Here’s an anecdote. Back in 1997 Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Bosnia. I accompanied him on the plane from Banja Luka to Sarajevo. During the journey the Prime Minister asked what had happened to his idea that former Conservative politician Michael Portillo be put forward as a strong British candidate for Bosnia High Representative.
The senior Foreign Office official gave one of those classic Yes Minister little coughs. ‘The Foreign Secretary didn’t think that that was such a good idea,’ he opaquely replied. In other words Robin Cook, who did not much like Portillo, had kicked Tony Blair’s proposal into the long bureaucratic grass, never to be seen again. This exchange brought home to me a profound insight about power. Not only had a more than plausible initiative from the Prime Minister himself been deliberately ignored by some of his closest colleagues. The Prime Minister had not even realised that this had happened! It doesn’t matter how powerful you are, you still don’t know what happens to your orders once the person who received them leaves the room.
Leaders operate by trust and hope. When that appears not to be working (and if they can get away with it) they resort to ruling by fear. Which brings us to the use of organised mass force, and the steps taken by one nation to defend itself against the forces deployed by another. Once upon a time, there was not too much difference between the military resources available to leaders and the resources available to citizens. Yes, the Spartans and Romans made up for this by incredible feats of organisation, but in a world of spears, swords, axes and horses (and limited information about who was doing what where), the advantage enjoyed by leaders in imposing decisions on followers was not so significant. As Macbeth reminds us, kings were little more than local tough guys who grabbed power then managed to persuade other local tough guys to be loyal. Or not. This (by the way) partly explains why punishments were so gruesome and public for most of human history.
When a ruler’s options for direct central control are limited, they need to show the populace in no uncertain way the grisly consequences of disobeying the law. Over the past 2,000 years or so, the world has seen the technology of warfare improving by leaps and bounds. This has worked mainly in favour of leaders – as weapons became more complicated to make, it became easier to control access to such weapons and then use them to control the ungrateful masses. Until the break-up of the USSR, it was next to impossible for a member of the public to go on eBay and buy a tank or fighter aircraft. However, a not unrelated trend has been the fast-diminishing role for the general public in modern warfare. Not that long ago a significant part of a nation’s population would need to be mobilised for a significant war effort. Those days have long gone. Armies are much smaller, but can deliver firepower with stunning accuracy, speed and flexibility.
Wars are literally less ‘popular,’ which makes it vital to have a firm legal and moral mandate. At the funeral for Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in Belgrade in March 2003, I heard Foreign Secretary Robin Cook gloomily tell his European partners that in a few hours’ time he would be resigning over the Iraq intervention. Not because the invasion was wrong in principle, but because the British public would not support it. Belgrade itself had been bombed by NATO aircraft in 1999, in response to Slobodan Milosevic’s grossly excessive oppression of the Albanian-speaking population in Kosovo. Thirteen years later the tall buildings along the main street into the city look like a row of teeth with some missing. NATO cruise missiles did not only blow up security forces buildings with unerring accuracy: they chose which window to fly through. And that is now almost ancient technology. Unmanned flying machines controlled from thousands of miles away have effectively redefined classic problems faced by military commanders down the ages: distance, time, surprise, surveillance and supply-lines.
So far so familiar. The problem (if it is a problem) lies in the fact that many of the IT advances which make weapons so clever are available to civilians too. Leaders in democratic and undemocratic countries alike need to think much harder about how to maintain ‘order’.
From Libya, Egypt and Syria to networked rioters in London to cunning Somali pirates hijacking large ships, the issue is the same – what are the modern limits of organised official power? Thus the problem for modern governments pondering how much taxpayers’ money to spend on defence. Heavy structures and long traditions of ‘classic’ defence thinking remain, and are often popular and influential. Soldiers marching proudly stir patriotic feelings in most hearts. Yet modern armies aren’t locked in battle with other modern armies (although you never know). Today’s soldiers find themselves battling much less structured enemies: insurgents, rebels, terrorists or – as in Syria – their fellow citizens who themselves are using sophisticated weapons in increasing quantities.
These far-reaching changes in how and where force is applied create awkward new issues in international law. The core precepts of international law concerning the use of force in war echo domestic law in civilised countries. Force is to be used only in self-defence. It must be proportionate to the threat. Care must be taken to avoid hurting other people not involved in the fight. Prisoners must be looked after. Nevertheless, within this common sense framework warfare and destruction on a huge scale can be justified – in the right circumstances.
Force projected by incredibly accurate unmanned flying machine guns (rather than large conventional armies) starts – by virtue of its very accuracy – to look to some people much less like ‘war’ (big, unpleasant but sometimes necessary) and a lot more like ‘assassination’ (little more than mean-minded murder). Yes, the numbers of civilian and even military casualties in conflicts have plummeted thanks to such weapons (except when the point of the conflict for one side is to try to attack civilian targets). But the fewer the casualties among soldiers and civilians alike, the more the whole conflict starts to feel ‘personal.’ Is it legally or morally justifiable for a junior US soldier in front of a video screen at a base in Texas to steer an unmanned drone to pick off individual human targets in faraway Afghanistan, merely on the suspicion that they are involved in terrorist scheming? Is this behaviour not better governed by domestic criminal law (with targets having presumptions of innocence until proved guilty), rather than the high laws of war involving state combatants? What, in fact, are we defending these days? Globalisation has created powerful new incentives for international cooperation. Overt threats to a country’s territory from an external force threatening conquest have almost disappeared. In this very different situation, every country which benefits from international networks has a responsibility to play its part in protecting those networks from criminal or terrorist mischief. This points to a new doctrine of ‘self-defence’. Keep your backyard clear of pests, or we’ll come over the fence and sort out those pests for you.
If country X shows itself unwilling or unable to deal with attacks against global networks by criminals or terrorists operating on its own territory, other countries whose interests are threatened if action is not taken are entitled to act in country X against those people (reasonably and proportionately of course).
The escalating use of unmanned drones by the Obama administration around the world shows that this doctrine is becoming increasingly popular. This is not to say that the Americans are lunging in all over the place, recklessly defying international law. Where at all possible they operate with the consent of national governments, who may not be able to muster the force and agility needed to tackle well-armed extremists using their territory as a base.
One last point. Unmanned drones are radically changing the way explosive force is delivered by modern armies, but the core idea echoes bows and arrows: there is my physical enemy – quick, how do I shoot him before he gets close? Such methods are violent and, despite modern accuracy, clumsy. And expensive. Why not use instead invisible, abstract weapons which do invisible but very real damage? Welcome to the new world of cyber warfare, where massed computers controlled by (but not necessarily sited in) one country can be used to subvert the critical infrastructure in another country. Why waste time blowing up the enemy’s stuff? Just make it break down for no obvious reason.
Protecting ourselves against the physical threat of arrows and nuclear missiles is one thing. Setting up robust defences against gazillions of signals carried by swarming electrons moving at the speed of light is quite another.