Inter-State Cooperation on Mars: Institutional Incentives for Collaboration

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May 3, 2021

Inter-State Cooperation on Mars: Institutional Incentives for Collaboration


Understanding the Problem:

Opening Mars as a New Frontier could easily incite inter-state conflict. How could this conflict be averted? States do share some mutual interests in the settlement and development of Mars, but without collaborative frameworks, the incentives to defect from inter-state collaboration could dominate the Martian political landscape, spurring conflict instead of collaboration. One such issue is competition over the control and consumption of oxygen and water. Another is a race to the bottom in planetary protection standards, which would increase the likelihood of both forward and backward contamination. A similar issue is the emergence of Kessler’s Syndrome, which details the near impossibility of launching spacecraft from Earth due to the formation of a “debris belt." Martian settlements will also likely be militarized and weaponized, which could cause conflict and render a settlement less efficient and successful. A private variable is also present in space exploration that could increase the likelihood of conflicts and risk violating the Outer Space Treaty (OST). However, if space exploration endeavors could share the burden of the risks and costs present in the remote and extreme conditions of Mars, cooperation could be reinforced and encouraged.


  1. Future multilateral and bilateral agreements relating to space exploration should include provisions regarding dispute resolution mechanisms. For example, they could either include a provision providing jurisdiction to the ICJ or provide pre-consent clauses to international arbitration, multiple options for enforcement, and the ability to utilize institutionalized arbitration venues, which all speed up the dispute resolution process. Delays in dispute resolution decrease procedural efficiency and security. Space exploration is time-sensitive, so decreased efficiency and security can be life-threatening. Changing dispute conditions are endemic to the unpredictable nature of space, so this recommendation would ensure efficient and equitable dispute resolution without compromising the security of any party involved.
  2. States should strive to integrate preferences of domestic actors within the country into the treaties. The inclusion of domestic and international perspectives will likely address negotiation challenges.
  3. Treaties should stress the reputational impacts of space exploration and emphasize regional collaboration to increase accountability. Space activities traditionally confer a high political profile, and space science is an established area of cooperation between spacefaring nations. A reputation for credible commitment to treaties and negotiations, as well as fair arbitration, will incentivize trust and cooperation between states in areas where progress is costly and heavily resource-dependent.
  4. Treaties should include the inclusion of technical and financial assistance from the more powerful states towards smaller states. Technical and financial assistance indicate a good faith intention to collaborate in the space domain and reinforce the idea that space is a resource of common exploration and knowledge rather than one reserved only for great powers.
  5. Treaties should embed a commitment to increased transparency on behalf of all parties. A commitment to transparency will likely be able to solve disputes with less hassle because of decreased miscommunication and the implicit exchange of mutual trust that accompanies transparency


Holtzman, Claire. Nouri, Nathan. Saligram, Ritika. (2021). Inter-State Cooperation on Mars: Institutional Incentives for Collaboration. 1st Edition. [PDF] Durham: Duke University, 30 pages. Available at Link

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