Polycentric Governance in Global Affairs: The Case of Space Governance

56 Pages Posted: 17 Jun 2019 Last revised: 5 Sep 2019

See all articles by Eytan Tepper

Eytan Tepper

McGill University - Institute of Air and Space Law; China University of Political Science and Law; New York University School of Law

Date Written: July 25, 2019


This paper analyses the nature and architecture of space governance and asserts that in order to break from decades-long gridlock, it should become polycentric. The paper further refutes contentions that space governance is or should be based on space being ‘the province of all mankind’, the ‘common heritage of mankind’ or ‘global commons’. The first two decades pursuant to the launch of the first Earth artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, saw the successful introduction of a monocentric governance system, with several widely accepted space law treaties and dedicated UN organs. However, the initial success was followed by decades-long paralysis in the dedicated UN committee, leaving even the pressing challenges insufficiently addressed. There is widespread acknowledgement of the need for change, but not on how to accomplish it. This paper suggests that only a shift in the architecture of space governance to a decentralized system may enable continuous evolution thereof to meet the changing needs and opportunities of space exploration and utilization. The paper compares three versions or conceptualizations of decentralized governance - international relations’ concept of a ‘regime complex’, political economy/institutional analysis’ concept of ‘polycentric governance’, and international law’s concept of ‘fragmentation’ - and suggests cross-disciplinary convergence. Analysis of the literature on these concepts demonstrates that, under the constraints of an anarchic international society, decentralized governance is inevitable and advantageous. Moreover, Elinor Ostrom's Nobel winning study provided strong empirical proof supporting polycentric governance of complex economic systems and emphasized the central role of users/stakeholders in governance. A polycentric governance system is one in which there are multiple independent decision-making centers (‘governance centers’), with at least partial overlap in jurisdictions. The advantages of decentralized governance can be maximized, and its adverse effects mitigated if Ostrom’s ‘design principles’ for robust governance systems are met, if institutional deference is practiced, and possibly if global administrative law, or the law of global governance, are applied. The paper concludes that the only way forward is by space governance becoming polycentric, allowing decentralized, incremental evolution of space governance. This means, in practice, that a separate forum for each specific issue (e.g. militarization, space traffic control), led by stakeholders and experts, and with the active participation and coordination of the UN office of space affairs, would create rules for that issue, and possibly monitor their application. The aggregate of all these rules and forums will be a more comprehensive, flexible, and updated governance system than a monocentric system of global governance can yield. In fact, space governance is already on track to become polycentric, as stakeholders and experts establish forums that suggest, adopt or push for rules and standards. Embracing and facilitating polycentricism and diverting more governance-building efforts in this direction, while mitigating its adverse effects, would enhance space governance and thereby space exploration by states and nonstate actors alike.

Keywords: space governance, global governance, polycentric governance, space law

Suggested Citation

Tepper, Eytan, Polycentric Governance in Global Affairs: The Case of Space Governance (July 25, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3400217 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3400217

Eytan Tepper (Contact Author)

McGill University - Institute of Air and Space Law ( email )

3644 Peel Street
Montreal H3A 1W9, Quebec

China University of Political Science and Law

25 Xitucheng Rd
Haidian District

New York University School of Law ( email )

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