The International Space Station and the Clash of Civilizations


The international Space Station from STS-130  in December 2010.

The international Space Station from STS-130 in December 2010.

As the operations on the International Space Station now move toward a score of years, it may be that this cooperative venture provides one of the clearest opportunities present for tying nation-states together. One is reminded of the quote from Wernher von Braun, “we can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.” Perhaps the hardest part of spaceflight is not the scientific and technological challenges of operating in an exceptionally foreign and hostile environment but in the down-to-Earth environment of rough-and-tumble international and domestic politics. But even so, cooperative space endeavors have been richly rewarding and overwhelmingly useful, from all manner of scientific, technical, social, and political perspectives.

This is especially true of the International Space Station (ISS). Virtually everyone would agree that astronauts standing on the Moon alongside the United States flag were just as important to the winning of the cold war as reconnaissance satellites and strategic weapons. Just as surely as the Apollo program helped the United States, the ISS serves a critical international role in the post-cold war world.

In the aftermath of international tensions, the International Space Station may prove just as important in the quest to maintain U.S. hegemony—political, technological, and economic—in the world as Apollo had been at the height of the cold war. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union a different set of priorities has replaced the powerful secular ideologies of democracy, communism, nationalism, fascism, and socialism that dominated international politics since the Enlightenment. These were not so much new priorities as ancient traditions based on ethnic, religious, kinship, or tribal loyalties that reemerged full-blown in the 1990s as all the great ideologies, save democracy, collapsed worldwide: and even democracy was none too stable outside the West.

Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington developed a powerful thesis to explain what has happened in the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of a bipolar world. The thrust of Huntington’s argument rejects the notion that the world will inevitably succumb to Western values. On the contrary, Huntington contends that the West’s influence in the world is waning because of growing resistance to its values and the reassertion by non-Westerners of their own cultures. He argues that the world will see in the twenty-first century an increasing threat of violence arising from renewed conflicts among countries and cultures basing their identities on long-held traditions.

Astronaut Jerry L. Ross, STS-88 mission specialist, is pictured during one of three space walks that were conducted on the twelve-day mission between December 4-15, 1998. Perched on the end of Endeavour's remote manipulator system (RMS) arm, astronaut James H. Newman, mission specialist, recorded this image. Newman can be seen reflected in Ross' helmet visor. The solar array panel for the Russian-built Zarya module can be seen along right edge. This was just the first of about 160 spacewalks totaling 1,920 work-hours required to complete the International Space Station.

Astronaut Jerry L. Ross, STS-88 mission specialist, is pictured during one of three space walks that were conducted on the twelve-day mission between December 4-15, 1998. Perched on the end of Endeavour’s remote manipulator system (RMS) arm, astronaut James H. Newman, mission specialist, recorded this image. Newman can be seen reflected in Ross’ helmet visor. The solar array panel for the Russian-built Zarya module can be seen along right edge. This was just the first of about 160 spacewalks totaling 1,920 work-hours required to complete the International Space Station.

This argument moves past the notion of ethnicity to examine the growing influence of a handful of major cultures—Western, Orthodox, Latin American, Islamic, Japanese, Chinese, Hindu, and African—in current struggles across the globe. In so doing, Huntington successfully shifts the discussion of the post-cold war world from ideology, ethnicity, politics, and economics to culture—especially to the religious basis of culture. Huntington rightly warns against facile generalizations about the world becoming one, so common in the early 1990s, and points out the resilience of civilizations to foreign secular influences.

Huntington asserts that there are nine major civilizations in the post-1990 era. The dominant civilization at present is the “West,” characterized by the United States, Canada, and the nations of western Europe. There are also Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic (Chinese), Hindu, Orthodox (Russia and other Slavic nations), Buddhist, and Japanese civilizations. Each has different traditions, priorities, and institutions. Each also misunderstands the other civilizations of the world. In the post-cold war era, no matter how seemingly desperate confrontations within these civilizations may seem—such as the trials over northern Ireland—they have little potential for escalation beyond the civilization in which they occur. Confrontations among civilizations, however, have a great potential to escalate into large conflagrations, even world wars. The civilizations capable of forming meaningful ties to other civilizations, creating alliances not just for defensive purposes but also as a means of broadening engagement, have the greatest possibility for thriving in this new international arena. The West, Huntington believes, should give up the idea of exporting its values and expand the possibility of its survival through stronger alliances with other civilizations.

In the clash of civilizations of the twenty-first century, the International Space Station offers a testbed for civilizational alliances. At some level this has already begun. From the beginning the West adopted the project and brought in a second great civilization in Japan. In 1993 the Orthodox civilization, using Huntington’s terminology for Russia and other Slavic peoples, joined the program. Perhaps the difficulty of working with the Russians has been largely the result of these strikingly different civilizations. Brazil and other nations of the Latin American civilization also want to join the program, as does India. China has also made overtures about the desire to become a part of the ISS effort.

Despite the very real challenges that would result from incorporating these new partners into the program, their inclusion would advance the cause of creating alliances with other civilizations. This could serve ultimately as a means of closing the gap between nations rather than widening it. At a fundamental level, the International Space Station would serve the larger objectives of American foreign policy better than many other initiatives that offer fewer prospects for success.

All the promise held out for the ISS in gaining scientific knowledge, technological development, and a hopeful future exploring the solar system may well pale in comparison to the very real possibility of enhancing cross-civilizational relations through this one act of working together to tackle an enormous challenge. The same may be true of the very real costs involved; it is a small price to pay for better international relations, and spending a larger share of the public treasury for the ISS is eminently better than spending it for weapons of destruction. For all the difficulties involved in working with a large group of international partners, the knowledge gained in large-scale cooperative programs will serve the United States and the West well in what looks all the world to be a rise of inter-civilizational rivalries in the twenty-first century.

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