The Duck of Minerva

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“Norm Anti-preneurship” and Russia’s [Reported] Use of Autonomous Weapons

April 28, 2014

robojeepThe New Scientist reports that Russia has announced it will deploy fully autonomous lethal robots as guards around missile bases. Several countries already have autonomous sentry technology (the US, Israel and South Korea) but [UPDATED: if this report is accurate, it suggests Russia might be the first country to announce] it will openly deploy such weapons without a human in the loop.

The reported announcement comes at an important moment in international norm-building efforts to regulate the deployment of fully autonomous weapons. At the behest of a global civil society campaign, states party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons will convene in Geneva for an “Experts Meeting” on the subject of rule-sets for fully autonomous weaponry. Given that this issue has heretofore been treated as a “pre-emptive” campaign meant to forestall the deployment of weapons before “fiction becomes fact,” it will be interesting to see how these developments in Russia – [UPDATED: who, if these reports are true, could be playing the “norm anti-preneur” in this area among many] – might affect global sentiment on the urgency of clearer rules.

By “anti-preneurship” I borrow from the intriguing title of an ISA Working Group I happened upon at the conference this year. Though no scholarship has yet come out defining the term (that I can find? please leave in comments if you know of some) I am using it to describe the efforts of powerful actors to forestall the development of or redirect intersubjective understandings of international human security norms to suit their own political interests.

Examples of this behavior in the norms literature include the Bush Administration’s effort to reinterpret / reconstitute the norm against torture: Ryder McKeown has argued this is a kind of “norm entrepreneurship” though the concept of anti-preneurship probably fits better as the idea is not necessarily to build a new norm but to shift an existing norm’s meaning to its moral opposite. Quite possibly, Russia’s invocation of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine might be understood this way as well: rather than merely a smoke-screen for Machiavellan irredentism, it could be an active effort by Russia to either reconstitute the R2P norm to its own liking or (more likely) weaken it through what it understands the West will interpret as a bad example – the very bad example Russia has been warning of for years in its oppositional stance to the R2P norm as a threat to the UN Charter rules.

I think another example of “anti-preneurship” may be to strategically undermine the development of new norms in the first place. Some of this behavior occurs when states or transnational stakeholders contest the development of norms, a dialectic about which Clifford Bob has written and which will no doubt occur at the Geneva Experts’ Meeting on Autonomous Weapons, as well as in every other international forum where this debate will percolate until such time as international rules are codified. But some measure of this also occurs when states attempt, through their practice, to establish a behavior as normative prior to the development of rules against it, as a mechanism for shifting the start point of the discussion.

Does such behavior then strengthen or weaken the hand of human security norm entrepreneurs? It is reasonable to hypothesize that either effect might occur. I don’t know if we have good evidence one way or another, but the Russian deployment of autonomous weapons in the lead up to this set of important international meetings may be a good test case to beg the question. And the concept of international norm “anti-preneurialism” would be a good dynamic on which scholars of norms in IR might more carefully set their analytical sights.

UPDATE: This post has been updated to reflect the uncertainty about the exact nature of Russia’s announcement re. autonomous sentry guards. As discussed in the thread, neither the New Scientist nor the links to the sources it provides contain quotations from a Russian official, so it is unclear whether Russia is in fact planning to openly deploy them for lethal purposes without a human operator, or to keep a human in the loop for targeting purposes. Therefore this is not “clearly” an example of the Russian “anti-preneurialism” I was writing about: perhaps it is, but perhaps not. While in my mind the jury is out, Mark Gubrud has a great post at his blog making the argument that Russia is in fact more or less aligned with other great powers in its approach to autonomous weapons. Check it out. If so, then although the wider point in the post may stand, Russia’s stance on AWS may not be a good example of it. Instead, it could simply be an example of the media misreporting on a political development.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.