Last week on June 19th President Obama stood on the eastern side of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to announce that he would reduce the US deployed strategic nuclear arsenal by a third to approximately 1,000 weapons. His announcement confirmed rumors that the Obama administration plans to obviate a difficult treaty ratification process like the one the administration went through with the New Start Treaty in 2010. Although the reductions will be undertaken in concert with Russia, Obama is seeking a pact, not a treaty. This a significant change from business as usual, but it didn’t make much of an impact on the German public. The coverage of Obama’s visit was dominated by questions from reporters about the PRISM program–the US National Security Administration’s post-industrial spying machine.
The heavy symbolism of his return to the place where President Kennedy made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech 50 years ago speaks to Obama’s desire for nuclear reductions to be remembered as one of his signature accomplishments. However, rather than being remembered for his heroic efforts to end the indiscriminate targeting of populations with nuclear weapons, Obama’s legacy may lie in his administrations perfection of the practice of precision targeting–the ability to scan large amounts of data and pick out the ‘high value individuals.’
I happened to be in Germany at the time of Obama’s speech visiting Paderborn for the conference on Tracking, Targeting and Predicting. Presentations at the conference fell into one of two groups: papers on mechanisms of public data collection and its manipulation, and papers on the role of perception and survellience in military training and operations. There were an impressive range of topics covered: the history of visual perception and the “martial gaze,” DHS Fusion Centers, the Revolution in Military Affairs, biometric identification techniques, public health data tracking, US survellience of internet data, and the mania of “Drone-a-rama.” I presented a paper I am co-authoring on US Joint Special Operations and “zone warfare.” In addition to the German presenters, there were participants from the US, England and Canada. Most of the case studies focused on US programs and behaviors. There were no presentations on nuclear weapons.
My expereince at the conference was consistent with my past impressions of Germany. Every time I visit I am always struck by how different the center of gravity is in public conversations about national security. Germans have a different perception of risk than Americans and a stronger aversion to the language and practice of targeting. Under Angela Merkel Germany has asked the US to remove its Cold-War era nuclear weapons from its terrirory, began the process of phasing out nuclear energy, maintained the value of personal privacy as a social good, and continued to express zero-tolerance for torture of any kind. In contrast, Obama’s nuclear reductions appear modest, his justifications of the PRISM program with his back turned to ‘the West’ provokes the wrong kind of Cold War symbolism, and targeted killings continue to proliferate.
There was something incredibly uniting about the radical equality of the threat to humanity posed by nuclear war, and President Obama renewed a collective sense of purpose in countering that threat when he held out the promise of ‘a world free of nuclear weapons’ in his 2009 speeach in Prague–especially since most of us have lived our entire lives as “countervalue targets” in a nuclear war plan. However, it turns out that we are now targets of a different kind. In constrast to the collective threat of nuclear war, we are caught up in a general cultural trend toward the use of social data to single out individuals based on demographic data and past patterns of behavior–from identifying terrorists to the Obama campaign’s “precision targeting of persuadable voters.” Usually we think nothing of it, but presiding over this shift in security culture is likely to be the defining feature of Obama’s presidency. We are all ‘high value inviduals’ in at least one of Obama’s targeting plans.