Category Archives: General Ramblings

SpaceX’s rocket blew up. What’s it mean for commercial spaceflight?

139 seconds into flight on June 28th, 2015, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket experienced an “anomaly” in its upper stage and disintegrated off the coast of Florida. Lost among the billowing clouds of debris that marked the rocket’s demise were a new docking adapter for the International Space Station (ISS), a load of scientific experiments, cargo and provisions for the ISS crew, and, perhaps most significantly, SpaceX’s much-touted flawless launch record. And, for the enthusiastic community of “New Space” and commercial spaceflight advocates watching the live video stream of the accident, there likely arose concerns over the future of the commercial space industry. With many in the space community putting their hope in SpaceX to innovate the launch market and drive down costs, this loss of mission was a sobering reminder that space is difficult and that no company, regardless of its prestige or image, is infallible. So what does this failure mean for commercial spaceflight in general?

Probably nothing. As policy analysts, space insiders, and industry experts have pointed out again and again since the accident, this loss of mission is likely nothing more than a bump in the road (albeit a considerable one) for SpaceX and, by extension, for commercial space. Yet the context and circumstances of this failure are important in the broader picture of the developing commercial space industry and are therefore worth discussing. After all, while this accident may not be a turning point in the path toward the commercialization of space, it will nonetheless be a historical footnote of significance.

SpaceX's Falcon 9, prepped for the CRS-7, prior to its launch and explosion. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX’s Falcon 9, prepped for the CRS-7, prior to its launch and explosion. Credit: SpaceX

First, to frame this discussion, a brief review of commercial spaceflight is prudent.

A Background on Commercial Space:

Lost among many supporters of SpaceX and other upstart space companies is the fact that commercial spaceflight is hardly new. Long-established organizations such as United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and the European Airbus-run Arianespace, have, along with commercial launches by national space programs, held a near-monopoly on the commercial space market for decades. Referred to in the space community as “Old Space,” these companies have traditionally been the providers of launches for defense, private, and sometimes scientific customers. Considering the cost and complexity of space technology, it was until recently exceedingly difficult for companies that didn’t have prior experience in the space industry through public contracts with NASA or which weren’t established aerospace players to enter the trade. These “Old Space” companies, although having great records of reliability by virtue of their long experience, have been frequently criticized for a lack of technological innovation; many designs for the commercial rocket fleet are decades old. As a result, prices for payloads into space have remained high. As routinely pointed out by advocates of private space travel, tourism, and commerce, this represents a prohibitive environment for the development of space.

Enter “New Space,” the recent generation of companies dedicated to developing launch and spacecraft capabilities. Over the past two decades, private investment and private and government-funded initiatives – such as the X-Prizes, which in 2004 enabled the first private suborbital flight – have helped upstart companies obtain the financial wherewithal to develop the technologies and infrastructure necessary for successful commercial ventures into space. With the proliferation of new launch providers and the opening of the commercial space market, some new companies have begun earnestly exploring the possibilities for commercial space mining, for suborbital and orbital tourism, for private Moon landings, and for orbital hotels and outposts. Meanwhile, close technical and financial collaboration between NASA and the commercial space industry through the Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo Program have catalyzed the remarkable growth in capabilities and market participation for companies such as SpaceX and Orbital ATK.

Indeed, the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program may be one of the single most important factors in the recent development of the commercial space industry, and represents an important change in policy direction and calculation for NASA. Begun in the 2000s, the program has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to numerous American space companies for the development of human spaceflight technologies and concepts. Since 2012, some of the companies awarded contracts with NASA through this program, such as SpaceX and Orbital ATK, have been providing private cargo launches to the International Space Station; the rocket that SpaceX just lost was on such a mission – SpaceX’s 7th commercial resupply mission to the International Station. Beginning in 2017, SpaceX and Boeing, another contract-awardee through the program, will be conducting launches of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station using their privately-developed, human-rated spacecraft.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft arrives at the ISS on a NASA-contracted resupply mission. Credit: NASA
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft arrives at the ISS on a NASA-contracted resupply mission. Credit: NASA

The paradigm shift that the commercial program represents is borne largely from NASA’s shifting of priorities and lacking in capabilities. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has been without a spacecraft capable of shuttling cargo and supplies to the ISS; American astronauts have been forced to fly upon Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get into space, often at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per seat. While the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft currently under development are capable of such missions, they are designed to be beyond-Earth-orbit vehicles; their use for the purposes of logistical support and crew rotation to the ISS and in low-Earth-orbit would be highly inefficient. Thus, by investing in private companies to provide these services through the commercial program, NASA is not only divesting from Russia at a time of significant geopolitical tensions, but is enabled to focus on its mission of space exploration and scientific discovery. Meanwhile, both the “Old Space” and “New Space” companies involved in the space industry have benefited enormously from the financial supported offered through contracts with NASA for the commercial program; indeed, for some such as SpaceX, these contracts have been vital in order to become established in the industry.

The June 28th launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket – termed CRS-7, the 7th commercial resupply mission SpaceX was to carry out per its contractual obligations with NASA – was the result of years of policy calculation, funding, and support by NASA for the commercial space industry. It represented the continual progress and development of the industry toward greater capabilities, an increased role in the American space program, and an expansion of the commercial space market. For many of those who had tuned in to watch the launch on live stream, hopes were high that the mission would demonstrate the payoffs and benefits of the commercial program and the involvement of private industry in space. But, as June 28th amply demonstrated, sometimes rockets blow up.

 An Inconvenient Time for Failure

The CRS-7 failure couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time for SpaceX and advocates of commercial space. It followed the October, 2014 explosion of Orbital’s Antares rocket, another commercial resupply launch that resulted in a complete loss of mission. Coupled with the loss of a Russian resupply spacecraft in April, some have had well-intentioned (if misplaced) fears that the astronauts aboard the International Space Station will run out of supplies. Meanwhile, in the policy world, funding for commercial spaceflight has recently been under the scope, with budget cuts proposed that could significantly hamper the commercial program. The consecutive failure of two of the program’s main contractors provides considerable ammunition for policymakers opposed to the program, and likely has given rise to doubt and concern about the effectiveness of NASA’s commercial crew and cargo policy.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket disintegrates in the sky above Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: NASA
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket disintegrates in the sky above Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: NASA

SpaceX’s failure has also come at a time of growing, and heated, market competition between the company and the “Old Space” contingent of the space industry. After a lengthy battle with industry giants and the U.S. government, SpaceX was awarded Air Force certification to launch the United States’ most critical military spacecraft, breaking the monopoly held by ULA on that lucrative, potentially multibillion-dollar market. In large part, SpaceX was awarded the certification by virtue of its then near-flawless launch record, a necessary prerequisite for military launches of crucial importance. As the competition between ULA and SpaceX intensifies, ULA has pointed to its highly reliable launch record (only 1 launch out of nearly 4 dozen has been flawed, and even then did not result in complete mission failure) as the value the company holds over the more innovative, cheaper launches offered by SpaceX and other “New Space” companies; indeed, the bulk of ULA’s market rhetoric has been that reliability trumps pricing. With SpaceX having a record of 18 successful consecutive launches prior to the CRS-7 failure while still seeking innovative technologies to drive down prices, ULA’s arguments carried marginal weight at best. Now, such arguments have considerable merit.

Also of significance is that, in part because of SpaceX’s innovative approach to spaceflight and in part because of the bombastic rhetoric of its tech-billionaire founder and CEO Elon Musk, the company has been subject to an unusual amount of media exposure and a considerable base of popular enthusiasm. This has especially been the case during the testing of the Falcon 9’s reusability capabilities, which SpaceX had sought to perfect during the CRS-7 launch. While this benefits SpaceX during times of success, it has also made it liable to increased scrutiny during times of failure. For a company that thrives on its image and relies upon the perceptions of its supporters and customers in order to compete with the industry’s more established players, heightened scrutiny during this trying time may jeopardize the integrity of that image.

There is then the issue of delays, inevitable and indeed necessary following any failure involving a launch vehicle. While SpaceX will spend this time figuring out what issues led to the rocket failure, resolving latent problems with its launch technology, and reassuring NASA, Congress, and its customers about the value of their product, the fact remains that the company is a launch provider – so long as rockets aren’t going up, money isn’t coming in. This delay not only complicates the cadence of SpaceX’s launches, which the company must keep high so as to prove and perfect their reusability technology and keep launch prices low, but, critically, harms the customer as well; so long as a company’s satellite isn’t flying, that company is yet to be making money on it. As delays persist and the wait time for customers to have their products launched extends, consumer confidence in SpaceX is bound to suffer. Nearly as critical is that this delay harms SpaceX’s bids for government and commercial launches; until SpaceX can demonstrate its value through a return-to-flight, both private and public customers may look elsewhere for a more expedited launch time-frame.

As such, SpaceX’s recently failure has considerably clouded its competition with ULA for launch contracts, which, until June 28th, had given encouragement to spaceflight enthusiasts that the commercial space industry was becoming more open to market competition – and, in turn, to driving down prices and innovating spaceflight technology.

Despite it all, Encouraging Signs

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 exploding over the coast of Florida came at an inconvenient time for commercial spaceflight and, at face value, bodes poorly for the company. Yet, despite it all, there have since been encouraging signs about the future of the industry. For all the aforementioned areas where SpaceX’s failure could pose significant problems, there have been reassurances that it is little more than a bump in the road. By and large, industry experts and policy makers recognize that space is hard, that rockets (which are themselves powered by little more than controlled explosions) can be destroyed by the most marginal mistakes, and that accidents shouldn’t preclude the continued development of the commercial space industry.

As the battle over commercial crew and cargo funding continues in the policy world, a number of high-profile individuals have come out in support of the program and SpaceX, even despite the recent failure. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, who chairs the committee responsible for setting NASA policy, expressed his confidence that SpaceX will rebound from its recent failure and that the accident should have no impact on the current direction of the Commercial Crew and Cargo programs. Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Forces Committee, expressed similar support for SpaceX despite the failure. Meanwhile, Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, has lent her support (albeit so far unsuccessfully) for restoring the commercial program’s funding back to appropriate levels. While the explosion of SpaceX’s rocket during a NASA-contracted resupply mission surely does not provide support for the policymakers attempting to sustain the program, it nonetheless appears to have had a negligible effect upon the perceptions of its top-level supporters.

A cloud of debris marks the demise of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: NASA
A cloud of debris marks the demise of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: NASA

Meanwhile, the Air Force has announced that it will stay the course with SpaceX, allowing the company to remain in competition with ULA for lucrative military launches despite the recent mishap. Both companies are expected to place bids in the coming months for the launch of GPS-3 navigational satellites, and the Air Force has made clear that it will not amend or otherwise alter its planned timeline for competition between the companies. As a reflection of good faith between SpaceX and the Air Force, Air Force specialists and analysts have been invited to participate in the accident review investigating the causes of CRS-7’s failure.

Also encouraging is that, despite the launch failure and despite SpaceX having a contract backlog of nearly 50 launches which will undoubtedly be pushed back further by delays, many of the company’s customers have come out with statements demonstrating their continuing support and loyalty. Equally encouraging is that, while a delay is to be expected before the return-to-flight of the Falcon 9, SpaceX has stated its hopes that such a delay won’t extend beyond a few months. SpaceX may be on track to launch CRS-8, another ISS resupply mission, in September; if not, the company at least expects a return-to-flight by the end of 2015.

What’s it Mean for Commercial Spaceflight?

For all of the areas of concern that have been exacerbated by the failure of CRS-7, there have been equally encouraging signs from important stakeholders in the commercial space that the accident won’t deter or undermine the continued development of the industry. Yet this by no means suggests that the explosion was a trivial or passing event, that there won’t be any market and industry ramifications, and that SpaceX hasn’t lost a considerable portion of the momentum and industry clout that had carried it into CRS-7. Events such as these are moments for reflection and recalculation – and for good reason. While the evolution of the commercial spaceflight industry and commercial cargo program will emerge and continue from the failure of CRS-7 rather unscathed, such will likely not be the case should these accidents continue to happen.

So what does SpaceX’s failure mean for commercial spaceflight?

For one, much of the perceived momentum carrying the commercial space industry, and especially SpaceX, forward has evaporated among the clouds of debris raining down upon Florida’s coast. SpaceX had, until this moment, been seen by many as a promising company of rigorous standards and innovative practices; for some, it was the company that held the promise of carrying the private individual into space. While the failure of CRS-7 has not completely tarnished SpaceX’s image or reputation, it has brought its legions of supporters back to the reality that space is difficult and that no company, regardless of rhetoric or promises, will always deliver. How this diminishing of enthusiasm and shifting of perceptions will manifest itself in the market remains to be seen, but it should be expected that ULA and other players in the industry will be better poised to combat and stave off the challenge that SpaceX represents. While SpaceX’s current customers have reaffirmed their loyalty for the company, it should not be immediately expected that future or potential customers will share the same level of support. At the least, the promise of “New Space” is, through events such as this, beginning to dim.

To that end, SpaceX will struggle with its continuing efforts toward innovating the launch industry and driving down market prices so long as delays continue. The company has relied upon commercial launches to test its reusability systems; such launches, which have recently employed the Falcon 9’s booster-return systems, were simultaneously market ventures and technological demonstrations. Until launches start again, SpaceX will be incapable of proving the capabilities of its innovative systems; until those capabilities are proven, or until other companies take up the goal of technological innovation, the commercial launch market will likely remain generally stagnant. As such, prices for space will likely remain high as well. Related, the costs to SpaceX in ensuring that the failure which destroyed CRS-7 doesn’t happen again will likely drive up the price of its launch services. As the case of ULA has demonstrated, ensuring flawless launch reliability will necessarily make those launches more expensive. SpaceX will, moving forward, need to strike a balance between guaranteeing the reliability of its systems while also ensuring that its reputation as a low-cost launch provider is maintained and sustained; doing so will be a difficult, though perhaps not impossible, task.

Yet the failure of SpaceX’s CRS-7, like the failure of Orbital’s Antares rocket last October, will not hamper the continuation of the commercial crew and cargo program. Despite tensions over its funding within the political establishment, the commercial program represents an important and positive new direction for NASA and, by extension, American spaceflight – indeed, one which is necessary considering the current capabilities and priorities of the American space program. It enjoys high-level support within the industry and space establishment, a reflection of the perceived past value and future successes of the policy. So long as the commercial program continues, as it will, the commercial space industry will enjoy the benefits that come with close collaboration, technical support, and, most importantly, financial investment from NASA. These benefits will expand the capabilities and capacities of commercial space players, enabling them to serve a wider variety of customers. From this will come the continuing development of outer space by commercial actors, including SpaceX. And from this continuing development will come an increased desire and need for access to space, which will catalyze even further growth within the industry.

Space is hard, and no company, even SpaceX, gets it right every single time. While the explosion of CRS-7 has opened room for much concern over the future of the industry, the company, and the commercial program, all signs point to the event being of negligible lasting significance. The commercial space industry has experienced a temporary setback, one of some importance, but not one that will debilitate it moving forward. As many space and industry insiders understand, and as many of the spaceflight enthusiasts disenchanted by the CRS-7 mission should recognize, the prevailing, and perhaps most realistic, motto for humanity’s foray into space is “per aspera ad astra” – “through hardships, to the stars.”

The FY16 Budget for Humanitarian Development in Review, Pt. 1: Major Initiatives and Multi-Country Programs

With the release of the White House’s FY16 budget request, the priorities of the Obama Administration with regard to the development of democracy, governance, and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have come to light; naturally, development work and humanitarian aid projects are reliant upon funding in order to implement their various programs and accomplish their goals. The FY16 budget has thus given analysts much to work with and think about when it comes to deciphering the United States’ interests in the Middle East and North Africa and its commitment to furthering progress in Middle Eastern and North African society. The Project on Middle East Democracy’s annual review of the federal budget and appropriations outlines the allocations of funds to the various actors working within the MENA region to further the realization of humanitarian aims and goals. Accordingly, it reveals some significant insights into the overall nature, scope, capacity, and direction of the American effort to impart meaningful change and produce tangible progress in the status of Middle Eastern civil society, human rights, and development.

This series of blog posts utilizes the Project on Middle East Democracy’s annual review of the FY16 budget to outline the most important and significant aspects of the proposed budget for the United States’ development and humanitarian mission in the MENA region. These posts will discuss the funding and direction given to the United States’ major MENA initiatives, multi-country accounts, and programs; the status of bilateral aid and assistance to countries in the region; and the broader “bigger picture” implications of the foreign assistance and aid budget with regard to the changing nature of Middle Eastern and North African affairs and the Obama Administration’s evolving foreign policy in the Middle East. This first blog post outlines the budgetary allocations requested for the United States’ major multi-country programs – the Middle East Partnership Initiative, the USAID Middle East Regional, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the Department of State, the Near East Regional Democracy Program, and the National Endowment for Democracy.

The Middle East Partnership Initiative

The Administration’s FY16 budget requests $70 million for the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a renewal of FY15 funding levels, although policymakers suggest that the actual level of spending may be reduced quite significantly; this reduction in tangible funding may be a strategic decision based on how best to allocate remaining available funds across the Office of Near East Affairs Assistance Coordination’s various programs. Either way, under the FY16 budget request, MEPI is tasked with continuing to support active citizen engagement in government affairs, promoting political competition, supporting political and social freedoms, promoting political competition, and improving the regulatory environment for small and medium enterprises. Up to 8.5$ million has been requested to support MEPI’s Local Grants Program, which provide direct grants and local funding to communities in Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, and for its student exchange programs. $10 million is expected to be renewed for MEPI’s funding of scholarships.

Concerns and criticisms have been raised about MEPI’s recent reorganization within the State Department’s bureaucracy, in which it has been placed under the purview of the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. As MEPI activities will conform to joint assistance strategies and be complementary to other State Department and USAID bilateral activities, there are fears that MEPI is losing its identity as a strong pro-reform voice. Some raise issue that MEPI’s reorganization will impact its effectiveness as an agile, politically independent assistance tool. In light of these concerns, MEPI’s role will likely evolve moving forward, with a decreasing budget in-line with that of other regional multi-country development accounts and a greater emphasis placed on funding direct local grants to civil society rather than to large international NGOs.

USAID Middle East Regional

The FY16 budget further requests $40 million for USAID Middle East Regional (MER) funding. Middle East Regional is the term used by USAID for its allocation of funds to the MENA region outside of bilateral assistance packages to individual countries; MER funds allow USAID to carry out regional or multi-country programs as well as programs in countries lacking a USAID mission while also complimenting bilateral foreign assistance initiatives. Over the past few years, funding for MER has steadily increased, from $17.7 million in FY13 to $30 million in FY14 and FY15, to $40 million in FY16. Of that $40 million requested for FY16, $1.2 million is requested for “peace and security,” $8 million for the “Governing Justly and Democratically” initiative, and the remaining $30.8 million is for other economic assistance programs and various management expenses. MER funding will further support regional water, health, and gender-based violence programs. Within that allocation of FY16 funds, $20 million is marked for the Office of Technical Services (ME/TS), which informs USAID’s work in the region through needs analyses and assessment; program planning, design, and evaluation; strategic planning; compliance with regulatory requirements; and implementation of USAID Forward reforms. $5 million is designated for continued support to Civil Society Innovation Centers, which seek to develop and enhance the operating space for civil society in the region.

Ultimately, the growth of the MER program and increasing funding for MER gives USAID a source of funds more flexible than those that USAID programs out of bilateral accounts, enabling it to respond and adapt to changes on the ground in a more comprehensive and effective manner. The goals and programming of MER have shifted considerably over the past few years, with a heightened focus on technical support and analysis as well as a broader contribution to GJD funding and support for civil society.

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the Department of State

The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) has long been in the lead within the U.S. government for advancing human rights and democracy, and carries out foreign assistance programs focused on supporting democracy, governance, human rights, and labor. DRL’s focus has long been on providing assistance in conflict zones and other non-permissive environments, in contrast to USAID programming that often requires host government cooperation. $60 million is requested for DRL’s programming budget in the FY16 budget, the same level requested in FY15. $9 million is requested for DRL’s Global Internet Freedom programs, supplemented by $7 million from the Near East Regional Democracy Program and $2 million from the USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance. $6 million is also requested for DRL’s rapid response programs, including Lifeline, which provides emergency assistance to civil society organizations; Dignity for All, which supports LGBT activists; Justice Defenders, which supports human rights lawyers; the Protection for Journalists Initiative; and the Global Gender-Based Violence Initiative, which helps survivors of gender-based violence. Lifeline also provides funding for short-term initiatives at the local, regional, and international levels that help civil society organizations fight against regulatory and extralegal barriers to their work.

DRL has positioned itself as an agile, flexible assistance mechanism that is able to quickly respond to events on the ground while working in difficult environments. Significantly, it works with civil society based in Syria and has sustained civil society work in non-permissive environments through its Human Rights Defenders Fund. As more countries in the MENA region become antagonistic in their policies and attitudes toward outside support of civil society, DRL’s continuing work providing such assistance gives it an important leading role in achieving the aims of civil development. That DRL takes on policy mandates to provide assistance on issues seen as controversial or threatening by repressive governments means that it serves a vital role in the advancing of America’s global humanitarian interests.

However, although Congress has continually granted DRL funding greater than that requested by the administration, there has been a steady decline in the level of funding requested specifically for DRL. This, coupled with an increased number of mandates, has put a strain on DRL’s resources and capabilities. DRL has been forced to cobble together the requisite funds to support its various programs; indeed, DRL is responsible for programming as much as $130-140 million each year. Much of its funding must come from sources outside of the federal budget to meet the totals required. Accordingly, closing the gap between DRL’s budget request and its actual budget will be a key step moving forward in regularizing the bureau’s budget and sustaining its ability to conduct its important work.

Near East Regional Democracy Program

The Near East Regional Democracy Program (NERD) was established in 2009 to support democracy and human rights in the MENA region, particularly in Iran. The program focuses primarily on activities that do not require an in-country presence, for programming cannot be conducted inside Iran; among NERD’s programs are support for media, technology, and internet freedoms along with conferences and trainings for Iranian activities that take place outside Iran. NERD funding is not legally required to be spent within Iran, or any other particular country for that matter, although the sentiment of policymakers has held firm that Iran should be NERD’s main area of focus.

The FY16 budget for NERD stands at $30 million, the same amount as in FY15. However, its funding devoted to civil society work is at $21 million, a decrease from the FY12 request of $26 million. Of the FY16 budget request, $7 million is intended to support internet freedom programming, $5 million is to support civil society capacity-building, and another $7 million is to go toward assistance in providing advocacy and awareness training to increase respect for the universal principles of human rights. A further $5 million will support activities that address human rights abuses and support access to justice.

NERD’s overall funding levels have decreased modestly over time, from a $40 million request in FY10 to the $30 million in FY16. However, NERD programming is starting to be seen as an effective model of work that could be emulated in other parts of the region, where the space for democracy and governance work is rapidly closing. It is yet unclear how the Iranian nuclear deal will impact NERD’s programming and activities directed toward Iran, or whether it will enable the expansion of NERD’s programming beyond its traditional focus on Iran.

National Endowment for Democracy

Although, as a nongovernmental organization, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is not a part of the U.S. government, it receives nearly all of its funding in an annual congressional appropriation and is thus subject to congressional oversight. The administration has requested $103.5 million for NED in FY16, although Congress is likely to grant funds in excess of this amount due to strong bipartisan support for the institution. Congress allocated $135 to NED in FY15, a 30 percent increase over the administration’s FY14 and FY15 requests. $100 million of this money is to go to the “traditional and customary manner,” which entails support for core institutes supporting NED’s mission, such as the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the Center for International Private Enterprise, and the Solidarity Center. The remaining $35 million is designated for other democracy, human rights, and rule of law programs.

NED support for the work of independent civil society has become important amid the growing reluctance by U.S. government agencies to support independent organizations undertaking work that could be considered controversial or politically sensitive by host governments. NED’s support provides key demographics with the skills needed to make a positive impact on civil society in repressive regimes and in restrictive environments. NED has worked to adapt to rapid changes on the ground over the past few years, and has played a constructive role in building support for democratic values in conflict zones such as in Iraq and Syria.

Conclusions and Implications

Despite the 2011 “Arab Spring” showing that corrupt, authoritarian regimes across the MENA region could not maintain stability indefinitely through repression, the challenging years of political upheaval and change that have followed have seen a resurgence in authoritarianism and violence. The rise of violent extremists groups such as the Islamic State and the increasing efforts of regional governments to crackdown on independent civil society have hampered the work of organizations working to advance the goals of democracy and development. The United States, in partnering with repressive regimes for the achievement of broader regional security aims, has meanwhile grown more cautious of its support for independent civil society; this caution is driven both by a desire to avoid antagonizing allied host governments and a fear of putting in danger local participants in its civil society programming.

Although the major multi-country initiatives and programs which the United States funds should expect to receive a roughly equivalent level of funding in FY16 as in FY15, the effects of the United States’ growing hesitance toward advancing civil society and democracy programming is clear; an increased attention on and allocated resources toward security and military issues have diverted high-level policy attention away from the support for regional democracy and human rights. There are outstanding concerns that mechanisms such as MEPI are losing their identity and focus as reform-driven advocates of civil society by virtue of their reorganization and shifting of priorities within the State Department bureaucracy. Organizations such as the DRL, which focus on political programming that may be controversial to the states in which they operate, still experience considerable budgetary gaps in the FY16 proposal, gaps which may impede their capacity to effectively produce tangible change. Some organizations, such as NERD, have not expanded into civil society-building operations across the broader MENA region, despite demonstrating the effectiveness of their model. Accordingly, while the United States still does finance and support civil society and democracy building in the MENA region to a significant degree through these mechanisms and multi-country programs, that support is hesitant, underwhelming, and regressing rather than increasing. Without a greater high-level policy emphasis placed on democracy and civil society building and the advancement of human rights, these programs are unlikely to make great breakthroughs in advancing these goals in the region, but rather should be expected to simply sustain the United States’ current regional efforts, however minimal they should be, for the coming fiscal year.

Also of note is the fact that U.S. democracy and governance programming in the MENA region is shifting focus towards issues of governance at the local level rather than at the national level. A continuing and even growing emphasis is being placed on local grants and grassroots training, education, and confidence building as strategies for developing regional democracy. This attention on local governance may be important and crucial for laying the groundwork for democratic changes from the ground up. However, in the longer term, if such efforts are to ultimately succeed in truly fostering and bringing about democratic change, they will need to be accompanied by action on the part of the U.S. government and development organizations to pressure national governments to empower local institutions. However, considering the changing priorities of American foreign aid and funding, to be discussed in later blog posts, the potential for such to be the case does not appear promising.

The Essence of Love and Identity in Romantic Relationships

What is love? What are its essential characteristics? What roles do romantic relationships play in the formation and transformation of our own identities? Such are critical questions for understanding the human experience, for love is quite possibly the most essential and fundamental experience we may have. It is no wonder, then, that philosophers and thinkers have grappled with these questions for ages, coming up with a wide range of answers which seek to explain and legitimize the love experience. Yet, to answer these questions, it is equally important to ask how our context defines our relationships, and how our relationships are structured in such a way to give meaning to the emotions we feel and describe as “love.” Through an exploration of the writings of Piazzesi, Solomon, and Kollontai, I seek in this paper to describe love and its essential characteristics while exploring the role romantic relationships play in the formation of our identities. By exploring relationships of different forms and definitions of love coming from different contexts, an approach suggested by Piazzesi, I attempt to find the characteristics of love, if there are any, which are transcendental of context. Ultimately, I arrive at the conclusion that love, outside of context of relationship and explanation given to legitimize it in a given context, involves the “fulfillment” of the individual through identity-construction and role-identification and the “transformation” of the individual through personal betterment. Love itself, we may conclude, is hard to define as an all-encompassing concept, for it exists in many forms and different contexts; nonetheless, love is the emotional experience which includes these crucial characteristics which we use to legitimize and justify the form of relationship in which those emotions are manifest.

Prior to further inquiry into the concept of love, however, an important caveat must be recognized – the form of a romantic relationship, in which love is manifest, is very much the product of our cultural and social context. As perhaps the most “important psychological and social factor” in the human experience, love has “always instinctively [been] organized in [society’s] interest,” whether for reasons of economy, spirituality, or social cohesion (Kollontai 285). According to the different needs of different societies, then, what constitutes a “loving” experience may alter as the result of disparate discourses on the matter. As Kollontai and Piazzesi would point out, these discourses are the products of historical, cultural, and economic variation, and are therefore subject to change over time and space. Indeed, as demonstrated through Kollontai’s historical perspectives on love, the epitomical form of a loving relationship, as culturally perceived and desired, has evolved considerably over the course of Western civilization – beginning with a love for one’s blood relatives in kinship communities, evolving into a love for friendship in the ancient world, a chivalrous love in the feudal era, and, finally, into the private, intimate relationships of contemporary times. Piazzesi rightfully argues that the discourses, social norms, and understandings which shape and sustain these relationships provide “individuals, couples, and groups with frameworks for the definition (‘for making sense’) of their experience;” that is, they give meaning and legitimacy to the contextual “how and with whom” by which people love (Piazzesi 5). Accordingly, by “defining” love, attributing to it certain characteristics and elements, we are legitimizing an experience shaped around our context. This variable nature of the experience of love, influenced by culture and history, poses difficulties for the development of a singular “concept of love.” Like Piazzesi argues, a general definition of love, which is removed from an immersion in contextual experience, misses the “historical diversity, the social character, and the semantic richness of ordinary experience,” and therefore fails to acknowledge that cultural nuances influence the manner by which love is manifest in and connected to a relationship (Piazzesi 3). Nor does providing a “minimal definition” to love, which seeks to find a universal” essence” to love by reducing it to its simplest and most basic elements, do justice in meaningfully describing what love is, for it detaches the concept of love from the variety of experiences and social expectations which we associate with and define it by. Rather, to establish a more personal, more pertinent, and therefore more “meaningful” concept of love, we should take Piazzesi’s suggested approach, which is to explore how we arrange our relationships so as to feel like we are experiencing love; to, as Piazzesi’s analogy puts it, see how we “get the feeling of being in a romantic living room” (Piazzesi 7). Such is the approach I will take, exploring how Solomon’s and Kollenti’s writings on relationships, defined by their contextual circumstances, show the connection between love and a relationship, along with its implications on identity. Comparing the similar motivations of love laid out by these authors will hopefully provide closer a closer understanding of the transcendental romantic love experience, unaffected by the form of a relationship.

As previously mentioned, the romantic relationship of two people in a union is considered the quintessential loving relationship in our current context, and shapes our discourses surrounding love. Kollontai argues that this form of relationship is the product of a bourgeois society, which places emphasis on the “married couple, working together to improve their welfare and to increase the wealth of their particular family” (Kollontai 284). Furthermore, the “moral ideal of a love the embraced both the flesh and the soul,” has been propagated by the bourgeoisie as crucial elements in loving relationships (Kollontai 283). The discourses surrounding love in this context, then, naturally point to the union of two people with a physical and emotional connection as the key to experiencing love. But what are the characteristics of love which we experience in this form of relationship, or, better put, how does this structure of romantic relationship shape our definition of a loving experience? To answer this, we can turn to Solomon, who writes that love is the “attempt to create for ourselves a sense of wholeness or completion through a union… with another person” (Solomon 194). A crucial element of this “wholeness” is in the process of forging a mutual identity with another in a relationship. The “identity theory” of love, which Solomon bases his arguments on love around, states that the self is, individually, indeterminate, and is rather “defined with and through others” (Solomon 197). Though we individually attempt to define our “true” selves, giving priority through our actions to some of our features over others, there is no “true” self or set of roles which dominates over others. Rather, who we are and the value of our person, or the worth of our accomplishments, depends a great deal upon the opinions of others, who help establish the “way we ‘fit’ in the world” (Solomon 201). As Solomon puts it, “we are the persons we think ourselves to be and become through the eyes and opinions of the people around us” (Solomon 202); that is, our identity may be self-constructed, but is mutually defined and established. Such is equally the case in our self-esteem and self-worth, for the self is “never assured” (Solomon 200). Rather, it “consists of proving oneself to be what one is,” depending on the value held by others of our person in order to be reinforced. This is why we choose the friends and – more importantly – the lovers that we do, for they are the ones who make us feel “virtuous and worthwhile (Solomon 201). In addition to the role that love and relationships play in the definition of our identity, they, according to Solomon, also play a role in the transformation of the self. Romantic love is “a redefinition of oneself in terms of goodness,” for it embodies a desire for self-improvement. The lover wishes to not only be loved for what they are, but for what they can become, their “ideal self” (Solomon 206). The desire to improve oneself comes from the creation of roles inherent in the establishment of a relationship; we dress and act the roles we would like to play in order to attract a partner, and, once that relationship has been established, we develop and perfect those parts “to the point where they seem as if they were completely natural” (Solomon 207).

Thus, as can be seen through Solomon’s writings, the essential characteristics of love include an establishment of identity through mutual definition and a self-transformation of identity toward “goodness.” We may not “become ourselves” in our romantic relationships, for the self is never assured nor ever “perfectly” defined, but we do narrow and define the set of roles we wish to take on and the characteristics of ourselves which foster and support our relationships. Being in love in a romantic relationship, in effect, helps us find our “place in the world.” While all the networks of people and opinions in our lives help form a sense of ourselves, Solomon rightfully acknowledges that “it is love that often proves to be definitive” (Solomon 207.) Yet he ascribes these essential characteristics of love to only relationships which encompass a union of two people. As our identity and self is, in part, intimate and private, it takes “one and only one other person” to really know and be in contact with it, according to Solomon (207). Accordingly, many of our essential attributes are determined by that single other person, who is “closest” to us. Looking back to Piazzesi, though, a question must be asked – are the characteristics of love put forth by Solomon absolute, or are they simply manifestations of the monogamous form of relationship which he understands in his context? That is, are these characteristics simply legitimizing the love we experience in a relationship, giving us a sense of “being in that romantic living room?” Or, are these characteristics transcendental of context, equally capable of being manifested in a different form of relationship? To answer this question, we may turn to Kollontai, who presents arguments about the characteristics and nature of love which extend beyond the sphere of a monogamous union between two lovers.

To begin, Kollontai takes an opposition to Solomon’s last point, stating that “love is not in the least a ‘private’ matter concerning only the two loving persons; love posses a uniting element which is valuable to the collective” (Kollontai 279). As had been previously mentioned, Kollontai then lays out the historical development of loving relationships, demonstrating how they have evolved and changed their fundamental character in order to satisfy the needs of society. The modern concept of monogamy, sustained by bourgeois discourses, has developed to support the need to accumulate and concentrate capital within the family unit. The characteristics Solomon ascribes to a monogamous union, then, indeed are simply legitimizing an experience developed for extraneous needs. Yet, as Kollontai argues, love can “not be contained within the limits set down by bourgeois ideologists,” and, with a change in context, can be “set free” to take shape in different forms. For Kollontai, the key among these different forms is polyamory, which allows for a “fulfillment” not possible in a monogamous union. She writes that a “man may feel sympathy and protective tenderness [for one woman], and for another he might find support and understanding for the strivings of his intellect” (Kollontai 288). Why must he choose one of the two, thereby tearing “himself apart and crippling his inner self, if only the possession of both types of inner bond affords the fullness of living” (Kollontai 288)? By having multiple intimate, romantic relationships, then, the individual can find themselves more “satisfied,” more “complete,” in ways which are impossible in Solomon’s context. The multi-sidedness of this emotional experience and fulfillment, Kollontai argues, would assist in the growth of the bonds between people which would benefit the growth of the communist collective, a reflection  of the context in which Kollontai exists. Kollontai further lays out the qualities of love, which would help benefit the “collective” for which she writes. Among them, mirroring the statements of Solomon, is the nature of “transformation” in love, in which the individual betters themselves intellectually, creatively, and emotionally as a response to their lover. Yet, whereas Solomon argued that such betterment is only possible through an intimacy with one other person, whose opinions reign supreme, Kollontai argues that it can exist in both the “private” and “public” sphere (Kollontai 290). In a collectivized society, built “upon the principles of comradeship and solidarity linking all members of the collective,” then, the characteristics of love are such that they help build ties with all of individuals of the society, not just a single other person, and thus manifest themselves in polygamous relationships. Again, as seen through the lens of Piazzesi and in the case of Solomon, contextual circumstances influence the nature of love as seen by Kollontai, and the form of our relationships, in this particular case polygamous ones, legitimize the experience of that love.

Yet we see two distinct characteristics of love which transcend context emerging from these two authors. The first is a broad sense of “fulfillment,” of finding completion and meaning for ourselves. Solomon describes this fulfillment in terms of identity-construction, detailing how our identity is mutually defined through our lovers; the unsure nature of identity, which needs to be defined by another, should be expected in the individualistic society in which he wrote. Developing identity, then, helps “fulfill” and “complete” the individual in that form of society, for it helps establish their place, role, and value in the world. For Kollontai, this “fulfillment” comes in building ties to the broader collective, again a natural reflection of the society in which she wrote. Through the establishment of multiple romantic relationships, which may help develop and grow the individual in different ways, the individual is bound closer to the collective and the collective accordingly grows closer. In a society of solidarity, then, love helps “fulfill” the individual in that it allows them solidify their role and place within the collective as another member working toward the broader, collective good. The second characteristic of love we see emergent is its “transformative” nature, which moves the individual toward bettering themselves. Again, the reason for this “transformation” is different according to context; for Solomon, it is in response to having a lover, for the beloved wishes to be loved for, and therefore wishes to develop, their ideal self. For Kollontai, this transformation need not be “private” but rather should be “public,” as would benefit a collectivized society, and comes about as a desire to help strengthen and develop the collective. Nonetheless, the transformation of identity through personal betterment is a crucial element of love for both these writers, regardless of their context.

Through this exploration of love and romantic relationships as they exist in different contexts, two crucial characteristics emerge: “fulfillment” of the individual and “transformation” of the individual. Love, we can conclude, is thus the experiencing of these two characteristics, plus others dependent upon context, and the legitimization of our relationships by the presence of these characteristics. Ultimately, regardless of the form of romantic relationship in which we experience love, we become ourselves in our relationships, and find and satisfy our place in society in our relationships. Though love took on other characteristics  throughout history, these two characteristics, as laid out by the authors explored herein, are transcendental of context. Piazzesi warns against making a “minimal definition” to love, but, using these characteristics as fundamentals, perhaps with them we are closer to a true and encompassing concept of love.