In an ideal world, the charge that Russia had hacked and released Democratic emails in an attempt to tilt the 2016 presidential election result would have been an opportunity for self-reflection. The US government has interfered dozens upon dozens of times in other countries’ politics, often more successfully and far more violently. Instead of the jingoistic elite and media freakout we got, maybe the outrage US officials and the public felt about Russia’s meddling could have helped them put themselves in these other countries’ shoes, prompting a change in US government behavior.
It’s much the same state of affairs when it comes to China’s alleged spy balloon, which spent the weekend blissfully sailing across US airspace while triggering a round of hairpulling and finger-pointing in Washington.
It was “a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law,” said secretary of state Antony Blinken, a point echoed by numerous other officials, including the bipartisan heads of Congress’s new, Cold War–stoking anti-China committee, who declared that China “should not have on-demand access to American airspace.” The incident “raises questions about how China is navigating its growing position as a global power,” inveighed the New York Times.
In the ensuing maelstrom, Blinken canceled a long-overdue trip to China that would have, ideally, helped mend a strained US-China relationship and restart high-level dialogue between the two. The row has spurred a round of more aggressive anti-China talk and militaristic recriminations among the Washington establishment, including self-parodic talk of a “balloon gap.” This is, sadly, hardly surprising given the state of US-China relations.
But in a saner world, it should have produced some introspection.
We don’t firmly know yet what the balloon is, what it was doing, and why. The New York Times acknowledged this uncertainty, reporting on analyses that the balloon’s flight could well have been an accident or carried out without the consent of China’s civilian leadership, while even the hawkish Center for Security and International Studies has said that “the most likely explanation is that this is an errant weather balloon that went astray.”
Still, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the prevailing assumption is the right one (it very well could be), and that Beijing deliberately sent the balloon into US airspace to spy. In this case, US officials would be justified in strenuously objecting to what they call a grave violation.
Then it’s worth asking ourselves: How might other countries and populations feel — and what kind of effect might it have on how foreign people and governments feel about the United States — when the US government does the same thing, only much more regularly and with deadly results?
Under the US drone program, the US military routinely violates other countries’ airspace and sovereignty — not by sending spy balloons, but flying robots armed with missiles. Sometimes, as with Somalia, it does this with the express permission of the country’s government. Sometimes it’s a gray area, as when the policy was so despised in Pakistan that its government made a public show of objecting while secretly giving the US military the go-ahead. And other times, it does so regardless of how either a country’s population or its government feels, as with Afghanistan, which Washington continues to drone bomb despite having withdrawn ground troops in 2021, or with Yemen, which has been on the receiving end of nearly four hundred US airstrikes this century.
In the two decades since it began, the US drone program has incinerated whole families, wedding parties, even funerals for victims of past drone strikes. So terrible is the fear that one of the United States’ killer robots will come out of nowhere and kill them or someone they love that whole swaths of populations in countries targeted by drones suffer from mass trauma, experiencing fainting, nightmares, insomnia, and other symptoms in anticipation of airborne death.
If you live in one of these countries, an occasional spy balloon listlessly floating by sounds great by comparison. In fact, drones aren’t even as bad as it gets for those on the receiving end of the US military arsenal. For Syrians, missiles launched from United States and other countries’ fighter jets have become a semi-regular occurrence, not to mention the other violations of territorial integrity and sovereignty they’re treated to. A 2021 study determined that combined, US drone and airstrikes had killed a total of at least twenty-two thousand civilians since the September 11 attacks in nearly a hundred thousand strikes.
As Jake Werner put it, if it does end up being a spy balloon, nothing good will come from exaggerating “the banal and universal behaviors of all major states as a uniquely sinister characteristic of the antagonist alone.” It’s both a sign of, and contribution to, the concerningly spiraling tensions between the world’s two largest economies.
Far more productive would be for US officials to use this as a learning experience, to understand how it feels when one country violates another’s airspace and sovereignty, and to rethink their military’s own, even worse, violations, and the damage they do to the United States’ global image.