Dictatorships and tyrannies may be casual about spilling their people’s blood, but not democracies. When the people get to decide whether to go to war, they rarely do so willingly. This was why the German philosopher Immanuel Kant said the spread of democracy was the best guarantee of world peace. As he wrote in 1795: “if the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared ... nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game”.
When contemporary thinkers such as Michael Doyle have tested Kant’s intuition, they have had to add a significant caveat: Democracies may not like fighting each other — which is why war has become unthinkable between European Union and Nato countries — but they can be very warlike indeed towards tyrants and ethnic cleansers.
Drones and cyber warfare, the latest revolution in military technology, will force us to revise still further Kant’s connection between democracy, peace and war. Virtual technologies make it easier for democracies to wage war because they eliminate the risk of blood sacrifice that once forced democratic people to be prudent.
Virtual war in Kosovo meant piloted F-18s and precision air strikes. In Afghanistan, too, the Taliban was routed initially with precision air strikes guided by forward air controllers. Libya was the same story. Now democracies do not even have to put their pilots in harm’s way. Cyber war and drones offer Nato democracies enticing prospects of cheap, risk-free warfare ‑ and not just democracies. A new arms race is already under way.
Before succumbing to these technologies, leaders should remember how little virtual war has actually accomplished. Kosovo is still a corrupt ethnic tyranny; Libya will take years to put itself back together and no one can see a stable state in sight in Afghanistan. Virtual war turned out to be the easy part. Democracies have little staying power for the hard part.
Looking at the options in Syria, drone attacks on regime tank formations and a cyber campaign to immobilise Bashar Al Assad’s command and control would be the easy part. Creating a Syria free of sectarian warfare and ethnic political domination will be very hard.
If war is the continuation of politics by other means, the chief factor limiting the use of these new weapons will be whether they help leaders to attain their political ends. Where these end seem unattainable or futile, as in Syria, the weapons will remain unused.
The larger problem is that these new weapons are bound to escape political and therefore democratic control. Previous revolutions in military affairs, such as the coming of nuclear weapons, strengthened the hands of presidents and prime ministers. Drones and cyber war technologies are so cheap it will be impossible to keep them under lock-and-key of the sovereign. The age of the super-empowered, and so super-dangerous, individual has arrived.
In deciding how to control drone and cyber technologies, it is worth remembering that democracies are resilient because they are free. Our cyber systems are now under constant attack and it is in responding to these attacks that they become more secure. States will have to allow the global community of coders and engineers who built and maintain the internet the freedom to keep the malware at bay and keep the system open for the rest of us.
The new technologies are so easy and cheap to produce that the best international law and state action can hope for is to generate a limited set of shared norms to prohibit their most harmful uses. Even with these in place, drones and malware will fight our wars for us and serve our eternal human desire to inflict harm without consequences. They will be the mercenaries of the 21st century.
In thinking about what can keep these technologies under control, we need to remember Kant’s original bet on human prudence. Kant’s insight was that human beings who can freely choose and reason know full well that if you inflict harm, it will come back to hurt you. Everything must be paid for. If you hit Iran with Stuxnet, you render your own nuclear systems vulnerable to the next hacker, individual or state. If you perfect the killing of individuals with drones, you had better confine your acts to bona fide enemies of your state; otherwise you expose your population as a whole to the same heaven-sent vengeance.
These new technologies promise harm without consequence. Kant tells us there is no such thing. In this shared human understanding, even between adversaries, lies prudence, and in prudence — caution, care and restraint — lies hope.
Michael Ignatief teaches human rights at the University of Toronto and is author of ‘Virtual War’.