The British military has become the first to deploy tiny drones the size of sparrows on the front lines. According to a report from Sky News, the mini-eyes in the sky, dubbed "Black Hornets," are helicopters approximately 4 inches long that send video and still images to soldiers so they can see risks and enemy locations.
The nanocopters were developed as part of a $31.5 million contract with a Norwegian supplier to produce 140 of the small wonders. That comes out to about $225,000 each.
Despite the small size of the Black Hornets, they represent two of the biggest trends in defense - drones and nanotech. But the bigger question is whether they also hints at a size problem that is bedeviling Western - particularly American - policymakers: whether our ideas are shrinking at roughly the same speed as our technologies.
The move toward smaller-footprint strategies is at the heart of what has become known as the "Obama doctrine," which has some clear advantages over recent alternatives. Using drones, smaller special operations units and even the smallest warriors of all - the electrons that are our troops in cyberwarfare - reduces the risks and costs of overseas interventions, such as those involved in combating terrorists. By reducing risks and costs, we reduce impediments to taking action. This can make for a nimbler, more assertive foreign policy.
As we have seen in places like Pakistan and Yemen, however, by reducing the impediments to action, we increase the likelihood we will violate the sovereignty of other countries even if it means actions in which civilian loss of life takes place.
On the plus side, having offensive capabilities that allow us to deal more effectively with isolated threats from non-state actors makes for a more flexible foreign policy. But it can also create the illusion that just because we are doing something, we are doing enough - or that because we can mitigate risk some of the time, low-risk interventions are always the way to go. Micropolicies relying on small-footprint tactics are often smarter than spare-no-expense, high-stakes, low-return adventures such as Iraq or Afghanistan. But they are not going to be a solution to the really big problems that periodically arise in international affairs.
Consider Syria, the world's worst current humanitarian crisis, with more than 2 million displaced people not only living in horrible conditions but threatening the stability of neighboring countries. Nearly two years and more than 60,000 deaths since the uprising began, the United States and its allies remain wary of intervention, for a lot of good reasons. It is unclear who to bet on among the opposition. It is unclear what approaches might be most effective. Some key players - like the Russians - have been uncooperative, backing Bashar Assad's regime. The international community has not united around a single approach.
In the midst of this, according to a New York Times report last weekend, recently departed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former CIA Director David Petraeus came up with a plan to directly arm the Syrian rebels. The idea apparently had tacit support from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others, but a risk-averse White House scotched the plan. The United States remained on the sidelines even as evidence that the Assad regime was testing Obama's "red lines" regarding chemical weapons movement and use came to light.
Without speaking to the merits of the Clinton-Petraeus plan, the fact that not only was it avoided but that in so doing the Obama White House maintained its consistent opposition to all but the most limited, lowest-risk interventions in the region suggests a divide within even Democratic foreign-policy circles. It seems clear a Hillary Clinton administration would have intervened faster in Syria and also in Libya. The question this raises should be front and center: Is less always more in U.S. foreign policy?
It's good to avoid Iraqs and Afghanistans. But if the message to bad actors is that the United States is now on a "think small" kick in which we'll be hard to provoke into anything more than isolated surgical strikes or the occasional cyberattack, are we actually reducing risks or increasing them? Will we be up to facing big threats, or will we convince ourselves that it is possible to engage the world solely on our terms, with very moderated risks, and not at the same time invite really bad actors to test our resolve? That's a delusion we can no more afford than repeating the over-aggressive mistakes of the George W. Bush years. Chuck Hagel's merits as a potential secretary of defense aside, what we really need is a Goldilocks in the job: someone who understands the problems with much-too-big and much-too-small and will work to find the just-right balance in between.
David Rothkopf is CEO and editor at large of Foreign Policy.