Blog Post - Technology and Policy

Democracy and the Necessity of Drones?

Sep. 29, 2014

Earlier this month, Firmin Debrabander argued in the New York Times that drone warfare creates a democratic disconnect between the American public and its leaders.  This disconnect, for Debrabander, is grounds to question current drone policies.  This is not a new thesis.  Many scholars have expressed this concern since 2009.  Drones permit us to lose track of our leaders’ military decisions.  When no one we know risks life or limb in an international conflict we tend not to care so much.

But a worry lingers in the back of our minds: perhaps, far from causing a disconnect, instead there might be a necessary connection between modern democracies and drone warfare.

Most Americans hold that modern liberal democracies are worth defending.  They are worth defending because these democracies, more than any other form of government, provide space for their individual citizens to pursue their own interests.  Every citizen has the right to his or her own property, own form of worship, and own freedom of speech.  And we recognize the intrinsic value of every individual in our democratic community.   Such is the perk of being an American citizen—liberty and justice for all, each in our own particular way.

In this ideal democracy, the interests of the individual are continuous with the interests of the nation as a whole.  Every citizen also has the right to vote for leaders who are elected to protect the liberal democratic institutions that Americans, for good reason, hold so dear.  And protection is, unfortunately, often required.  There are, after all, countries and nonstate actors who have little respect for the joys of Western liberalism and who aim to undermine it at every turn.

Protecting democracy has always been a tricky proposition.  Leaders such as President Obama find themselves in a double bind.  On the one hand, they must take defensive measures to guard the nation and its citizens’ rights and interests from external threats. But on the other hand, leaders must develop and then adopt defensive military strategies that minimize, hopefully even eliminate, the costs that their citizens must face; it is impermissible to send men and women off to die in wars that could be won without these citizens’ direct and dangerous involvement. Every citizen, even soldiers, has intrinsic value.

And so Obama and his predecessors ushered in the era drone warfare and a slew of other automated technologies that would both protect citizens and shield citizen-soldiers.  Drone warfare—and its collateral damage—is a necessary consequent of a certain type of modern liberal democracy.  If we are good liberal democrats, the development of drone warfare should neither surprise nor disturb us.  Drones are democratic weapons.  There are no other options.

But drones do disturb us.  The gruesome scenes of drone strikes—at funerals and birthdays and reunions half a world away—disturb us.  When we have the rare misfortune of seeing these scenes, they keep us up at night.

So why?

Our intuition about the shortcomings and moral failings of drone strikes is not just a discomfort with robot warfare or carnage, but ought to be a sign that we are uncomfortable with a particular form of liberal democracy that necessitates drone warfare.

Liberal democracy in the United States is premised on the idea that the rights and interests of its citizens frequently trump the rights and interest of noncitizens and certainly trump the rights and interests of noncitizens that might get in the way of U.S national interests.  But this means that if we are challenged, our democratic commitments might require that an innocent 12-year-old child in the FATA must sometimes die.

But we still can’t sleep.

In our sleeplessness, we wonder if there might be another way of dreaming about democracy.  Maybe it’s not just about our individual interests and the way that they are continuous with national interest.  Maybe ideal democratic nations are not reducible to the sum of individual interests—all the petty, short-term, arbitrary interests that we have. Maybe ideal democracies are neither reducible to the sum of individual technologies nor clever gadgetry. Maybe ideal democracies turn around general values that we can debate and enact, and that might often be in tension with our narrow individual interests.  Maybe these values make our commitment to an international community as necessary as our commitment to drones.  And maybe one of these values give us the strange sense that the 12-year-old in Pakistan—that her interests—aren’t trumped by the slim chance that her brutal death would protect us.

Just maybe.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Democracy and the Necessity of Drones?.” Technology and Policy, September 29, 2014,