mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Should We Set Up Drone Guidelines?

Reuters reported yesterday that President Obama is looking to establish guidelines for international drone use. The President is feeling pressure both at home, because of unease with the ill-defined limits of drone deployment, and abroad, because America is rapidly losing its edge in drone technology:

“People say what’s going to happen when the Chinese and the Russians get this technology? The president is well aware of those concerns and wants to set the standard for the international community on these tools,” said Tommy Vietor, until earlier this month a White House spokesman.

As U.S. ground wars end—over in Iraq, drawing to a close in Afghanistan—surgical counterterrorism targeting has become “the new normal,” Vietor said.

Amid a debate within the U.S. government, it is not yet clear what new standards governing targeted killings and drone strikes the White House will develop for U.S. operations or propose for global rules of the road.

Two thoughts on this:

1. International law evolves much more slowly than reality these days. That’s the root cause of US problems with a range of issues from Guanatanamo to drones: current international laws governing war do not really take into account wars against “NGO”s of fanatical jihadis and other terrorists. A captured terrorist is not the same thing as a captured enemy soldier in a regular army who responds to a unified high command. And drones are a new kind of weapon developed for a type of strategic counterinsurgency that, again, the architects of our current set of international laws did not anticipate. So we are operating in a vacuum here and haven’t always chosen wisely or well—though our performance has been nowhere near as bad or as irresponsible as many critics would have it. We do need further developments of international law, but—and this is very important—reality is likely to continue to move faster than our international diplomats, who will agonize over every tiny clause and inevitably create something flawed.

In short, we need to work these problems out, but they won’t go away.

2. The US monopoly on drones is ending, as it must. Once we’ve figured something out, others will use it to. One can foresee the day, as the technology spreads and drones become cheaper, when third rate insurgencies in the barren hills of wretchedly governed backward countries will field drones. This is how war works.

Figuring out a set of rules for drones may help in some ways—though, frankly, a lot of the people we worry most about won’t follow the rules (duh). But America’s real response to the proliferation of drones should be to stay on the cutting edge. We need to be at the forefront of the next advance, just as we were with this one.

Features Icon
© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service