Paul J. Saunders considers the lessons that states around the world must currently be drawing from Washington’s approach to the use of drones.
Thus far, the principal lesson may well be that drones can be extremely effective in killing your opponents, wherever they are, without risking your own troops and without sending soldiers or law enforcement personnel across another country’s borders. It seems less likely that others will adopt U.S.-style legal standards and oversight procedures, or that they will always ask other governments before sending drones into their airspace.
Based on their actions, it is almost as if Obama administration officials believe that the United States and its allies will have a long-term monopoly on drones. How else can one explain their exuberant confidence in launching drone attacks? However, the administration’s dramatic expansion in drone strikes — and their apparent effectiveness — will only further shorten Washington’s reign as the drone capital of the world by increasing the incentives to others eager to develop, refine or buy the technology.
Have Obama administration officials given any thought to what the world might look like when armed drones are more widespread and when Americans or U.S. allies and partners could become targets? To an outsider, there is little evidence of this kind of thinking in the administration’s use of drones.
This is a serious problem. According to an unclassified July 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office, at least 76 countries already have acquired unmanned aerial vehicles, known as UAVs or drones; the report also states that “countries of concern” are attempting to acquire advanced UAVs from foreign suppliers as well as seeking illegal access to U.S. technology. And a 2012 special report by the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper indicated that China has 10 or more models, though not all are armed. Other sources identify additional varieties in China. At least 50 countries are trying to build 900 different types of drones, the GAO writes.
More generally, the administration’s expanding use of drones is a powerful endorsement of not only the technology, but of the practice of targeted killing as an instrument of foreign and security policy. Having provided this powerful impetus, the United States should not be surprised if others — with differing legal standards and more creative efforts at self-justification — seize upon it once they have the necessary capabilities. According to the GAO, this is already happening — in government-speak, “while only a limited number of countries have fielded lethal or weaponized UAVs, this threat is anticipated to grow.” From this perspective, it is ironic that a president so critical of his predecessor’s unilateralism would practice it himself—particularly in a manner that other governments will find much easier to emulate than the Bush administration’s larger-scale use of force.