The Drones are Here and Geopolitics Will Never be the Same

Predator Drone

The “Predator” unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is just one of many drones available for military and civilian use. This picture was taken in Cape Town, South Africa in 2010. Photo credit: Blyzz (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

“The United States launched another drone strike in Pakistan … in Yemen … and in Somalia.” These are familiar headlines in the post-September 11, 2001 world, especially under the Obama administration. Some analysts even credit these “unmanned aerial vehicle” (UAV) missile attacks with turning the tide in the fight against Al Qaeda. And, if Al Qaeda is fading away, governments’ use of drones is on the rise. Geopolitics will never be the same.

A recent Time magazine cover story highlighted the rapid expansion of UAVs in both national security and non-military arenas. The article, by Lev Grossman, is an even-handed assessment of the real and potential benefits and drawbacks of these flying wonders. Civil libertarians and privacy advocates are right to raise serious concerns about the rush to deploy drones in domestic airspaces. In the arena of foreign policy, the geopolitical implications of drones are also worrying. Here are some of the key concerns.

  1. Drones dramatically lower the material and political costs of war. As more countries acquire unmanned aerial vehicles, governments will have new capabilities to launch attacks on other states and their own populations. Minor provocations tied to drone strikes could rapidly escalate.
  2. Just as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is now fond of UAVs, other governments will presumably embrace drones for covert operations. Like “cyber-warfare,” the potential growth of lethal covert operations could be very destabilizing in regions like the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and South Asia.
  3. Respect for sovereign airspace (and national sovereignty more generally) is likely to decline, particularly with respect to weak and failed states. Admittedly, there are enormous benefits associated with gathering intelligence through a robot drifting or hovering thousands of feet in the air. Even so, critics are right to worry about neo-imperial over-reach.
  4. More and more innocent civilians may suffer from these drone strikes. In Pakistan alone, U.S. drone strikes have resulted in the killing of 261 to 891 civilians (i.e. non-terrorists / non-militants) since 2004. There is huge potential for much more carnage, especially if UAVs proliferate in certain zones of instability, thereby creating uncertainty about which government or group is responsible for the attack.

With respect to drone warfare, we are now in a period somewhat analogous to the early nuclear era, before the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (1968). The United States has once again led the way in developing and deploying bold new weapons of war. As drone expert Micah Zenko argues, it is very much an open question as to whether the international community will be able to appropriately use these technologies.

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