- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Earlier this week, on April 19, 2011 at 8:11 p.m., Skynet became self-aware and independent. Two days later, it launched its nuclear attack on the human race. From that point forward, our future really has depended more on John Connor than it has on Barack Obama.
At least, that’s the geek’s eye view of the universe and of the milestone dates passed this week by Terminator fans everywhere.
What a joke.
Except that also on April 21, 2011, it was announced that President Obama has authorized the use of unmanned robot aircraft to patrol the skies of Libya, blasting our opponents into oblivion in scenes that will seem eerily familiar to James Cameron fans everywhere. The next day, 25 people were killed half a world away in Pakistan by another U.S. drone attack, stirring once again Pakistani anger over America’s ability to use squadrons of super-sophisticated unmanned high tech aircraft supported by orbiting networks of U.S. satellite technology to lay waste to primitive mud villages. Just a month earlier, 40 Pakistanis were killed in an attack in North Waziristan that triggered the last round of Pakistani protests against U.S. tactics.
While the real U.S. Skynet may not seem as nefarious as Cameron’s fictional concoction — so far it has not used nuclear weapons, for example — in many respects it is worse. Because while in Cameron’s vision the attacks against humans were carried out by a bloodless, soulless enemy run amok, in reality the attacks represent an effort by actual human beings to use technology to destroy other human beings without actually putting the attackers at risk. While this may be the ultimate in warfare, the over-the-horizon silver bullet that assures the safety of the man or woman pulling the trigger, it is also an approach to warfare that contains not one but several moral hazards.
The first hazard is that if war can be waged without apparent human cost to the attacker, it is clearly more likely to be undertaken. That such a strategy is really one that is primarily available to rich nations attacking poor ones only compounds the problem. But another moral hazard is that such attacks could easily become the first option of indecisive leaders, exactly as cruise missiles have also been in the recent past. It allows such leaders to appear strong, to flex their muscles but to have very limited downside. That such approaches are really only good for limited purposes — assassinations, destroying specific targets, adding a pyrotechnic flourish to a rhetorical argument — is likely to be ignored or downplayed, as is already the case in Libya. The risk is that unlike nuclear weapons which actually are less likely to be used because the costs of unleashing them are so high, unmanned, over-the-horizon weapons are far more likely to be used because the costs are so low — even when they are not likely to be terribly effective.
Thus, while Cameron’s vision of a world devastated by a war between men and machines is as far-fetched as the idea that Arnold Schwarzenegger could either have a lead role in a movie or, more bizarrely, translate such a role into a successful political career, the reality of America’s Skynet is not just more unsettling because it is real but because it offers the possibility of a world in which developed nations are both able to and more inclined to impose their will on poor ones because they can do so with very limited downside risk. It could be that in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Libya we are seeing harbingers of a kind of war-making that is likely to spread widely and pose ethical conundrums that as of yet are hardly being debated or acknowledged here in Washington.. also known as Skynet Central. (In the movie, Skynet Central was in San Francisco. But, Nancy Pelosi is here now, so do your own math.)