Academic Webinar: Governing the Global Commons

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance, Council on Foreign Relations


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Academic and Higher Education Webinars and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Esther Brimmer, James H. Binger senior fellow in global governance at CFR, leads the conversation on governing the global commons.

FASKIANOS: Welcome to today’s session of the Winter/Spring 2024 CFR Academic Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Thank you for joining us.

Today’s discussion is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website,, if you would like to share the materials with your colleagues or classmates. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We’re delighted to have Esther Brimmer with us today to talk about governing the global commons. Dr. Brimmer is the James H. Binger senior fellow in global governance at CFR. Prior to joining CFR, she was the executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. She has served in the U.S. government as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, and on the policy planning staff. And she has published numerous articles, edited eight books on transatlantic relations, and is writing a book on the need for better governance mechanisms to manage expanding human activities in outer space. So, Esther, thanks very much for being with us today.

I thought we could begin by you defining what the global commons are and explaining why they are important in current international relations.

BRIMMER: Thank you. Thank you so much. I’m delighted to join you and our participants from around the country and around the world today to talk about governance of the global commons. I’ll share a few opening reflections to respond to your question. And I look forward to our discussion.

I will argue that, first and foremost, that the need to manage the global commons has actually helped create our field of international relations, going back at least several centuries to Hugo Grotius and Mare Liberum, the famous book on the law of the sea and 1609. These are not new issues to international affairs, but they are some fundamentally exciting things going on. And it’s exciting to be talking about them now, because we’re in an important period of change.

So, when we think about the global commons, these are areas beyond national jurisdiction. And I will argue that they are largely held by all of us. But the opposite view is that they’re held by none of us. And you’ll see in my comments that these different conceptions of the commons are woven through our understanding of the commons. The sorts of places I’ll talk about today include the oceans, polar areas—both Arctic and Antarctica—outer space, and what we’re also seeing now is thinking about areas like cyberspace and the atmosphere, and hence climate change, as also being, in a sense, a new way of thinking about commons. So there are a variety of areas where the issues and topics related to the comments are present.

So, why do they matter now? I will argue that managing the global comments will be a crucial component shaping the evolution of the global order in the coming decade. Global commons, such as the oceans, the atmosphere, and space, and areas beyond national jurisdiction that belong to everyone, are subject of renewed great-power competition and technology-driven commercial activity. Traditional geographical commons are complemented by what I would call the human-made digital comments, such as cyberspace. What rules are and who enforces them undergirds global order. In the twenty-first century, technological change and great-power competition are reopening fundamental questions.

And indeed, the commons have been part of international relations and international relations theory. We can think about the important phrase, “the tragedy of the commons,” and the concern of overuse of our commons, making them no longer available for others and for all of us. It’s been one important issue in international relations. Another strategic thought has been the importance of command of the commons, maintain strategic dominance in land, sea and air. And there’s an important body of work in that area. And I will argue that the new objective should be to safeguard the global commons.

The global commons are especially important in world affairs today. Let’s think about the modern economy and national security. Global economic ties depend on the commons. For example, transportation and navigation are absolutely crucial. The vast majority of trade, over 80 percent of trade, moves—of goods trade—moves by sea. When there are blockages in transportation, they’re immediately in the headlines. Just think about the Black Sea and the spillover of the war in Ukraine. Think about current issues in the Red Sea, gives you a sense of the importance of global commons issues. I will add that we’re also seeing new technology, for example, greater access to space, which means that the management of space is important, and is an aspect of the commons. After all, information from satellites are crucial for navigation, communications, weather prediction, and so many other areas.

So, as I indicated, we’re seeing return of competition in the commons, whether it is the South China Sea or the East China Sea, space, and cyberspace. And indeed, climate change is altering also our relationship with the commons. Our shared spaces, our interconnected environment are all part of our thinking in this area. The melting of sea ice in the Arctic obviously changes, again, the relationship with the Arctic, the greater interest in navigation in that area because the ocean is open a bit longer than it has been previously. Issues such as carbon emissions into the atmosphere can also key on how we think about the commons. And even how we think about the oceans, whether we continue to use the “S” in oceans, or if we recognize that they are actually part of one ocean.

So, these are the types of bodies we’re thinking of, areas beyond national jurisdiction. Let’s take a moment and look at the structures of governance that we have for the commons. Now, in one scenario that you had for much of human existence, there was no governance, no system. Different countries were doing different things. But I would say that we also have—you can have parallel governance systems. For example, national systems for managing certain types of shared spaces. For example, if you think about a medical certification, just as an example, that’s done nationally, so that if you earn your medical degree in one country you have to requalify in another. That’s national. Though it’s different for veterinarians, I would note.

You can have competing systems. You could have competing governance systems, where different sets of states set up their own networks to manage a global commons. Or, increasingly what we’ve seen over the past century, is the creation of one system, one structure where you have all countries being part of a system. And so, as I talk about different types of frameworks in the global commons, I’ll note: Is this a single system? And, within that system, is the structure hierarchical or egalitarian? Do all members of that structure have the same rights? Or do different states have different rights? Another would be the membership. Does membership have to be comprehensive or can it be partial for the system to work? Or, in other words, do all states need to belong to a particular global governance mechanism or can it be partial?

Let’s take a moment and look at different types of mechanisms. One is oceans. And we can look at both the law of the sea and the Treaty on the Law of the Sea. But we can also look at the newly signed, but not yet ratified, High Seas Treaty, which is a treaty that looks at areas beyond national jurisdiction. And that’s part of new efforts to manage the seas. We can talk about the role of other governance mechanisms of oceans, whether it’s maritime commerce through the International Maritime Organization or, if we look—think of within the oceans, managing fishing, or managing conservation, or even looking at the seabed. Different parts of the ocean are on—and there are different discussions about managing these areas. So it’s one set of issues.

Others we could talk about in our conversation today include the polar regions. The Arctic, and the Arctic states, and changes we’re seeing in the Arctic both for environmental reasons but political ones as well, such as the flow—or, the spillover of the implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected the Arctic, the Arctic mechanisms, and also the expansion of NATO in the Arctic area. So, we can talk about changes in the Arctic area. We can also talk about changes in Antarctica, which is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, which is, I would argue, hierarchical. There are consulting states that are directly involved in the decision making, and others that have acceded to the treaty and are not consulting states. So we can talk about Antarctica.

We could also talk about aviation and aerospace. Now, aviation is probably the best example of a single system for managing global space. In this case, if we look at the modern civil aviation system, which was created by the 1944 Chicago Civil Aviation Conference, that’s one unified system. And we can talk about that structure. All countries participate. We all agree that everybody needs to be part of it to have a safe civil aviation system. And there is an international organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, which is a United Nations agency, that manages this system. And all states belong and have a role.

One of the areas where we need to look more closely will be outer space. And I’m arguing—and why I’m interested in a writing book in this area—is that we need to look at how we will manage low Earth orbit, where we have increasing commercial activity, and ultimately how we will manage the Moon. Just since we started talking about these issues, you and I, even planning for this event, two countries have landed successfully on the Moon as well. So, a lot’s going out there.

So I’ll pause there. But what I wanted to introduce was the idea of the global commons, that there’s several different types of commons, that there’s several different regimes managing those commons. Some of those regimes are egalitarian, with all members having the same rights. Others are hierarchical. Some of them are universal regimes and only work if they’re universal. Others are partial. So, we can, again, look at those different types of global commons and look at the different types of mechanisms we have for managing them. But I’ll say, one of the reasons to look at this is that there’ll be important decisions made in these global commons in the next five to ten years, which will have implications for decades.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Thank you, Esther. So we’re going to go to all of you now to ask your questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

And do not be shy. And I see we already have hands up, which is great. I’m going to go first to Chad DeWaard. Chad, you need to unmute yourself.

Q: Unmute? All right, hello.

FASKIANOS: Daro, we’ll come to you next. So, let’s start with Chad.

Q: All right. Hi. So I’m with Culver-Stockton College. I’m part of Chad DeWaard’s class that he has on the screen.

My question: Earlier in the presentation you mentioned cyberspace. I was wondering if you could go into more detail about that.

BRIMMER: Yes, indeed. Oh, one of the things, or the idea I want to share with you, is that when we think about cyberspace, we can also think about it as having aspects of being a global commons. Because, of course, cyberspace space rests on the electromagnetic spectrum, which exists. I mean, that is not a human creation. There is, in a sense, that—so that we’ve created a system that sits on natural phenomena. And then the question is, how do we both set rules for operating within cyberspace? And one of the interesting transitions is you could argue—and indeed my colleagues here at the Council on Foreign Relations have done an interesting report looking at the fracturing of cyberspace—you could argue that the many the noble, original attempts to create—to facilitate movement of information and participation by all peoples in cyberspace is becoming increasingly limited as national governments choose to create certain barriers between the flow of information.

Some of those are for safety. Some of those are for other reasons. And so that—I include it because it is also an area of human interaction that’s actually based on a natural phenomenon where there will be rules—I’m sorry, where there could be rules. And that one of the current debates now is in the management of cyberspace, which will also affect other commons. So, one of the interesting issues you start looking at is how will communications with space activities need to be adjusted or updated as we continue space exploration? So, there are intersections between the commons as well. And I want to be sure that—historically, obviously, we focused on the physical commons, such as the oceans. And I think that it’s important that we think about these other areas which are similar, have some of the similar dynamics between even some of the same governments, even some of the same people in the governments who would be—would be involved in these issues.

So, for example, take the International Telecommunications Union. Again, a global entity, part of the United Nations system, which both allocates radio frequencies, but they also allocate, in effect, satellites slots, because in order to transmit back from Earth orbit—back onto Earth, obviously it needs to be part of our overall telecommunication system. So, there are intersections between these areas and, for example, between cyberspace and the other global commons.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to go next to Daro Wade.

Q: Hello.


Q: Hi. My name is Daro Wade. I’m currently majoring in international relations. Thank you so much for having me.

FASKIANOS: And Daro, where are you majoring at? What college?

Q: Buffalo State University.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you.

Q: Thank you so much. I have a question. I don’t think if I—if it’s a good question anyway, but I wanted to ask about what’s the difference between cyberspace and space? Like, is there a difference? I don’t know.

BRIMMER: Well, you know, that’s actually a really interesting question. A really philosophical question. So, there is a technical answer. And I will focus on the technical answer. But I want to acknowledge that’s actually a really interesting sort of philosophical question about how we choose to divide up different phenomenon. Because, indeed, as your question indicates, there are phenomenon that are part of our life on Earth, that are also part of life off—a part of existence off of Earth. And so that’s a really interesting question.

I will say that the way we’ve politically chosen to divide that up is that we separate out the—both airspace and space beyond that physically, so that when we think about space, we’ve actually divided up into both the national airspace above us, up to 60,000 feet mean sea level. We then think about low Earth orbit, all the way up to geostationary Earth orbit. And so, we’ve created—we’ve agreed on certain altitudes, so to speak, where certain operations can occur. So, we’ve divided that up in terms of how we operate those areas. So, for example, low Earth orbit is where the International Space Station exists, where you’re seeing, you know, different satellites being placed to support communications on Earth.

But, as you indicate, that the spectrum exists in multiple places. So, right, we’ve, as human beings, chosen politically to divide up what is actually a larger continuum. I think that’s really interesting. A really interesting question. And another one that I think—that I think relates to that is a similar question of how do we divide things. If you think of how we tend to write about oceans, we will talk about, you know, the North Atlantic or the South Pacific. But, of course, it’s one ocean. I mean it’s all connected. You know, and sometimes we have to recognize that when we’re thinking, let’s say, about currents and flows. So I just remember, it’s always a good question. And your question actually raises really interesting philosophical as well as political issues. Thank you for the question.

Q: No problem. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful.

And there is a hello to you, Esther, from Pomona College. So, somebody from Pomona is going to have to ask a question live.

BRIMMER: Thank you. Thank you. That’s my alma mater—(laughs)—so thank you. Thank you. And there’s a nice—there’s an observatory at Pomona, yes. (Laughs.)

FASKIANOS: Excellent.

So, I’m going to go next to a written question from Fordham IPED Program. There is an upvote, so I’m taking that next. As climate change—and it’s coming from Genevieve Connell: As climate change and non-point source pollution continues to damage our freshwater systems, and given that a large portion of the freshwater is stored in the polar icecaps, are the polar regions truly considered global commons, when countries such as Canada, the Nordic countries, the United States, and Russia have stronger military defense and strategies in the Arctic polar regions?

BRIMMER: Well, thank you for the question. So let’s sort of—a terrible pun would be to dive into this question—because, indeed, although I don’t have a map in front of me, you can imagine that, of course, as you know, the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land. So that, indeed, there are eight countries with territory above the Arctic Circle, which is about sixty-six degrees and thirty-four minutes north. And so that those countries do have their own territorial waters. They, of course, have their 200-mile exclusive economic zones. And you will see, there was a recent news—a story in the news about a declaration by the United States about its extended continental shelf. And we can get into that at length.

But, indeed, much of the Arctic, important parts of the Arctic, are actually covered by territorial zones. That said, importantly, there is high seas, areas beyond national jurisdiction, at the center. The center of the Arctic Ocean is part of the high seas. And, indeed, there are areas even when you look at the Bering Strait, which is the area between the Russian Federation in the United States—you think where Alaska and Russia, it’s about—at the narrowest point, it’s about fifty-one miles across. But even within that, there is open ocean to allow navigation so that you can—any country can sail up through the, through the straits between the—between the United States and the Russian Federation, because, again, that is part of the high seas.

So, that’s my way of saying that much of the governance of the Arctic does fall into these areas of national jurisdiction, but importantly, there is high seas in the center. And there are agreements about fishing in those areas and, at this point, trying to manage some of the fishing issues in that area, so that it’s important that there is there is still high seas within that. Now, the big question that you raised, of course, is that as we see what happens in the Arctic, that both the melting of the sea ice—and the way it melts in the summer, of course, has changed as the whole environment is getting warmer. And, of course, the Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the globe. Some experts say two times, some say three times, some say four times faster than the rest of the globe. Making the impact of climate change dramatic in the Arctic.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to go next to Wilson Wameyo, with a raised hand. If you could unmute yourself and tell us where you’re calling from.

Q: Hello. Good evening. This is Wilson. I’m calling from Krakow, Poland, from Jagiellonian University. I’m studying a master’s in international security and development.

I want to thank our guest. And I will have a question because I read one of your documents on The Hill, which talks about exploration in space. And the question is, what is the interest which is drawing right now, like, great powers to the Moon—going to the Moon? Is it just the interest that was there in the 1960s? Or it’s a new interest? Maybe some minerals or something? Because I read your articles, but I didn’t get exactly what is drawing, like, new powers there. Because I know India landed there, but there is also plans for Russia and China to go there. Thank you.

BRIMMER: Thank you for your question. And, indeed, there are both longstanding and new reasons to look at the Moon. So one, indeed, as our closest and original natural satellite that, of course, gazing at the Moon and thinking about learning more about the Moon has been part of much—of many societies for, you know, millennia.  But what’s particularly interesting now is we’re seeing that one area of interest is, are there commercial uses? So, some people would like to see, could we have a permanent or rotating settlement there that then supports other activities in space? So what do we need to learn about long-term human activities possibly on the Moon? Could those, for example, support then further explorations onto Mars? And that is one area of interest.

Another is there are those who are interested in the possibility of accessing minerals in space. Some asteroids, for example, have critical minerals that might be very valuable, back in space. And this is one case, for example, as we look at the green transition, that there are minerals that are useful for electronic vehicles that—some of which are—and some of those minerals are at the bottom of the ocean. Some people think they are—it’s better to go out to space to look for the same minerals. And the question is, which remote place might we go to, to try to look for such minerals? So, there are those who are interested in minerals. There are those who are interested in scientific exploration, which has been one of the fundamental interests for years as well.

What are the particularly dramatic pushes? There’s also great-power competition. But both the United States and China have important space programs. And one of the questions will be, will those be competitive, cooperative, or something in between? I think that’s one of the big—one of the big political questions in space. But then also, to say more specifically, there’s some intriguing issues. So, for example, that previous landings—first, by India and us, noticed that there is water on the Moon. It’s frozen as ice, but there’s a question of could that be used if people were to set up, let’s say, scientific stations on the Moon?

So there’s, as I say, a mix of commercial, political, scientific reasons for going back to the Moon. As you know, the United States was the first to—and only country so far—to land people on the Moon and bring them back again. There is—there are plans to return people to the Moon. Other countries have successfully landed equipment devices, rovers and others, to do exploration on the Moon. Of course, originally, the Soviet Union, now it’s the Russian Federation, which was the Soviet Union, China, and then just in the past year, India, and Japan.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to go next to Gavin Rolle, with the raised hand.

Q: Hi. My name is Gavin Rolle. Sorry if it’s a little—it’s a little loud where I am. I’m a senior honors international business major at Howard University.

And my question is: Could you talk—I guess it’s not really a question—but could you talk a little bit more about the effects of how the commons are governed on international trade?

BRIMMER: Indeed. So, let’s look at the governance and to what extent governance can help facilitate trade. Let’s take an example of the Arctic. We were speaking earlier about the Arctic, and melting, and some of the environmental effects. And, indeed, out because of—that there is a greater degree of melting during the summer, that some—there’s been some interest in the opportunities for cargo transport through the Arctic. Now, half of the Arctic is in the Russian Federation. And so the other part that goes through the Russian Federation is the northern sea route. The other part goes across North America, including the and United States and Canada. And so—and both those have very different geological conditions.

But that said, the main issue here is that there are cargo companies that are interested in moving goods—to extending their ability to move goods through the Arctic. However, even if there’s greater melting, that actually still means it’s extremely difficult to navigate in the Arctic. And there’s still very harsh conditions. And partially melted ice is still an issue. Therefore, it’s important to try to have some standards for how ships that go through the Arctic should need to be constructed and managed. Because, again, you want to reduce the chance, first, of mishap, loss of life, environmental degradation, and other things.

So, the governance issue that’s relevant is the International Maritime Organization. Now this organization, as the name suggests, works with shippers worldwide. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has created something which is called the polar code. It has a longer name, but I will call it—it’s called for short the polar code, which are standards for certain types of ships going through the Arctic. And so that is one of the ways where governance can try to help improve and coordinate how people are operating within the Arctic. And national governments are part of the International Maritime Organization. Again, it’s a United Nations agency. All the countries that are in the Arctic are members also the International Maritime Organization.

And indeed, the IMO just last year updated some of its standards to apply to smaller and different types of ships, recognizing that more vessels are going through the Arctic. Now it will be harder for—while any one country could try to set rules for movement through its own oceans, that if a ship is going through the high seas portion you want it to be operating to the highest standards. And the governance provided by the International Maritime Organization is one of the aspects that can assist in that type of activity.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to take the next question from Nicole Rudolph, who is an assistant professor at Adelphi University: Considering the increasing involvement of private companies in space exploration and commercial ventures, how should international governance frameworks adapt to ensure responsible and equitable management of outer space resources and activities?

BRIMMER: Oh, thank you! That is the question of the hour. That is, indeed—as we look at—the burning question in global governance, that is that one. Because, indeed, as you indicate, we now have private companies that are an important part of the space economy. We have a space economy. Indeed, when you think about that, of course, through much of the twentieth century, space exploration was conducted by national governments. And what we see now, we have private companies that are able to provide certain services related to space exploration. So, for example, the most visible ones, of course, are the launch companies, that are able to launch satellites into space. And that there are, what, over seventy countries with some assets in space. And sometimes those have gone up with launch vehicles of national governments, sometimes they’ve gone up with launch vehicles of private companies.

There are, of course, extraordinary companies that have had important innovations. Probably the best-known is SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, who, as an example, has developed the ability to reuse its assets, thereby bringing down the cost of launch. So, the question is how to set standards and improve the existing standards. So, for example, if you—under the Outer Space Treaty and related treaties, that the national government is responsible for what is launched from its territory. So, if SpaceX is going to launch one of its rockets from the United States, that it, of course, works with United States, and United States is supposed to inform the UN Office of Outer Space first that it’s going to have so many launches in this period of time. So national governments are supposed to be the ones who report on this.

That said, there’s a real question of to what extent national governments will be—are able to monitor and regulate the companies that are—want to launch from their—from their territories. So that’s a really—very much a live question. And then, how you—how you do—other assets that are sent into space is very much a live question. And so that there are some who think that you can set certain standards that states will voluntarily agree to. So you’ll see what sometimes—there’s, again, a longer name for the agreements on standards of behavior in space, often called the Artemis Accords, which was developed both by the United States and other countries together, which sets standards for operations in space. And different countries have signed up. Last I checked, over thirty countries had signed up, saying that they would follow certain standards with the companies that operated in their territory.

But it’s really an open question. And there’s a real concern that some states may create spaces that allow people to launch, but not be able to manage all the aspects of what the private sector is doing. And it’s moving quickly. I mean, it’s moving quickly. If you think about—if you think about just low Earth orbit and the number of satellites that are in space, that’s increasing dramatically—absolutely dramatically. Largely because of SpaceX, but there are other constellations of space vehicles that that will be launched. And that is the current issue that that policymakers are grappling with now, is how to regulate what commercial companies are doing.

And here, again—here, I would tie it back to the earlier conversation, that this pattern of phenomena we’re seeing in more than one place. What we’re seeing in space is somewhat similar to what we see in cyberspace, which is where you have, again, dynamic private sector entities that are creating new—have new technological innovations that are fantastic. But governments are grappling with how to regulate them. And so it’s a different situation, but the issues are the same. And some of the same institutions get involved with both. I mean, as I mentioned, the International Telecommunications being one that’s having to do with both. Department of Commerce in the United States is another one that’s having to deal with both.

FASKIANOS: Just to continue on this, Esther, you know, there have been reports about tech companies putting their data centers on barrages and maybe even up in space, so that they’re not being regulated or having to be regulated by governments. Can you talk a little bit about that phenomenon that seems to be taking place? And how—can they be regulated? Can this be, you know, dealt with?

BRIMMER: An excellent, excellent question. Is that one—indeed, I would say that we would need to look—we should be looking for ways to regulate that. And that then the question is, what tools are available to governments on the ground to be able to do that? And what rules can be set? Would you need buy-in from everybody to not have loopholes? And I think there’s a real concern that, yes, the technology is well ahead of the regulatory framework. And I’m at the moment somewhat pessimistic that it’s going to catch up fast enough.

And I’ll just say here, it’s not that I think that governments have to do everything. But I do think you need rules. And that all for the long term—at the beginning, I talked about, quote, “the tragedy of the commons,” and they do need rules so that the actions of a few don’t spoil the use of the space by everybody else. And so, these are the things that I do—that we do worry about. And I don’t immediately see a good solution. But I think that—I think part of it is making the point that we actually do need rules. And that’s actually beneficial to—especially to the responsible players in any field.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Going next to Clemente Abrokwaa.

Q: Hi. My name is Clemente Abrokwaa. And I’m at Penn State University in the African Studies Department.

And this is going to be just two questions here. Short ones, don’t worry. (Laughs.) Now, the first is—might be a rather selfish question, but in terms of the global governance, how much voice would Africa have? And then the second question is, in terms of the global commons, what happens with transnational companies and biodiversity that countries have? How much control will they have in terms of that, when companies go in there? Thanks.

BRIMMER: Thank you. Two really good questions. Each one of which could be a topic for a whole session. First, in terms of global governance, one of the reasons to actually try to create a global mechanism, or global agreements for managing global commons, such as space, is that it gives more voice to more states. And so that’s why sometimes large countries aren’t always fans of it. But the idea is that, indeed, that by having, let’s say, the International Telecommunications Union, which allocates frequencies—the use of frequencies for radio and other transmission—is that you have an entity that is trying to make sure that every country has a say, or every country has a vote, or every country is part of the system and therefore—and has also an ability to have access to that global commons. For example, the telecommunications spectrum, which—and we meet regularly to look at how that’s allocated.

If there’s no system, and we were just talking a moment ago about activities in space that are, you know, beyond governments. If there’s no system, then countries—then most countries probably won’t be able to control the activities of commercial actors that may affect—may affect them. So, in a sense, and when you’re thinking about sort of global fairness, you want to have a larger system to which everybody belongs. That’s true, I mean, if you think of something like aviation, civil aviation, again, where there’s one system and every country belongs to it. Therefore, the rights of every country in Africa is—over their airspace—is recognized by everybody. Now—and the rules of who flies at what altitudes is then maintained.

So, that’s why I think also global governance does have a fairness component. Conversely, it often has a safety component as well. I mean, in multiple ways. Now, I’d be the first one who would say, international organizations are not perfect. (Laughs.) And that you then have to look at good management, or how is expertise being used. I mean, there’s lots of things that have to go into making it function. But part of the principle is that if you think in these shared spaces that are owned by all, then we need a mechanism where we all have some way of expressing a view.

Now, looking at the question of transnational companies and biodiversity, indeed, this is where it gets quite interesting, when we look at how will companies behave in places which are either owned by us all or which some people think are owned by none of us. And why things like the High Seas Treaty are quite interesting, because here the High Seas Treaty, which is the treaty that looks at areas beyond national jurisdiction. So sometimes you’ll see BBNJ, these areas that are beyond national jurisdiction. Looking at biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. And the idea under this treaty is to set up mechanisms to create certain protected spaces of the oceans.

It also—we look at things like the International Seabed Authority, which was created under the UN Convention on the Law of Sea, which also has a process for application for uses of assets on the seabed floor. It is supposed to—as you know, there’s a lot of controversy there, but there’s supposed to be a set of rules that’s being created. At this point, there’s a real controversy there because it’s not clear. There are companies that are effectively going to national governments to say: You raise this issue on our behalf, in effect. And so, I would say that it’s imperfect at this point, and that we will have to see what the longer term resolution about the issue with Nauru and The Metals Company, about access to undersea nodules in the Pacific. We will see that, again, a current issue. And it’s not clear that that will actually—how that will actually be resolved. I think that that’s still very much an open question.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to go next to Ed Webb, who is an associate professor of political science and international studies at Dickinson College: Are there significant efforts underway to manage seabeds outside EEZ, or exclusive economic zones? What prospects are there for a treaty, or possibly a UN agency to manage this important commons?

BRIMMER: Thank you for the question. I think one of the interesting areas in this effort is the High Seas Treaty, which is—again, works on biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. That treaty was under negotiation for years, for years. And there was an important breakthrough last year. Last spring, the treaty was finally concluded. It was then presented to the to the General Assembly, adopted, and open for signature. It will come into force once sixty countries have ratified it. A couple—I think Chile might have been the first one. Someone can correct me if I’m misremembering that. So countries have started to ratify it. The United States did sign the treaty. And one of the questions will be, will it be able to ratify it?

The treaty—because it’s designed to cover those areas that are beyond national jurisdiction, it would go some way—some way to address the issues you raise. And particularly, it’s interesting that it helps create mechanisms for creation of marine-protected areas, which could help as a step towards the goal of having thirty by thirty, which is 30 percent of the oceans protected by 2030. And so that’s one effort in the oceans’ community, as you know. That said, multiple countries need to ratify it. It also has a mechanism in terms of how to share some of the benefits of the assets of marine organic material. And so that could be very—so it sets up a new mechanism, which might actually be palatable in ways that the law of the sea was not, to the U.S. So there’s a question of who can ratify it, but it might—that so much work went into, I think, trying to make it possible for countries to ratify it. I think that’s my way of saying I think that will be one to watch in the area that you raise.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic.

I’m going to go back—people should raise their hand, but I will continue to read questions—to Daro Wade.

Q: Hello. I think I had asked my question in the chat, but I’m going to just repeat it. I said: How do international organizations contribute to global governance, particularly in addressing challenges related to the global commons?

BRIMMER: So, your question, I answered it but I’ll answer it a little bit differently to expand on that point. So one thing we could think of is international organizations, that there are a wide variety of international organizations. Some of them are global and political. Some are global and economic. Some are regional and political, regional and economic. Some are composed of states. Some are composed of states and other entities. And so that what international organizations allow you to do, it does allow for governments who have legal authority over territory to agree how to handle issues together. International organizations also allow for standard setting. I would suggest that’s one of the things where they excel, is being—providing a way for countries and other entities to create standards, create rules, and enforce them. It also provides a way to give voice. A place for, for example in some cases, for nonstate actors to be able to express a view.

Let’s take the Arctic for a moment. So if we take the Arctic, the Arctic has—a particular entity was created in 1996, after the end of the Cold War, called the Arctic Council. And it was—it dealt with both environmental, scientific, and other types of cooperation. It expressly does not deal with military issues. Now, it too has been, in a sense, a victim of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has caused deep divisions amongst the Arctic states. That said, what was interesting about the Arctic Council is that the Arctic Council had now seven, previously eight state members. It also had six permanent participants. The permanent participants were transborder groups of indigenous peoples in the Arctic area. And so that you had voice for people beyond governments, as part of the structure of the Arctic Council. And they continue to connect.

And so they worked much more on human wellbeing, human interaction, cultural interaction, and recognize the important ties amongst indigenous peoples that transcend modern international borders. So, it’s a really—that’s a really interesting international organization that that provides, both for scientific cooperation, cooperation on weather and navigation issues, but also on cultural issues. So that’s my way of saying, international organizations can do a variety of things to help with governance in the global commons.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to take the next question from Mark. I don’t know his affiliation: Managing the global commons in space is becoming more difficult. Negotiations on managing the global commons are frozen between Russia, China’s PPWT, or Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, and the U.S.-EU’s code of conduct in space. The deadlocked nature of the negotiation seems to favor China. Do you agree? And do you have any ideas on how the U.S. should proceed?

BRIMMER: Right. OK, let me just give people a little bit of background. As the questioner points out, there are existing negotiations going on within United Nations bodies, but they are deadlocked. So one of the places where this debate has been going on for years is in the Conference on Disarmament. And the Conference on Disarmament has had a variety of structural challenges, both on this and on nuclear weapons issues as well. But for several years, the Russian Federation and China have brought forward a resolution that relates to not placing weapons in space. The U.S. has objected, because it argues that it doesn’t—that the measures don’t talk about ground-based—you know, you can shoot something from the ground up. That will have a military effect. And so, for a variety of reasons that those discussions at the moment, as I say, have been deadlocked for many years.

There are also discussions going on in the Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which is a consultive body which is also looking at cooperation in space. So you’re quite right that there are points where you have somewhat—discussions happening in different parts of the UN system. Indeed, you had some of the ideas from, you know, COPUOS, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which then the issues then go—can be taken up by the General Assembly. And you did—you have seen important discussions by the General Assembly in this area.

You’ve even seen an effort that the U.S. led to put a moratorium on ground-based antisatellite activity. And the U.S. put his own moratorium, and then there was a General Assembly resolution passed, again, which yet the General Assembly does not have the legal authority of the Security Council, but it can show intent and support efforts that states are doing. You also see efforts by states. I mentioned the Artemis Accords that the U.S. and other countries are participating in. So there are various, I don’t want to say ad hoc, but sub-global efforts at trying to create work on space issues.

I think it’s probably going to be piecemeal. I would love to say we will be able to solve this with one large global commitment, but no. But I do think that we can put together a series of coherent steps in relevant agencies that support the government better governance within space, and that we can do it together. And I think one of the interesting questions to ask—not likely now, but one of the things that happened after the late 2023 meeting between President Biden and President Xi was a resumption of U.S.-China military-to-military talks. So one question is, could there eventually be an opening on civilian discussion? Are there certain legal restrictions within the U.S. about how and which agencies, and which parts of the U.S. government can talk to China about space issues?

That said, that one question is could there be some ways of talking about some very specific practical things? So, for example, one place to start could be space stations. You know, the United States and China both have space stations orbiting in low Earth orbit. Now, all countries are all signatories to the Agreement to Rescue in Space. And so that’s fundamental. That’s goes all the way back to the Law of the Sea, the issues hundreds of years ago was the responsibility to rescue in case of emergency. But at the moment, they’re not structured to do so. I mean, the U.S. and the Russian Federation built this International Space Station with all of its many partners so that they’re interchangeable, so that they could dock with each other. That’s not the case.

So how the U.S. and China would interact is not clear. But that is a place to start, to say that whatever the successor is to the International Space Station—there’s a question of what that will look like—at that, a decade from now, two decades from now, you know, there will continue to be at least two sets of International Space Stations conducting scientific activities. We need some—we should be talking to each other about that, certainly, primarily, for the safety aspects. Shared interests in communications, good governance around space. But, you know, managing the commons requires us all eventually to work with other countries in the larger interests of safety and security.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to take the next question from Ken Bernier, who has a raised hand.

Q: Yes. Hi. Thank you so much for offering this seminar today. It’s been so interesting. Thank you so much for that.

So, I’ve been doing a lot of research—I’m from Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I have been doing a lot of research in, you know, the Russian icebreaker fleet, and the new land and sea-based trading routes, the remapping of global trade, the emergence of BRICS-plus. So financially and technically, I keep on hearing we’re behind. And if that is true, can the West catch up?

BRIMMER: Well, first, thank you. Thank you for your questions and for the range of topics that you are introduced. And I think we have to then unpack a bit the phrase “the West is behind,” and what does that mean? Indeed, as you say, in media reports we’ll see a lot of sort of alarmist issues. But I think if we then have to say what are we actually looking at? If we look at specifically the question of icebreaking vessels, and that—just for the whole group—that relates to vessels that then are able to transit through the Arctic, opening space for ships behind them. So that most ships would not be able to transit through an icebound area unless an icebreaker, you know, clears the path for them beforehand.

There are very different uses of icebreakers. Indeed, the idea that there—that there’ll be different levels of icebreakers is quite clear. The United States does—at the moment, has two functional icebreakers. It originally had three. They’re all well past their due date. They’ve been refurbished. They’re regularly refurbished every year. One of the two is actually used for parts for the other one. And then, of course, there’s—for the main icebreakers. And then of course, there’s the scientific ship, the Healy, which actually support scientific researchers as well. But, indeed, that one of the important issues—one of the things—progress we’ve seen since we did the 2017 Arctic Imperatives Task Force Report for the Council on Foreign Relations, where we and many others called for more icebreakers, we now see icebreaker—funds for icebreakers in the budget for the United States Coast Guard.

But one of the many things that happens when you don’t pass a new federal budget is the new money for the out years doesn’t get to be used. And so, if you think about the effects of not being able to have a normal budget process, federal budget process, is some of the funding and related funding gets held up. But so, indeed, I would take your point on icebreakers. I think there needs to be important sustained investment, also a purchase of a commercially available one in the short term. All of that makes sense. And it’s a plan that just needs to be funded and continued in the out years.

But that said, that’s a very specific example. Overall, I think, actually, that the United States and the West in general is actually very well-placed to actually succeed in contributing to the management of the commons. And that I think that you’re seeing that on all of these issues, whether it’s space, whether it’s oceans. That the United States has an important role. And when it—when its political system is functioning, allowing it to actually have normal discussions about foreign affairs, it plays a role in trying to defend certain principles, along with many partners and others.

So if we think about—I mean, there are many challenges going on in the Middle East, but I’ll say that the issue of trying to manage navigation in the Red Sea, that there were multiple countries who have an interest in that function and who are—and is trying to be part of—either directly part of the coalition that’s trying to sail through the Red Sea, or other areas where you’re trying to maintain freedom of navigation. So I think that it is a period of, I guess I’d say, important political change in many places. I think that as we continue to try to work on global commons, we can try to help national governments, major private sector companies, and others understand that they benefit from a stable international order with good rules. I mean, there’s a phrase that the American poet Robert Frost used to say—you know, good fences make good neighbors. Well, I think good, well-planned regulation makes a good international society.

FASKIANOS: Esther, that’s a perfect way to end this webinar. Thank you very much for your insights, analysis, and time. And to all of you, I am sorry that we couldn’t get to the questions. There were too many for the time allotted, so we’ll just have to have you back. And we look forward to reading your book when you finish writing it. And very excited for that to come out.

The next Academic Webinar will be on Wednesday, February 28 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Meghan O’Sullivan, who is the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, will lead a conversation on energy security. And in the meantime, I encourage you to learn about CFR paid internships for students and fellowships for professors at You can follow us at @CFR_Academic. And do visit,, and for research and analysis on global issues. You can also sign up for various blogs that the fellows contribute to.

So with that, we will close. Thank you, again, for joining us. Thank you to Dr. Esther Brimmer. And we look forward to seeing you again on February 28.


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