The British military has become the first to deploy tiny drones, the size of sparrows, on the front lines. According to a Sky News report, the mini-eyes in the sky, dubbed “Black Hornets,” are helicopters approximately four inches long that send full-motion video and still images to soldiers so that they can check out risks and enemy locations. The Brits’ new nanocopters were developed as part of a $31.5 million (Dh115.86 million) contract with a Norwegian supplier that will result in the production of 140 of these small wonders. That comes out to about $225,000 each. Despite the small size of the members of the Black Hornet fleet, the project represents two of the biggest trends in defence right now — drones and nanotech.
However, the bigger question is whether, at the same time, it also hints at a size problem that is bedeviling western — and particularly American — policymakers at the moment: Whether their ideas are shrinking at roughly the same speed as their technologies. On the one hand, the vaunted move towards smaller-footprint strategies is at the heart of what has become known as the “Obama doctrine,” which has some clear advantages over the alternatives seen recently. Using tools like drones, smaller special operations units and even the smallest warriors of them all — the electrons that are the front-line “troops” in cyberwarfare — reduces the risk and cost associated with America’s overseas interventions — such as those involved in combating terrorists. (Or, in the case of the Black Hornets, fighting in hostile terrain against entrenched insurgents.)
As Americans have also seen, by reducing those risks and costs, they reduce impediments to taking action via these means. This can make for a nimbler, more assertive foreign policy. As the US has also seen in places like Pakistan and Yemen, however, by reducing the impediments to action, it seems to be increasing the likelihood that it will violate the sovereignty of other countries even if it means taking action in which civilian loss of life and property takes place. On the positive side, having offensive capabilities that allow the US to deal more effectively with isolated threats from non-state actors, without causing major wars, makes for a more flexible foreign policy. However, it can also create the illusion that just because America is doing something, it is doing enough — or that because America can mitigate risk some of the time, low-risk interventions are always the way to go.
Micropolicies relying on small-footprint tactics are often smarter approaches than spare-no-expense, high-stakes, low-return adventures like Iraq or Afghanistan. However, they are also not going to be a solution to the really big problems that periodically arise in international affairs. Consider Syria, home to the world’s worst current humanitarian crisis, with more than two million displaced people not only living in horrible conditions, but threatening the stability of neighbouring countries.
Nearly two years and more than 60,000 deaths since the uprising began, the US and its allies remain wary of intervention, for a lot of good reasons. It is unclear who to bet on among the opposition. It is unclear what approaches may be most effective. Some key players — like the Russians — have been uncooperative, backing Bashar Al Assad’s regime with money, weapons and diplomatic support. And the international community has not united around a single approach. In the midst of this, apparently, according to a New York Times report last week, recently departed secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and former CIA director, David Petraeus, came up with a plan to directly arm the Syrian rebels. The idea apparently had tacit support from Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and others, but a risk-averse White House scotched the plan.
The US remained on the sidelines even as evidence that the Al Assad regime was testing Obama’s “red lines” regarding chemical weapons movement and use came to light. Without speaking about the merits of the Clinton-Petraeus plan, the fact that not only was it avoided but that in so doing, the Obama White House maintained its consistent opposition to all but the most limited, lowest-risk sort of interventions in the region suggests a divide within even Democratic foreign-policy circles. It seems clear that a Clinton administration would have intervened faster not only in Syria, but also in Libya. We can speculate about where else it might have taken a tougher line, but the question this incident raises should be front and centre: Is less always more in US foreign policy?
It’s good to avoid Iraqs and Afghanistans, but if the message to bad actors is that the US is now on a “think small” kick in which it will be hard to provoke it into anything more than isolated surgical strikes or the occasional cyberattack, is America actually reducing risks or increasing them? Will the US be up to facing big threats or will it convince itself that it is possible to engage the world solely on its terms, with very moderated risks, and not at the same time invite really bad actors to test America’s resolve? That is a delusion America can no more afford than repeating the over-aggressive mistakes of the George W. Bush years. Chuck Hagel’s merits as a potential secretary of defence aside, what America really needs is a Goldilocks on the job: Someone who understands the problems with much-too-big and much-too-small and will work tirelessly to find the just-right balance in between.
David Rothkopf is CEO and editor-at-large of Foreign Policy.