Foreign Policy Essay

Drones Are the New Face of U.S. Foreign Policy. What Good Are They?

By Jacqueline L. Hazelton
Sunday, July 23, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Drone strikes are among the most important, and among the most contentious, U.S. counterterrorism instruments. Data limits and the complexity of both cause and effect when it comes to terrorism make many judgments on efficacy difficult. A bigger problem, however, is that effectiveness is often divorced from strategy. Jacqueline Hazelton of the Naval War College takes this challenge on, building on her research published in the Journal of Strategic Studies. Here she evaluates drone strikes and argues that they face numerous limits in the context of different potential U.S. grand strategies.


Concerns about U.S. drone strikes focus on a set of questions about efficacy and morality involving the threat of terrorism. Is the United States improving its security by killing leaders of terrorist groups? Or is it creating more terrorists by killing individuals without adjudication by judge or jury? Is it wantonly violating the human rights of literally countless innocents by casting its net so widely? Or are the strikes reducing or preventing attacks on U.S. interests while protecting civilians? The role of drone strikes in U.S. counterterrorism efforts has grown rapidly since its introduction in 2002, especially during President Obama's two terms; drones are now the face of U.S. counterterrorism policy, along with Special Operations Forces. The Trump administration is working to loosen constraints on these strikes.

Despite U.S. counterterrorism policy’s reliance on drone strikes, we know relatively little about the effects of this tactic. The lack of evidence is due to several factors, including U.S. secrecy, the remoteness of some areas where strikes take place, the difficulty of measuring the effects of strikes on individuals' and groups' thinking and beliefs, and the politicized character of the public debate over the strikes. Data limitations make accurate analysis nearly impossible, whether the questions involve number of casualties, attacks prevented, or individuals deterred or radicalized. Further, current debates assume that tactics create strategy, and that a single technologically-based platform used for one specific kinetic attack creates significant positive or negative political effects on U.S. and international security.

The lack of hard evidence about the direct and indirect effects of drone strikes makes it necessary to consider the question of their political costs and benefits deductively. This analysis looks at one particular type of drone strike, those conducted in states without the public permission of the government whose territory is involved. In Pakistan, for example, the government has given only private permission for the strikes while complaining about them publically. In Libya, the frail so-called unity government has requested U.S. drone strikes against the Islamic State, while other rival factions have not. Other examples include Syria, Somalia, and Yemen. This context is important because within U.S. war zones the tactical and strategic effects of drone strikes are no different from other types of standoff munitions and in their selectivity may be comparable to the use of Special Operations Forces for targeting. This analysis considers this particular use of the strikes within two competing grand strategies to determine what, deductively, their political effects might be. Doing so places the counterterrorism tactic of drone strikes within its proper perspective as a national-security tool rather than a problem or solution in itself.

[T]he strikes cannot generate significant popular or state support for U.S. interests or policies or do serious political damage to U.S. adversaries.

Analyzing drone strikes in this way determines that they provide little political benefit to the United States. As a tactical use of force against terrorists, attacks by U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles in under-governed spaces without public permission by the state may achieve short-term goals such as leadership decapitation at relatively lower financial and human cost than strikes by crewed craft. Drone strikes can support a handful of partnerships with weak, repressive states facing domestic terrorism or insurgency that the United States believes also pose a threat to itself. But the strikes cannot generate significant popular or state support for U.S. interests or policies or do serious political damage to U.S. adversaries.

These findings derive from consideration of drone strikes through the prism of grand strategy—how states think about their own security. This analysis uses the grand strategic models of restraint and selective engagement because they share a focus on the importance of Eurasia to U.S. interests but challenge one another on the function of international publics in advancing U.S. goals, a topic that plays a major role in the drone strikes debate with significant disagreement over the role of popular outrage and its effects on U.S. security. Restraint places greater emphasis on popular anti-Americanisms, including emotions such as resentment of the United States for its power and dislike of the United States for its foreign-policy choices. Selective engagement, meanwhile, emphasizes the role of states in U.S. and international security rather than popular interests and popular forces.

The grand strategy of restraint is a primarily maritime approach to U.S. security that responds to the volatility of identity politics within other states by reducing the global U.S. land-based military presence. Restraint is in part intended to reduce popular anti-Americanisms that can feed radicalization and terrorism. Contrary to current U.S. foreign policy, a grand strategy of restraint would avoid involvement in the internal politics of other states worldwide, remove most ground forces from other states' territory, and, in particular, step away from efforts to settle intra- and inter-state problems in the Middle East. Restraint does include efforts to reduce the non-state terrorist threat to U.S. interests, but would focus on major threats such as terrorists' acquisition of nuclear weapons, and when it calls for action against terrorist groups, the United States would use Special Operations Forces, airstrikes, and drone strikes, rather than large numbers of ground forces.

Drone strikes play a useful surgical role in a grand strategy of restraint, providing narrow counterterrorism capabilities as one more arrow in the quiver of U.S. standoff weaponry. Strikes are often lower in material and non-material costs than other options. They can defend the United States against the limited threat of plotters far afield, including by killing leaders and facilitators planning to attack the United States, disrupting operations, command and control, training, and rest and recuperation, and destroying supply caches, vehicles, and roads. They can also deter attacks through fear or through denial, as well as deterring potential recruits who might join terrorist groups, and they can punish those who plot against and attack the United States. These defensive and deterrent political effects also apply to the greater threat of terrorist groups attempting to obtain a nuclear device.

Offensively, drone strikes may force terrorists to put their efforts into defense rather than offense, while the relatively limited damage caused by the strikes compared to other stand-off weaponry and sometimes Special Operations raids may prevent the perception of victimization by U.S. bullying that could spur terrorist recruiting. While drone strikes may increase popular anti-Americanism, and may not mitigate friends' concerns about the unconstrained use of U.S. power, the strikes are likely to have fewer and less costly effects than the large land-based overseas U.S. military presence and associated military action that restraint decries.

In a grand strategy of restraint, drone strikes are a political tool to support partners against their adversaries and show that the United States is willing to limit its own power. Yet drone strikes, in underlining U.S. unilateralism and its fearsome power-projection capabilities, may also contribute to cooperation against the United States, or resistance to its demands. Concern about the ethical and human-rights aspects of U.S. drone strikes may drain away goodwill on the part of liberal friends, hindering U.S. diplomatic efforts in other issue areas.

Drone strikes are pinpricks against weak non-state actors that matter little to U.S. security.

Selective engagement is a more muscular and more diplomatically-oriented grand strategy than restraint. Yet it has even less room for drone strikes. In the selective engagement approach to security, U.S. global leadership is based on military primacy and U.S. willingness to use its power to advance others' interests along with its own. Conventional military power buys the United States the diplomatic benefits that may come with the careful exercise of great strength. Drone strikes are pinpricks against weak non-state actors that matter little to U.S. security.

In a world of state actors, where U.S. security rests primarily upon continued peace and prosperity among the Eurasian powers, terrorist groups pose relatively little threat. Unless terrorists obtain WMD and succeed in a grand attack on the homeland, their capability to harm U.S. interests is far more limited than their will. In addition, not all terrorist groups have the will to attack the U.S. homeland or U.S. interests abroad. Concerns about anti-Americanisms and radicalization play a negligible role in selective engagement.

Diplomatically, U.S. policymakers can use the ability to strike on behalf of another to shape partner behavior if they are willing to hold off on potential strikes when politically necessary, even if a strike is militarily possible and desirable. Yet drone strikes undermine efforts to consolidate democracy and protect human rights when policymakers use them to support strongmen. The use of drone strikes, particularly if seen as illegal and unethical, is likely to strain relations with Western partners unless these partners perceive benefit for themselves as well as for the United States. The other side of the coin is that liberal states' normative opposition to drone strikes may provide leverage for those seeking benefits from the United States.

Questions about drone strikes must stretch beyond concerns about anti-Americanism, radicalization, and terrorism to consider the strikes' political utility for broader U.S. interests. This analysis finds that whether one identifies anti-Americanisms as a significant threat to U.S. interests or not, and whether one identifies terrorism as a major threat to the United States or not, the role of drone strikes in assuring U.S. security at home and abroad is quite limited and likely to become more so as counter-drone efforts and others' acquisition of drones reduce U.S. air supremacy, as seen with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and as the United States again faces state rather than non-state adversaries.