from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Global Agenda: Navigating Contested Global Spaces

December 22, 2016

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

This blog post is part of a series entitled Global Agenda, in which experts will identify major global challenges facing President-Elect Trump, the options available to him, and what is at stake for the United States and its partners. This following post is authored by Esther Brimmer, adjunct senior fellow for international institutions at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The U.S. strategic position and economic security are enhanced by access to global spaces. The United States can deploy its military almost anywhere in the world from submarines under the Arctic icecap, to ships at sea, to aircraft in the skies guided by satellites in outer space. Daily, Americans use Global Position System (GPS) signals on their cell phones to navigate their way and shop in markets filled with goods transported across oceans on cargo ships. Meanwhile, factories combine parts that have arrived just in time for assembly. Americans live in a society, work in an economy, and are protected by national defense strategies that rely on access to global spaces.

Yet future ease of access to global spaces cannot be assumed. Changing strategies and emerging technologies could impede U.S. ability to operate as effectively as possible in these areas.

Change is particularly salient in three areas: oceans, outer space, and cyberspace. The United States should take action now to shape its future in these realms. In all three areas, the U.S. response cannot be piecemeal. Rather, the nature of global spaces means the United States must have a sustained strategy for each area.

For centuries, scholars have debated the nature of the “global commons.” Variations have included res nullius (territory owned by no one and anyone who can access it can take possession and use it), res publica (territory owned by the international community, which can set rules for its treatment or use), or res communis inherently unownable areas held in common for all (common property that cannot be owned or appropriated). Because some areas do not fit the definitions neatly, “global spaces” is a useful wider term to describe areas that are beyond the jurisdiction of any one state and from which it is difficult to exclude others from access.

The High Seas

Maritime access and transit for others’ vessels has been a long-standing concern. Diplomats and military strategists have debated the nature of freedom of the seas since the era of Hugo Grotius, the influential seventeenth century author and advocate. Under the Antarctic Treaty System and related measures, the continent at the southern pole and its surrounding waters are recognized as a commons.

Naval competition is not new. The latest chapter is being written in the South China Sea. China has endeavored to create facts by building island-like structures on atolls. Maritime claims overlap in waters rich with fish swimming over a seabed endowed with natural resources. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China in favor the Philippines’ claims. In a twist, rejecting the benefits of this legal victory, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has sought a bilateral resolution to maritime disputes. In his statements, he has moved closer to Beijing and away from Washington.

The United States has a long-standing interest in freedom of navigation and has extensive commitments in the Asia/Pacific region. In addition to the turbulence in the South China Sea, China and Japan, a long-standing U.S. ally, both claim the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Addressing maritime and other disputes will occupy U.S. strategists for years to come.

To support a rules based maritime order, the United States should maintain its military presence, reassure allies, and defend its interests by participating in the leading maritime legal framework. Thus, the United States should continue its own freedom of navigation exercises around the globe and encourage others to do the same. It should also sustain its $425 million Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative in cooperation with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Even as relations with the Philippines fray under President Duterte, the United States retains an interest in working with these countries on maritime domain awareness. (Although in the Philippines, assistance rightly is being reprogramed away from narcotics control to maritime issues in light of human rights abuses.)

Additionally, the United States should revisit its political allergy to claiming its rights. Today, 164 UN member states have agreed to manage oceans through the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). Washington has handicapped itself by not ratifying this treaty. Although the U.S. Navy abides by its tenets in practice because of their utility, the United States cannot use its tools such as applying to the Continental Shelf Commission to claim undersea assets that belong to it.

Outer Space

Many consider outer space an “unownable” res communis. In the coming decades, improved technological ability to mine resources beyond Earth may rekindle debates on that assumption.

In the four decades since the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (which forms the political framework and bars weaponization of space) was established entered into force, low Earth orbit has become more crowded

Over 1,300 military, scientific, telecommunications, and commercial satellites orbit our planet. Although usually positioned far apart, satellites are vulnerable to collision. Some collisions are accidental. In 2009, for example, the Iridium 33 communications satellite collided with a defunct Russian satellite Cosmos 2251. Other collisions, however, are more intentional, as countries have demonstrated via their anti-satellite capabilities. In 2007, China destroyed one of its own defunct satellites. The United States did the same in 2008 before one of its defunct satellites fell back to Earth.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reports that over twenty thousand pieces of space debris larger than five centimeters are in low Earth or geosynchronous orbit.

NASA and the Department of Defense provide a global service by cataloging satellite locations and serve as a clearing house and alert system for satellite owners to reposition endangered satellites. Fortunately, there have been steps toward cooperation in this arena. In 2015, for example, the United States and China created a hotline channel to reduce misunderstandings on space issues. More countries and private operators could work with the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center to ameliorate the growing challenge of space debris.

With its huge array of satellites, the United States is harmed by a disorderly process for further space expansion. Washington should continue to support efforts to craft a comprehensive code of conduct. Long-established spacefarers in the European Union and new spacefarers such as South Africa have been working toward a code of conduct in Vienna at the UN Committee of Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, but only countries that already have space programs are involved there. After years of work, progress has stalled. Some countries want to pursue these issues in the Conference of Disarmament or the UN General Assembly. The United States should look for ways to advance a workable code of conduct in a viable venue sooner rather than later.


Not all global spaces are natural. Cyberspace has many of the properties of a commons. Most significantly, it is beyond the jurisdiction of any one country. Yet, it differs from natural commons because access can be impeded. For example, governments can limit their populations’ access to global Internet networks. Also, many structures of cyberspace are owned by private companies.

The United States uses cyberspace for military, economic and social means, but threats lurk along with opportunities. Whether draining electronic bank accounts or dribbling disinformation into the U.S. electoral process, hackers can disrupt the cyber structures that undergird our modern society. U.S. policymakers must therefore redouble its efforts on standards of conduct for cybersecurity with a range of actors, including other countries, private companies, as well as computer experts. Such standards would be a baseline, not a complete solution for this Hydra-headed problem.

The United States benefits from access to the commons. In these areas beyond U.S. jurisdiction, policies cannot be wholly transactional. The United States is better served by systems of cooperation. To secure continued successful use of global spaces, the United States needs to work with other countries to bolster the international rules that govern these areas. Three tenets are clear: 1) operating in global spaces is important to the United States; 2) the country will need to cooperate with others to succeed; and 3) the nation will need to marshal expert knowledge and innovative technology.

The United States has excelled at navigating the oceans from clipper ships to submarines. Astronauts and engineers have elevated our visions to the moon, Mars, and beyond. Educators, innovators, and entrepreneurs have created a cyber world of rapid communication, e-commerce, and an artistry of ones and zeroes. These successes have common components including freedom of thought and agility of action.

The United States will need to harness bright minds in the public and private sectors to maintain its leadership in global spaces. Expertise and innovation will be required. To succeed, the United States must retain its belief in knowledge-based decision-making, the integrity of the scientific method, the honor of dissent, and the validity of speaking truth to power.