The Impact of Drones on Democracy

Liam Maddrell*

Brisbane, May 4, 2o14 (Alochonaa): The global drone industry is booming, with expenditure on the research and manufacture of these weapon platforms expected to total at least $94 billion for the second decade of the 21st century (Benjamin 2013, p32). In what circumstances these weapons are deployed, and how international law is constructed around these revolutionary weapons will help determine if the new post-human military reality will usher in either a new era of perpetual warfare, or one of general global security and peace. Already there is concern that the current deployment of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to the theaters of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are undermining the democratic restraints on the use of force. Indeed this can be seen by the fact that the personnel on ‘our side’ in the West are not placed at risk with the use of these weapons, which in turn disengages the democratic populace from the decision to use military force in their name (Singer 2010,p323).

Unmanned vehicles of all types, and UAVs in particular constitute the first military revolution of the twenty-first century. It is therefore increasingly apparent that not only are such weapons systems here to stay, but also that their proliferation is likely to intensify (Hogland 2013, p1). Due to their now proven abilities on the battlefield, growing sophistication through continued research and also the relatively low cost (the US military can buy 13 Predator UAVS for every joint-strike fighter), any effort to halt this global proliferation is doomed to failure. Consequently the world is not merely exploring the post-human era, but rather rushing headlong into it.


The Kettering Bug, one of the first types of UAVs developed back in WWI – Google Images

‘Time will tell if drones will emancipate us from the ravages of modern warfare of if they will become appliances of Orwellian control’ (Hough 2013, p1). It is now a universal fact that humans have increasingly become the weakest link within defensive systems (Singer 2010, p64). Consequently not only is greater proliferation inevitable, but so is the greater automation of these systems. This in itself will create further distance between the democratic elected civilian officials or their military subordinates and the lethal actions of their operations.

This process is already evident within America, whose use of UAVs and other unmanned vehicles has caused the greatest consternation to date over the long term effects these weapons will have on international law. President Barack Obama has shown himself consistently as a supporter of these weapons in the American-led War on Terror, seeking to disrupt terror networks. In fact his insistence that these weapons be used, even at the expense of the sovereignty of another nation (notably Pakistan) was on the public record before his election (Ali 2008, p218-219). Resultantly ‘by the time Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009, he had authorised more drone strikes than George W. Bush had approved in his entire presidency’ (Klaidman 2012, p117).


President Barack Obama; The Drone President – Google Images

Further complicating the situation is the manner in which these ‘drone strikes’ are carried out. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which retains control of the drone programme without direct congressional oversight or accountability, is unsure as to who exactly is being killed in each drone strike (O’Hanlon 2013). While President Obama has sought to prosecute the war against Al-Qaeda with greater aggression, the legal ramifications (both internationally and domestically) of the extrajudicial killing of terror suspects have received a somewhat lower priority (Hough 2013, p3). Resultantly in his first term in office, the targeted assassinations of terror suspects have seen some 3300 Al-Qaeda, Taliban or affiliated jihadists killed in Pakistan and Yemen alone, including 50 senior leaders (Byman 2013, p33).

While they are extrajudicial in nature, the targeted killings of terror suspects via UAVs by the American government are claimed to be conducted with due process by the Obama administration, which has by its own admission worked ‘vigorously’ to establish a framework that governs the use of force against terror suspects (The New York Times 2013). The premise of this argument revolves around the fact that the President alone may authorise the inclusion of someone onto the list of High Value Targets (HVTs), and often does so in consultation with the US Justice Department and the leaders of Congress (Greenfield 2013). While transparency and accountability is required to build a greater international consensus around how UAVs in particular and unmanned vehicles in general will be used into the future, the Obama administration seems unwilling to provide such assurances (Bergen & Rowland 2013).


A Predator UAV strike being conducted over South Waziristan Province, Pakistan – Google Images

Adding to the contention surrounding the American government’s continued use of UAVs in this manner, ‘Obama continues to keep secret the details of the procedures that the administration uses in deciding who can be targeted in drone strikes and other lethal operations off traditional battlefields’ (Clark & Lindsay 2013). The proliferation of drones only heightens the needs to clarify a policy on how these strikes will continue to be conducted in the future (Byman 2013, p41). Failure to do so will ensure that states will simply conduct similar operations when it is perceived to be in their national interests.

In his seminal 1932 political thesis, ‘The Concept of the Political’, Carl Schmitt declared that ‘the justification of war does not reside in its being fought for ideas or norms of justice, but in its being fought against a real enemy’ (Schmitt 1932 (2007), p49). In this sense the War on Terror is indeed a war; however the ill-defined nature of the enemy and the lack of geographic constraint enabled by UAVs, cause problems in the definition of the Schmittian exception and thus exposes the inherent flaws within modern representative democracy to the dictatorial whims of the unrestrained sovereign. ‘This involves the suspension of the constitutional order, authorised by that very order, as an exceptional means for its protection from a particular threat’ (Mouffe (Ed.) 1999, p123). While President Obama still claims that the programme of extrajudicial killings is not subverting the American commitment to the rule of law, the actions of his administration show other intent (The Washington Post 2013, p2). ‘For Schmitt, the guardian of the constitution had to be a person, ideally the head of state’ (Muller 2003, p64). By proclaiming that he was doing this, President Obama and his administration were taking on the role of as the ultimate guardians of the American constitution while dealing with the continuing exception of the War on Terror.


Carl Schmitt, Chief Jurist of the Third Reich and German political theorist – Google Images

This has been reinforced by a complicit media which is fulfilling their Schmittian ideals through their fear-driven quest for greater audience shares. ‘The masses are won over through a propaganda apparatus whose maximum effect relies on an appeal to immediate interests and passions’ (Schmitt 1923 (1986), p6). As a result the American population has by a large majority accepted the use of drones in lethal strikes against terror suspects (Benjamin 2013, p107-108). This has been accentuated by the exponential growth in the abilities of UAVs. The fact that ‘drone strikes that once seemed impossibly futuristic are so routine that they rarely attract public attention unless a high-ranking al-Qaeda figure is killed’ (The Washington Post 2013, p21), ensures that the general veil of secrecy surrounding these missions encourages little substantiated information on the real costs of the drone war in either Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia to be available. This lack of repercussion only encourages the representative to be ‘independent of his constituents and party’ which further weakens democratic oversight over these military actions (Schmitt 1923 (1986), p3).

The clearest evidence of this is the lack of real protest over the UAV assassinations in Yemen of American citizen and Al-Qaeda operative, Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenage son, Abdurrahman Anwar al-Awlaki in October 2011. ‘If the killing of a sixteen-year-old American fails to spark and substantial debate in the American media regarding the blatantly extrajudicial nature of drone strikes, then certainly the killing of poor Yemenis or Somalis is not going to cause a stir’ (Benjamin 2013, p123). The death of the Al-Awlakis was in fact applauded by major news organisations despite the flagrant violation of the U.S. constitution in the protection of its citizens (Chulov 2011).


Anwar al-Awlaki, American citizen and al-Qaeda operative; killed by UAV strike in Yemen with his 16 year old son – Google Images

Unmanned vehicles and their continued deployment encourages the American public to not think of the legal precedents being set by the Obama administration in other, more subtle ways. The lower enlistment levels and resultant lower casualties that unmanned vehicles allow for produce less of a sense of urgency to examine if a particular war is actually worth fighting (Benjamin 2013, p151). This means that ‘as unmanned systems become more and more prevalent, we’ll be more likely to use force’ (Singer 2010, p316). It will also mean that the much touted reduction of U.S. military personnel levels to their lowest since 1940 is unlikely to reduce U.S. military capabilities to the same capacity. In fact this result is seen as desirable by the American body politic. ‘The U.S. military has been striving for years to replace soldiers in battle with machines so as to make foreign wars more palatable to the American people’ (Gray 1997, p42).

Ultimately ‘with no draft, no need for congressional approval, no tax or war bonds, and now the knowledge that the Americans at risk are mainly just American machines, the already lowering bars to war may well hit the ground’ (Singer 2010, p319). Put simply, ‘it is human nature that if you know someone is grading your homework, you are likely to be more careful about how you perform’ (Bergen & Rowland 2013). Without the vested interest required of previous generations of citizens during war, a major check on the power to make war has been removed from the American government. With this in mind if democracy ‘is only the equality of equals, and the will of those who belong to the equals’ (Schmitt 1923 (1986), p16), as is being shown by the general popularity in which the drone programme is held domestically within America, then the ideal espoused by the Democratic Peace Theory is erroneous in the extreme. While American policy makers will still construct their programmes to be easily marketable so that they are perceived popularly by their constituents to ensure re-election, unmanned vehicles and their subsequent removal of American personnel from danger will allow involvement in wars that previously the lack of public support would not allow for. ‘With drone warfare, there is no need to unite the country behind a conflict, no need to call for shared sacrifice, no need for gruelling debates in Congress’ (Benjamin 2013, p152).


Is the U.S. Constitution under attack as this cartoon suggests? – Google Images

The growing prominence of unmanned vehicles cannot easily be halted and in most respects the world’s governments collectively have shown little inclination towards doing so (Benjamin 2013, p34). As this will undoubtedly mean that the autonomy of these weapons will itself increase, how these weapons are programmed and deployed will be just as important, if not more important that their mere existence itself. ‘Washington must remain mindful of the built-in limits of low-cost, unmanned interventions, since the very convenience of drone warfare risks dragging the United States [and the world] into conflicts it could otherwise avoid’ (Byman 2013, parenthesis added).

Similarly other countries that also develop these weapon platforms further will likewise face these issues. America, however, ‘practices perpetual war for perpetual peace’ (Blum 2004 (1987), p392). ‘For Americans, these unaccounted for acts of aggression represent an erosion of democracy’ (Benjamin 2013, p125), it is therefore not inconceivable that the advent of similar acts of aggression committed by states that are inherently less democratic than America to begin with will cause a greater problem (Springer 2013, p95). Despite these fears, unmanned vehicles will ensure that ‘the principle of using minimum force, when absolutely necessary, to maintain the balance of power is (and will remain) the driving force of U.S. foreign policy throughout the twenty-first century’ (Friedman 2009, p46). Consequently the world will continue to fly blindly into the post-human era, and to expect emancipation from global warfare will ultimately prove erroneous.

*Liam Maddrell, in addition to being on the editorial board of Alochonaa, is an International Relations scholar and is currently undertaking an internship at the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA). His personal research interests revolve primarily around the United Nations, Machiavellian politics, unmanned vehicles, military interventionism, nuclear proliferation, North Korea and the rise of India.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at



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Categories: Democracy, Foreign Policy

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