Public views drone strikes with other countries’ support as most legitimate

As the military use of aerial drones in Ukraine and other global battlefields increases, a first-of-its kind survey reveals that Americans consider tactical strikes, used with the consent of other nations, to be the most morally legitimate or appropriate.

“We know surprisingly little about the public’s perceptions of what constitutes legitimate drone strikes, despite reoccurring claims that legitimacy is central to the sustainability of drone warfare,” said Paul Lushenko, a doctoral student in the field of international relations and author of “The Moral Legitimacy of Drone Strikes: How the Public Forms Its Judgments,” published Nov. 17 in the Texas National Security Review.

To learn how those judgments are formed, Lushenko conducted an online survey of 555 Americans in March 2021.

The tactical use of a drone with multilateral constraint refers to a strike that is used in a declared theater of operations, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, with the consent of other countries.

“This type of strike represents a compromise between U.S. officials’ preference for strategic strikes with unilateral constraint – take, for example, the Biden administration’s operation that killed al-Qaeda Senior Leader Ayman al Zawahiri in Afghanistan – and the total abandonment of armed and networked drones, which characterizes Germany’s position,” said Lushenko, deputy director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Tech Policy Institute. Strategic strikes with unilateral constraint refer to operations where drones are used as a form of foreign policy without international oversight – essentially the U.S. policy since President George W. Bush authorized the first-known use of an armed drone in 2002.

“This finding does not mean that U.S. officials cannot, or should not, use strikes strategically to address security challenges abroad, especially terrorism,” Lushenko said. “Drones can be effective at reducing the incidence of terrorism both globally and in certain regions and countries. Rather, from a strictly moral position, this finding only suggests that it may be best for U.S. officials to refrain from using drones strategically if strikes do not have the approval and oversight of other countries.”

Lushenko is also a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and a General Andrew Jackson Goodpaster Scholar. 

Survey participants were asked under what conditions they would endorse the use of military drones and Lushenko analyzed the degree to which they referenced the following considerations:

  • If the strikes required a demonstration of physical courage on the battlefield by the attackers rather than being conducted from safe, remote locations.
  • If the strikes protected the lives of soldiers while accomplishing military goals.
  • If the strikes prevented civilian casualties that may result from other aircraft, including bombers and jets.

Lushenko said scholars often relate public attitudes toward drones to one of those three “moral norms.” But the findings empirically validated, for the first time in the scholarship about drone warfare, his hypothesis that Americans take a more complicated view. Respondents applied the norms in combination depending on their view of whether a drone strike was carried out strategically or tactically and whether it was an international effort or the U.S. going it alone.

Because U.S. counterterrorism policy relies heavily on the continued use of drones, Lushenko said policymakers need to take additional steps to build crucial public support for strikes, especially when they breach other countries’ territorial integrity.

“If U.S. officials continue to use drones strategically with unilateral constraint, which appears to be a foregone conclusion given the trajectory of U.S. drone policy across four successive presidential administrations since 2001, they should clearly explain the security benefits, the legality of the strikes, and the oversight measures that are being adopted to protect against civilian casualties,” he said.

Jim Hanchett is assistant dean of communications for the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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