America’s military presence abroad has prompted some unprecedented debates ever since Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Although his presidency didn’t pan out to be as revolutionary as some advocates of restraint wanted it to be, it still opened up necessary conversations about some of the US’s alliances. In particular, Trump raised questions about these alliances and if they still had any relevance during the 21st century.
His successor, Joe Biden has not really shaken things up a bit. However, Biden was able to complete a withdrawal, albeit in a chaotic manner, which involved the US leaving behind Bagram Air Base — the most prominent military facility the US set up in Afghanistan.
Doug Bandow, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, brought up an interesting point. Despite the closure of this base, Bandow noted that “some 750 American military facilities remain open in 80 nations and territories around the world. No other country in human history has had such a dominant presence.”
Bandow drew upon a comparison to Great Britain (in its imperial prime), which the US is often likened to as far as historical superpowers go, as a way to show how massive the US’s military presence abroad is. The Cato Institute Senior Fellow observed the following:
Great Britain was the leading colonial power, but its army was small. London had to supplement its own troops with foreign mercenaries, as in the American Revolution. In wars with great powers Britain provided its allies with financial subsidies rather than soldiers.
In addition, Bandow compared other empires to the US:
Previous empires, such as Rome, Persia, and China, were powerful in their own realms but had little reach beyond. The latter never reached outside Asia. Persia was twice halted by the Greek city states. As great as Rome became, its writ never went much beyond the Mediterranean, with Central Europe, North Africa, and the Mideast its boundaries.
There’s always a large degree of fear-mongering among the foreign policy chattering classes about the US losing its status as the world’s sole superpower. However, when we analyze things soberly and objectively, we see that the US remains far and away the world’s pre-eminent power. Bandow pointed to a study that David Vine, Patterson Deppen, and Leah Bolger published at the Quincy Institute detailing the US’s overall military presence. In short, the US remains the big dog on the international stage.
For example, America has almost triple the amount of bases as embassies and consulates. Similarly, the US has triple the amount of military bases as all other countries put together.The UK has 145 military facilities. Russia has around two to three dozen. On the other hand, China has just five military bases.
While the number of US military bases has fallen since the fall of the Soviet Union, the number of nations with American military bases has increased by twofold. One thing that the authors of the Quincy Institute noted is that the US is “as willing to station forces in undemocratic as democratic countries.” This is especially true when it comes to the US’s strategic partners in the Persian Gulf, which are largely monarchies. Because the US has made containing Iran a major part of its grand strategy, it has had to make strange bedfellows with these monarchical governments.
According to the Quincy study, this entire base structure costs roughly $55 billion. When increased personnel expenses are taken into account, the base costs balloon up to $80 billion.
There has been growing opposition to US military bases from areas such as Okinawa, Japan and even countries like Italy. However, other countries like Germany don’t want the US to leave because of the economic benefits they derive from having an American military presence in the country. Plus, with Germany under the US’s security umbrella, Germany does not need to worry about spending for its own defense and instead uses that money to fund its generous welfare state.
Though Vine makes a compelling case that the costs associated with the US’s vast network of military bases goes beyond economics. Vine explained:
These bases are costly in a number of ways: financially, politically, socially, and environmentally. US bases in foreign lands often raise geopolitical tensions, support undemocratic regimes, and serve as a recruiting tool for militant groups opposed to the US presence and the governments its presence bolsters. In other cases, foreign bases are being used and have made it easier for the United States to launch and execute disastrous wars, including those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.
Bandow is correct in illustrating how America’s military presence abroad has motivated terrorist entities to attack it. For example, in the Middle East, groups like Al-Qaeda took issue with the bombing of Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion of the country. On top of that, Islamists were enraged by the military presence in Saudi Arabia, which many viewed as a sacrilegious action taking place in territory that is deemed holy.
The US’s military footprint in the Middle East made it easy for terrorist organizations to recruit and also fueled other forms of anti-American backlash. By having more bases abroad, the temptation for the US to enter a new conflict becomes even greater. The Quincy study demonstrated how these bases justify a prolonged presence abroad and also make it easier for the US to launch military interventions:
Since 1980, US bases in the greater Middle East have been used at least 25 times to launch wars or other combat actions in at least 15 countries in that region alone. Since 2001, the US military has been involved in combat in at least 25 countries worldwide.
In all honesty, the US needs to retrench. Most of the countries it has a significant military presence in (Germany, Italy, and Japan) are more than capable of defending themselves or at least be able to finance a modern militarization program. The US should stop coddling these countries and start withdrawing troops stationed there.
If anything, the US should be deploying more troops at its southern border — an area where there’s real national security threats and a pressing national interest that must be handled — and help its Latin American neighbors get stabilized. Plus, the US must recalibrate its foreign policy and start focusing inward due to its massive domestic problems — that span from growing inflation to crumbling infrastructure.
Honestly, we shouldn’t expect the current ruling class to ever consider this. Any kind of policy that benefits Americans and not some narrow interest group is something these people will never consider.