We address the requirements that must be met by space-geodetic systems to place useful, new constraints on horizontal secular motions associated with the geological deformation of the earth's surface. Plate motions with characteristic speeds of about 50 mm/yr give rise to displacements that are easily observed by space geodesy. However, in order to improve the existing plate-motion models, the tangential components of relative velocities on interplate baselines must be resolved to an accuracy of < 3 mm/yr. Because motions considered small from a geodetic point of view have rather dramatic geological effects, especially when taken up as compression or extension of continental crust, detecting plate deformation by space-geodetic methods at a level that is geologically unresolvable places rather stringent requirements on the precision of the measurement systems: the tangential components on intraplate baselines must be observed with an accuracy of < 1 mm/yr. Among the measurements of horizontal secular motions that can be made by space geodesy, those pertaining to the rates within the broad zones of deformation characterizing the active continental plate boundaries are the most difficult to obtain by conventional ground-based geodetic and geological techniques. Measuring the velocities between crustal blocks to ± 5 mm/yr on 100-km to 1000-km length scales can yield geologically significant constraints on the integrated deformation rates across continental plate-boundary zones such as the western United States. However, baseline measurements in geologically complicated zones of deformation are useful only to the extent that the endpoints can be fixed in a local kinematical frame that includes major crustal blocks. For this purpose, the establishment of local geodetic networks around major VLBI and SLR sites in active areas should receive high priority.