make drones easier and cheaper to develop, build, and operate. As of 2019, close to 100 countries use military drones — albeit the vast majority for surveillance purposes — up from around 60 a decade earlier. There are at least 21,000 drones in active service worldwide (though the number may be much higher), spanning over 170 different systems; 20 nations are known to have armed, higher-end models.

As to be expected, China and Russia are among the countries with armed drones, but so are the likes of Israel, Iran, Pakistan, and Nigeria. So far, only ten countries are known to have used drone technology on the battlefield: the U.S., Israel, the U.K., Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Iran , Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia, and the United Arab Emirate.

Note that most of these countries are not among the wealthiest or most powerful in the world, which can also be said of several more countries currently developing drones. The D.C.-based think tank New America has an excellent up-to-date report on this fast-moving world of drone tech, which includes the following infographics:

Drones have become accessible enough that they are even utilized by nonstate actors, ranging from paramilitary groups to terrorist organizations and even cartels

Military drones have come a long way since Israel first used them for surveillance purposes in the 1960s (the U.S. used Israeli-made UAVs to provide intelligence during the Bosnian War of the 1990s, and Israel remains a leading exporter of military drones). Indeed, just a few months after the U.N. report, Israel reportedly used a “swarm of drones” to identify and strike targets in the Gaza Strip—the first time this type of A.I. has been used. These swarms can number in the hundreds, coordinating with one another as they cover far more ground, and far more quickly, than other means. This is no doubt why China is also pioneering this particular type of drone tech, reportedly developing rocket-armed helicopter drones that can overwhelm targets like a swarm of angry bees—with just the push of a faraway button.

Not to be outdone, Russia is also looking to build an “army of robot weapons” backed by Chinese advances in A.I. tech. A report drawing on Pentagon intelligence identified two dozen platforms being developed by the Russian military incorporating some degree of AI or autonomy; these include land, air, and sea vehicles, specialized mines, A.I-powered logistical and training system, and supposedly even an anthropomorphic robot capable of dual-wielding firearms and driving cars. (This does not even include Russia’s purported edge in hypersonic missiles, which is already engendering yet another arms race between the big powers.)

While a lot of this is no doubt posturing, there is zero doubt that countries of all shapes and sizes are going to pursue this tech and ultimately succeed. There were times when firearms, tanks, and aircraft were cutting edge tech limited to a handful of great powers; now, even the smallest military forces have them.

Of course, as some hapless Libyan militants can attest, none of that hardware has the potential to go off the rails like A.I. does…

Forgotten Allies

The contributions of our foreign allies to the Afghanistan War have been overlooked or downplayed throughout the 20-year conflict. But in proportion to their size, many of them committed more troops and funds, and suffered more casualties, than even the U.S.

The 9/11 attacks were the first time NATO invoked Article 5 of its treaty, which enshrines the principle of “collective defense” by recognizing an attack against one ally as an attack against all allies. Thus, all the other 29 members of NATO—along with 21 partner countries ranging from Australia to South Korea—contributed troops, money, and other aid to the war in Afghanistan.

(It is also worth adding that even the typically-deadlocked U.N. Security Council resoundingly supported American retaliation, indicating an exceptionally rate amount of international support.)

Besides the U.S., the top five countries to send troops were the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and Canada. The U.K. in particular supplied roughly two to three times the troops of the other top contributing allies relative to its population.

British and Canadian troops put their lives at risk at twice the rate of American troops, when seen as a percentage of each country’s peak deployment. Proportionally, both suffered more than double the casualties of U.S. forces, while France suffered a similar rate.

As proportion of their military, many smaller countries played an outsized role, with Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Norway, and North Macedonia ranking near the top after the U.S. and U.K.; consequently, some of these countries suffered the highest fatality rates per capita.

The top contributing allies lost over a thousand lives in U.S.-led conflicts in Afghanistan as well as Iraq; all told, roughly half of all foreign military deaths in Afghanistan were among U.S. allies.

When measured as a percentage of their annual baseline military spending, the U.K. and Canada spent roughly half as much on Afghanistan as the U.S.; relative to their overall economic size, the U.K. spent more than the U.S., while Germany and Canada spent about the same.

This did not have to be our allies’ fight. The likes of Georgia, Norway, and South Korea (among dozens of others) had little to no skin in the game, aside from a broader sense that terrorism could potentially impact them. But even then, involvement would put them at greater risk of retaliation and domestic opposition (as Spain learned the hardest way when it lost nearly 200 lives in a terrorist attack perpetrated in response to its participation in Iraq).

The Franco-American Alliance and U.S. Independence

Among the four paintings prominently displayed in the U.S. Capitol is the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull (known as the “Painter of the Revolution” for his many iconic depictions of the war and period; you’ll recognize many of them if you look him up).

The painting is fully described in the article text.

The painting shows the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, which marks the decisive end of the American Revolution. Flanked on one side of the defeated general are Americans carrying the Stars and Stripes, and on the other French soldiers beneath the banner of France’s monarchy—the two forces portrayed as equal combatants. Trumbull’s decision to show French and Americans as identical victors reflected widespread acknowledgement that the U.S. owed its independence to the Kingdom of France. (Ironically, the world’s first modern republic was birthed with the help of one of its oldest and most absolute monarchies—more so than Great Britain’s!)

Almost as many French troops took part in the final battle as Americans; one of the two military columns that secured victory was entirely French. Meanwhile, the French Navy had kept British ships from coming to Cornwallis’ aid, prompting him to surrender—and the British to sue for peace. Even this already-critical contribution is just one example of decisive French aid.

Well before the Declaration of Independence, the Founders actively sought an alliance with France: While the French monarchy was everything the revolution stood against—heck, it was more authoritarian than even Britain’s—the Patriots were pragmatic enough to recognize that only the French had both the motive and means to take on the British, to whom they lost all their North American colonies just a decade before, in the Seven Years’ War (to say nothing of centuries of rivalry and mutual enmity).Indeed, France’s foreign minister urged the king to support the Americans, arguing that “[destiny] had marked out this moment for the humiliation of England.”

Hence why the Founders pursued a two-year diplomatic mission, led by noted Francophile Benjamin Franklin, to court the French for as much aid and support as possible.

The alliance was not merely opportunistic: Most of the Founders were avid consumers of French political philosophy, which promoted ideals of individual liberty and political representation. As far back as the 1760s, it was trendy for Americans to favor France over their English overlords; as one historian notes, “It became almost a patriotic duty for colonists to admire France as a counterpoise to an increasingly hostile England”. France’s powerful monarchy helped spur many French thinkers to explore better political alternatives—and in the process, inspire Americans across the Atlantic.

Patrick Henry’s famous exhortation, “Give me freedom or give me death!”, which convinced the colonists to prepare for war, echoed French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who opened his influential 1762 work, The Social Contract, with the words “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”. Rousseau’s core argument—predating the American Revolution by over a decade—is familiar to us now: Sovereignty rested not in a monarch, but in the people, with laws needing to reflect the common good, not the whims of an aristocratic elite. These ideals were channeled by Thomas Jefferson—another avid reader and noted Francophile—in the language of the Declaration of Independence. The U.S. Constitution may have drawn from the even older work of Baron de Montesquieu, who forty years before published “The Spirit of the Laws”, which laid out many familiar principles: That the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government should be separated, so that each branch can keep the other in check; that laws should ensure a fair trial, presumption of innocence and proportional punishments; and that people had the freedom of thought, speech and assembly (he also argued against slavery, though sadly that did not take root until much later).

Lafayette (right) depicted alongside George Washington at Valley Forge. John Ward Dunsmore (1907)

In any event, the admiration was mutual: Many French, including those who directly aided and fought in the American Revolution, were reeling under the monarchy and sought change; many of the political philosophers beloved by the Founders, including Rousseau and Montesquieu, faced persecution and even exile for their writings. To many in France, the nascent American republic signified their ideals made real, an experiment they wanted to succeed so it could perhaps be a model to their own efforts. (It is no coincidence that the French Revolution—which was bolder but bloodier than our own—would occur less than two decades after America’s.)

But as important as the ideological support was the practical kind. Even the most noble efforts require money to succeed, and France—then one of the world’s wealthiest countries—provided open-ended credit to the tune of billions of dollars. American troops, who initially lacked even basic goods like boots and winter jackers, received those supplies and more: By some measures, 90% of American gunpowder was of French origin, as were a similar proportion of U.S. armaments at Yorktown.

The Comte de Rochambeau, who is pictured as Washington’s equal in the Surrender of Yorktown, led the French Expeditionary Force that helped secure American victory—and which remains the only foreign allied force ever to campaign on American soil. Other brilliant Frenchmen like the Marquis de Lafayette, Louis Duportail, and Pierre L’Enfant played leading roles in the war and were personal friends and aides to George Washington (L’Enfant even helped design the nation’s capital). Tens of thousands more French served as soldiers and sailors, with the latter making up the bulk of our naval force.

Beyond the military dimension, France’s diplomatic heft could not be understated: As the first country to recognize American independence, it provided considerable legitimacy to the Patriot’s cause; if one of the most powerful countries in the world saw something in these upstart Americans, why shouldn’t other nations? Sure enough, France managed to get other powers like Spain and the Dutch Republic to throw in their lot with the Americans—turning what could have been just another self-contained rebellion into a full-fledged world war that stretched British forces thin. France even helped broker the peace deal that finally secured British recognition of U.S. independence—the “Treaty of Paris”—after refusing Britain’s offer of a separate peace deal without the Americans (a pretty solid ally indeed).

Source: Wikipedia; Encyclopedia Britannica; How Did the French Help Win the American Revolution? – HISTORY

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.

See the source image

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.

See the source image

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?