"Space reflects great power politics in its most authentic form"
Markus Holmgren is a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and a doctoral researcher at the University of Turku. He focuses on how great powers use economic power to advance their strategic interests and examines the role of technology in great power politics. The researcher discusses the role of space in great power politics and comments on the peaceful use of outer space in the current geopolitical environment.
Which factors determine a state's status as a great power?
Markus Holmgren: Generally, great power status is based on a state's capability to wield power and is manifested in various axes of power. Great powers can sway other states to their side through military or economic power. A state's negotiation power in international organizations is also a significant constituent of a state's great power status.
Which states can be considered great powers today?
We are still in an era of U.S. dominance, although this is gradually shifting as China rises as an emerging great power. In contrast, Russia has lost its great power status entirely, while the European Union can be considered a great power on certain power axes. Currently, the United States holds a strong hegemonic position in space, and there are many indications that U.S. space hegemony is solidifying further. However, it's essential to keep in mind that great power status is a socially constructed concept, and its interpretation is context-dependent and sometimes politicized.
What is the role of space in great power competition?
Space is becoming an increasingly significant operational domain where major powers can project their influence to demonstrate and solidify their positions of power. Through space activities, they can deepen the dependence of other states on their space-dependent service architectures. The societal criticality of space-based technology cannot be overstated — by providing space infrastructure only to certain states, great powers can create friction among other states. In addition, satellites enable strategically significant information transmission and espionage technologies which can enhance a country's economic power.
The space policy field has been described as an anarchic system — what ethical concerns does this raise?
In space, we see great power politics in its most authentic form, as there are very few binding rules. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit, but in practice, this does not prevent the destructive use of space. There are also no established processes for resolving disagreements. This undermines the equality of negotiating parties.
Has the extension of great power competition into space led to the over-securitization of space activities?
The militarization of space appears to be progressing relatively slowly and great powers have a strong interest in keeping their space militarization efforts secret in order not to provide incentives for other states to join in space weaponization. However, the application of space technology to terrestrial military operations has accelerated, such as in imaging, targeting, and communication systems, as well as actions that disrupt communication between Earth and satellites. Securitization is often used to circumvent the restrictions imposed by international agreements, but because very few agreements bind space activities, this dimension has remained limited. However, changes may be anticipated as the competition for orbital positions, radio frequencies, and lunar surface access reaches a disruptive level for major powers.
During the Cold War, space activities were largely state-driven. With the emergence of "new space", space has become accessible to smaller actors. Does this challenge or reinforce the great powers' position of power?
In the context of new space, it's important to remember that the funding of private space actors largely relies on government financing. For example, a significant portion of SpaceX's funding appears to come from the U.S. government. I see that seemingly commercialized space activities are still underpinned by national interests. I don't believe that the new space development is undermining the major powers' positions of power, as companies' dependence on governments is deep, blurring the line between the public and private sectors.
Is new space accelerating or slowing down great power competition?
With new space, orbital positions and satellite transmission frequencies have commercialized and become scarcer, prompting major powers to secure them beyond their immediate needs to safeguard potential growth opportunities. The development of new space has increased the amount of space debris, and major powers may have incentives not to remove their space debris, as it can hinder the access of other states to orbit. I consider the new space development to be an accelerant in great power competition.
The Outer Space Treaty (1967) and the Convention of the European Space Agency commit to the use of outer space for exclusively peaceful purposes. What does this mean?
There are various interpretations of the peaceful use of outer space — does the mere absence of conflict already constitute peace, or does it require the absence of a threat of violence? In peace research, it's generally controversial whether, for example, maintaining nuclear capabilities is an ethically acceptable means of preventing conflicts. In the space sector, this corresponds to the question of whether it is justified to promote peace through the use of space technologies with destructive potential.
Would you describe contemporary space activities as peaceful?
I consider contemporary space activities to be competitive. I don't think they qualify as peace-building, but rather increase the risk of conflicts between great powers. Although conflict is unlikely to be the goal of any state, I see peaceful space activities as requiring some form of common rules. Major powers, however, have little interest in establishing such rules, as they benefit from the perception of space as a "wild west," which naturally occurs in the absence of agreements — they can efficiently advance their interests from a position of hegemony. At the end of the day, the peaceful use of space would be in everyone's common interest, as it would enable faster and more stable development in the space sector.
Additional resources on the role of space in great power competition: