In human history, no state has maintained as many bases around the world as the United States, experts say.
World history has been dominated by wars, invasions, armed rebellions and other military engagements. From the Westphalian treaties of 1648, which were instrumental in creating the political nucleus of nation-states, to the two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century, military power has been one of the main determinants of international borders and global order.
The emergence of American global dominance has been strongly tied to its unparalleled military power and its unprecedented expansion across the world, encircling the planet with its military bases.
Edward Erickson, a former American military officer and a retired Professor of Military History from the Department of War Studies at the Marine Corps University, who was deployed to various US bases during multiple combat tours, sees foreign policy as the real reason behind Washington’s big overseas presence.
“During the height of the Cold War, over a half million Americans served overseas,” Erickson tells TRT World. “This was a function of our foreign policy which was called‘Containment’ that surrounded the Soviet Union on all sides with American bases,” he says.
“Historically, however, both the British and French Empires maintained numerically larger forces outside of their home countries as military garrisons necessary to guard and control their empires. But it is fair to say that no country in history (that I know of) has maintained such a large number of bases in foreign countries around the globe as the United States,” says Erickson, who is now also a professor of international relations at Antalya Bilim University.
David Vine, professor of anthropology at the American University, who recently published his latest book, the United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State, thinks similarly to Erickson.
“It’s very safe to say that the US has more foreign military bases than any country, people or empire in world history,” Vine tells TRT World.
This exceptional global expansion has long triggered a debate in different intellectual and political circles over whether the US is just another empire like the one run by the Romans, despite being a democratic state.
Some experts think that long before World War II and the Cold War, the US had already been on the path of becoming an empire.
“The United States has been an empire since its independence from Britain. First, as a very small and growing empire, but its founders designed it that way and over time the United States expanded dramatically across North America,” says Vine.
Vine refers to how the first original 13 colonies of Britain, which were located on the East Coast, established the US, eventually expanding to the West Coast within a century. America had also acquired vast territories from Russia, France, Spain and Mexico by either waging wars or through peaceful means, like buying lands just like it purchased the states of Louisiana and Alaska.
The country’s continental expansionism emerged as a result of an intense political debate in the early 19th century. The defenders, like John L. O'Sullivan, an American columnist and editor, believed that Americans have a “divine destiny”, coining the term Manifest Destiny to justify territorial conquest and the forceful removal of Native Americans and others from their homelands.
After WWII, concepts like Manifest Destiny have been used to justify the global expansion of the US across the world in the name of defending democracy.
“The US from its founding was an expansionist country and its leaders pursued expansionist policy and strategy. That took different forms in history,” Vine tells TRT World.
“In the post-World War II period, the most dramatic expansion has been in the construction and occupation of US military bases in other countries. This really began during WWII and became a strategy during the Cold War to confront the Soviet Union. That strategy has remained in place to this day despite the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War three decades ago,” Vine says.
“In short, the US military bases abroad have become a major tool of imperial power the United States has used to put pressure on other countries and to try to maintain dominance in the world,” Vine observes.
Washington keeps troops numbered around 150,000 to 200,000 abroad, deployed to around 800 military bases across more than 150 countries, according to different sources.
Following the Allied victory in WWII, Washington decided to maintain its military presence in the then-enemy countries like Germany, Italy and Japan, where it has more troops than any other countries except South Korea. After defeating the nations, the US wanted to keep troops there to “contain” the communist Soviet threat, according to Erickson.
Interestingly, heavy US military presence is located not in countries like France or Britain, their allies in WWI, but in states which fiercely fought with the American military. The US military footprint in South Korea has been also related to the Korean War.
Despite former President Trump’s thinking of global withdrawal, both mainstream Republicans and Democrats continue to defend the maintenance of US global military dominance. Among them, this sentiment is “almost like a religious belief”, according to Vine.
Will the US global military presence diminish?
Despite being the world’s most powerful economy, even the US may not be able to maintain its huge global military presence. Erickson, the American military expert, explains this is as a result of “the rest of the world catching up economically”.
“The United States can no longer afford the enormous costs of maintaining a permanent military presence around the world. Everyone I know in the uniformed services believes this. In the future, we will have to rely more on our allies and friends,” says Erickson.
“A current strategy called 'offshore balancing' is becoming popular in American defense thinking, which envisions American forces on ships (or in aircraft) that would come ashore for limited periods or intervene selectively when American interests are directly threatened,” he views.
“This is the future for my country, I think. We will have to bring our forces home and close more bases,” he adds.
Vine, the American academic, also surmises that his country needs to diminish its global military footprint. He has different reasons for that. He says that its foreign military bases have brought so much “damage” to host nations. Half of them are located in autocratic states run by undemocratic regimes and often by dictators, he adds.
“The presence of US bases is actually supporting these governments. In effect, the US bases are preventing the spread of democracy and are often complicit in human rights abuses that host nations governments are committing,” Vine says.
“My hope is — I think there is a growing number of people across the political spectrum in the US, who agrees with my position — the US has far too many military bases abroad. It needs to begin closing significant numbers of these bases because they are not protecting the US,” the professor says.
Vine believes that the coronavirus pandemic has also shown the US its “misplaced priorities” regarding its enormous defence budget. Washington has invested hundreds of millions of dollars every year in its military and “in war”, while neglecting the wellbeing and health of its people, he says.
The nation’s health system, as well as some other necessary public infrastructure related to housing and education, have been “underfunded because the US government has poured so much money into military and war,” he says.
“I think people are beginning to realise this mistake and are pushing to change this distribution of resources,” he concludes.