President Obama last week delivered a speech at West Point outlining his vision of US foreign policy that would be increasingly reliant on diplomacy and public institutions, and less quick to resort to the use of force. The President noted that the major challenges to US interests abroad are likely to be regional conflicts like those in Syria and Ukraine that, because of the scope of interests involved, are unlikely to be effectively resolved through the use of force alone. “”American leadership in the 21st century,” the President observed, “is going to involve our capacity to build international institutions, coalitions that can act effectively and the promotion of norms, rules, laws, ideals and values that create greater prosperity and peace, not just in our own borders, but outside as well.”
The President also noted that two of his primary policy concerns to address before leaving office are closing the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and ensuring legal checks are in place to ensure that the US drone program avoids civilian casualties and protects privacy.
The USS George Washington
In the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the United States announced that the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and two escort destroyers have arrived in the Philippines to assist in the relief effort. According to a statement by the White House, the George Washington will provide support for search-and-rescue operations and will assist in the transportation of relief supplies. The British government similarly announced that the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious will be sent to aid in the relief effort.
The use of the military in such relief effort raises some interesting questions about the fungibility of power in foreign policy. Traditionally, a strong military—particularly a powerful blue water navy like that of the United States—was primarily a vehicle for force projection. That is, a strong navy allows the United States to respond to crises and assert itself around the world. The changing nature of international conflict, however, has caused some policy makers to debate the need for restructuring the US military. A greater reliance on force projection through the use of drone aircraft and missile strikes, for example, have allowed the United States to pursue an aggressive stance against suspected terrorists around the world with relatively little risk to American soldiers. But the crisis in the Philippines suggests that some military assets have greater fungability; that is, they can be used to address a wider variety of issues than just national defense and security.
Does the crisis in the Philippines suggest that the extensive reliance on drones as the central component of US military policy should be rethought? What does it suggest about the nature of power and the dynamics of US foreign policy?
The use of cyberwarfare and predator drones (above) raise questions about the ethics of war in the 21st century.
Recent leaks of classified information on drone strikes, cyberwarfare, and terror plots have prompted U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint two prosecutors
to investigate these leaks. Much of the secret information has appeared in a series of New York Times
articles dealing with the president’s national security decision-making. While the leaks themselves are an important story, the content of the classified information paints a picture of a president and his advisers grappling with questions of ethics in an age of unconventional warfare.
Just War Theory refers to a body of thought developed over centuries by philosophers, theologians, and other scholars. It seeks to define conditions under which war is just, or ethically defensible. There is wide agreement on principles such as discrimination (the need to distinguish between combatants and civilians–one can target the former but should avoid attacking the latter). But applying this principle in a war zone can become very difficult. What if you are fighting against insurgents who don’t wear uniforms and use the civilian population as cover? And what if the enemy puts a tank (a legitimate military target) next to a hospital or school? Can the tank be attacked with an airstrike?
Advances in technology (e.g., nuclear weapons in the 20th century and cyberweapons/drones in the 21st century) can further complicate the application of Just War Theory to real-world cases. Recent leaks describe President Obama personally ordering drone strikes against targets on a “kill list” and also ordering cyberwarfare to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. But they also show a president grappling with the ethical issues raised by such technology. One New York Times article claims that the principle of discrimination plays a key role in decision-making on cyberwarfare:
“…Precisely because the United States refuses to talk about its new cyberarsenal, there has never been a real debate in the United States about when and how to use cyberweapons. President Obama raised many of the issues in the closed sanctum of the Situation Room, participants in the conversation say, pressing aides to make sure that the attacks were narrowly focused so that they did not take out Iranian hospitals or power plants and were directed only at the country’s nuclear infrastructure. ‘He was enormously focused on avoiding collateral damage,’ one official said, comparing the arguments over using cyberwar to the debates about when to use drones.”
What do you think? Has the U.S. been sufficiently careful to avoid civilian casualties in its use of drones and other weapons in Iraq, Aghanistan, and elsewhere? Are some civilian casualties unavoidable and thus acceptable in warfare? What are the limits of discrimination as a requirement for a just war?