Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

World News


A Retreat from Diplomacy: Drones and the Militarization of Foreign Policy

In the midst of the twenty-first century, the United States finds itself inundated by a multitude of problems that threaten the well-being of the international community, the greatest of which involves modern warfare techniques and the rise of new terrorist organizations. As a result of September 2001 and President Bush’s subsequent declaration of a “Global War on Terror,” the eradication of terrorism has continuously been at the forefront of American foreign policy. The United States once relied on conventional means through the use of deployed soldiers, but as technology advances, the threat of terrorism metastasizes, and U.S. foreign policy becomes more militarized, modern warfare techniques used in counterterrorism strategies continue to evolve as well.

The dynamics of war have shifted to include nuclear weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as military drones. Having gained prominence in the military, drones enable the U.S. to pursue terrorists remotely with greater precision, increase the number of potential targets and damage, and limit the number of boots on the ground. Nonetheless, as a result of their effectiveness, the reliance on drones has ultimately increased under Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump despite no clear guidelines as the War on Terror continues to keep the U.S. engaged in the Middle East.

A little historical context is necessary.

Drone use is not a modern phenomenon, but rather traces its roots back to World War I in the form of pilotless vehicles that were launched by catapults using radio control. This led to the development of wide-scale reconnaissance drone use in the Vietnam War that acted as combat decoys and missile launchers. With the turn of the new century, the tragic events in September 2001 further modified the way in which global superpowers like the United States engaged in warfare and substantially increased their use of military drones. The U.S. post-9/11 witnessed President Bush’s capitalization of military UAVs; acting essentially as aircrafts without pilots. UAVs were deployed as surveillance and weapons vehicles that were able to obtain intel and kill suspected terrorists when direct engagement was too dangerous.

Even after gaining initial traction under Bush, the early 2000s saw limited use of UAVs until President Obama greatly expanded the program with over 506 strikes issued during his tenure, almost ten times as many as his predecessor. Moreover, the Obama administration took control of the drone program by institutionalizing and normalizing the practice; this was done through the creation of language that “served as the policy framework and legal basis” for a variety of lethal counterterrorism measures. In regards to his predecessor, these actions were unheard of. However, the popularization of UAVs under President Obama eventually raised the question of whether drone strikes violated international law, a debate that is still contested.

The prioritization of UAVs continued under President Trump, especially in the first few years of his presidency. Now heavily employed by the military, drones have been used extensively in areas like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, with 161 strikes authorized in President Trump’s first year alone. Essentially, President Trump has become more heavily involved in the War on Terror, further drawing back on diplomacy and relying more on militarized foreign policy measures in the form of airstrikes and UAVs. As of 2018, the United States’ use of drone strikes has caused other states in the international community to adopt their own deadly versions, which could potentially cause an international arms race spurred on by technological advancements and national tensions, further damaging countries whose mere existence is already being threatened by terrorist organizations.

President Obama’s initial drone policy was a continuation of President Bush’s in that the number of strikes and casualties was kept secret from the public, as well as the policies that the government abided by in regards to drones. However, a 2016 executive order largely changed that policy of secrecy. President Obama’s order attempted to make the program more transparent and add more safeguards; these included implementing more measures to reduce civilian casualties, such as creating more accurate reconnaissance systems, acknowledging U.S. responsibility for civilians killed, and releasing annual reports from the Director of National Intelligence on the number of strikes conducted in areas of non-active hostilities.

On the other hand, much like how his presidency has been defined, President Trump’s drone policy is shrouded in ambiguity and uncertainty, a stark contrast to the efforts made by President Obama in years prior. Despite already having authorized numerous drone strikes in the Middle East, the realities of the Trump administration’s approach to drones is unknown. However, the information that exists is largely based on assumptions given the actions that have been carried out thus far by the U.S. military. President Trump has, allegedly, made changes to the National Defense Authorization Act, of which one change is the relaxation of the “imminent threat requirement” that governs how the U.S. selects targets outside of armed conflict. Further changes include relaxing the necessary standard of “near certainty” that the target is present, as well as an increased role by the Central Intelligence Agency.

While it seems that President Trump has reverted back to the pre-transparency days of President Bush, as much of his real policies and changes are unknown, reports have continuously emerged from places like The New York Times claiming that the Trump administration has also relaxed restrictions on who can be targeted; this has diminished the intensive vetting process that is usually administered to strikes before they are authorized to be carried out. Furthermore, it is said that the Trump administration has also loosened the guidelines that protect innocent civilians in countries such as Yemen and Somalia, where drone strikes are prevalent, which can lead to a substantial increase in civilian casualties, those of which have already occurred in countries like Syria. As President Trump has made clear by his actions, both international and domestic human rights law are not a top priority, nor a concern at all, and relaxing drone warfare policy perpetuates that blatant disregard.

The Trump administration’s relaxation towards drone use and the trend towards secrecy regarding drone warfare policy is a controversial one. By continuing to engage in the Middle East, the Trump administration is demonstrating their commitment to the eradication of terrorism, but their decision to keep counterterrorism operations and strategies under wraps raises questions of morality and compliance with international human rights law. Moreover, failing to provide the details of the administration’s drone policy whilst simultaneously increasing their usage and loosening the policy restrictions can largely affect various other states that utilize drones in war. Under President Obama, the U.S. was making strides in terms of transparency regarding drone usage, but President Trump’s reversal of his predecessor’s policies diminishes the US’s ability to be a global leader in developing warfare frameworks that involve military drones.

In the end, despite being faced with a plethora of both domestic and international threats, the United States continues to fight against myriad formidable challenges from the work of its own citizens and foreign adversaries. However, the objective has always been clear in that the protection and security of the American people take precedence above all else. While drones were scarcely used under President Bush, President Obama substantially changed that narrative and greatly expanded the program, even going as far as making it more transparent for the public. However, it is under President Trump that the policies of his predecessor have been reversed. Ultimately, President Trump’s increased use of drones may result in the future longevity of a War on Terror that has already spanned over seventeen years and taken thousands of American lives.