The Evolution of the Base Nation How the US Military Lost Its International Appeal


The United States is the preponderant military power in the world today, with unparalleled capacity to act militarily anywhere in the world. The end of the Second World War and the dawn of a new international order saw the emergence of an outward-facing United States of America. This gave rise to increased multilateral commitments and military expansionism and, in turn, has contributed to the ever-evolving debate on the role and extent of US military presence on the globe today. While some believe the US military to be an integral part of current global structural foundations, others believe it is anachronistic and obsolete. 

The rise of the Base Nation

During the nascent years of the American state, American leaders and policy- makers pursued and maintained the policy of unilaterality, often referred to as “isolationism”. This notion, prevalent since the revolutionary war, was crystallised by the first US President, George Washington, in his farewell address: “…it is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” Subsequently, the third US President, Thomas Jefferson, also stipulated in his 1801 inaugural address that “…peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none,” should be America’s clear course of action. Both presidents believed the strategic geographical advantage of the US provided an opportunity to cultivate an avant-garde nation in seclusion.

The nineteenth century saw the US gradually expand and gain clout across North America. In 1823, President James Monroe delivered a message to the US Congress, declaring that any attempt by external powers “to extend their system to any portion of [the western] hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.” This speech would later be known as the “Monroe Doctrine”, and it encapsulated a combination of unbridled assertiveness with careful restraint.

However, by the dawn of the twentieth century, the nation “had more than arrived on the world stage” and President Theodore Roosevelt began to push for an interventionist policy, announcing that circumstances “may force the United States, however reluctantly… to the exercise of an international police power.” In the report, “Remaking the World: Progressivism and American Foreign Policy”, Christopher Burkett argues that, by this statement, Roosevelt insinuated that the “United States must take the lead in “policing” the affairs—both foreign and domestic—of Latin American nations and intervene when necessary to prevent circumstances that might invite European action in the Western Hemisphere”.

Roosevelt described this new step as a “corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine. According to Burkett, The US engaged in what it termed “police actions” in Latin American nations, on its own accord and without European assistance. The US evolved steadily, and, by 1917, the manoeuvrings in Europe threatened its security, and it was dragged into the First World War. The State believed that its policy of non-entanglement was the key to its prosperity, and it decided against joining the newly founded League of Nations and further guarded its unilaterality. Nevertheless, according to Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics, “the Second World War changed everything” and the key decision makers began to appreciate the concern that internal security could be jeopardised by events unfolding across the Atlantic.

Fundamentally, external security threats were instrumental in expanding US military commitments. Europe and Asia were decimated by the war, and at the cessation of hostilities, the US emerged “the World’s most powerful industrial giant, responsible for 50% of the world’s total output”. It also became a preponderant superpower and steered global actions to prevent recourse to such conflict in future.

In the course of the war, the “base nation” began to take shape. In 1940, the British were desperately in need of more warships, and the Americans obliged, but with the clause that the British would hand over most of their “prized assets”. The British acquiesced, and almost every British naval base was surrendered in what was christened the “Destroyer for Bases Agreement”., With the surrender off Japan ensured in August, 1945, the U.S seized the opportunity to build bases across the Pacific, from the East China Sea to Guam.

In addition, the Americans offered aid to Europe for its rehabilitation and reconstruction, and then led the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, arguably to protect its allies against the threat of Communism. Notably, NATO pledged the US to the “peacetime defence of western Europe”, deviating from the approach of the founding fathers. The US expanded its military presence with access to military installations of other NATO founding members such as Italy, Portugal and Denmark. The result was the creation of the widest ranging alliance system, which included pacts made with Australia and New Zealand in 1951 and, military commitments to the South-East Asia Treaty Organization founded in 1954. The US also established the American-led Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in the Middle East, coupled with a steady acquisition of numerous military bases across the Atlantic and Indian Ocean.

The international order evolved and the Soviet Union imploded, leaving the United States as the sole superpower in the world. Today, the US retains “nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad—from giant “Little Americas” to small radar facilities. Britain, France and Russia, by contrast, have about 30 foreign bases combined”. This has spurred debate in scholarly and policy circles as to the constructive nature and need for such manifestations; reflecting the ever-ambivalent tension “between the desire to withdraw [the US militarily] from foreign problems and the belief America should serve as the dominant force in world affairs”.

The US Military Today

The rise of the modern globe-straddling military structure of the US can be expounded through an analysis of power, particularly within the domain of “structural realism”. According to Robert Crawford, cited in Maysam Behravesh’s 2010 essay, “Realism and Neorealism: An Investigative Overview”, “it is the structure of the system as a whole that is the major determinant of state behaviour.” Crawford maintains that the inherent anarchy that dominates inter-state competition necessitates certain nations to “stress the monolithic nature of the state, [and] act on the basis of its unchanging rationality to pursue national interests”. Such thinking is a fundamental departure from the previously dominant “classical realism” propounded by Hans Morgenthau in 1948, which basically examines power through the lens of human nature. Morgenthau noted that “the struggle for power at the international level is largely the result of man’s urge to dominate others,” and believed state interest was a culmination of man’s lust for power on the international stage.

The embrace and dominance of neo-realism has seen the United States evolve to wield an immense military capacity to deter others and project its power on the world stage. This is the primary driver of US overseas military expansion and the United States’ current position in the global structure.

Furthermore, the US military is the most generously funded military on the planet. Its budget has steadily inclined since the Cold War, and today, according to Nicholas Davies in a 2016 Huffington Post article, the US receives “more funding than the 10 largest militaries in the world combined”. Davies further notes that since “President George W. Bush, the base budget steadily rose from $287 billion in fiscal year 2001 to $513 billion in fiscal year 2009, and this increase continued in President Obama’s first term, reaching $530 billion in fiscal year 2012.”

In addition, some have argued if the US maintains such trajectory, by 2022, the budget will be 17 per cent higher than it was 15 years ago. Arguably, such astronomical sustenance of the military-industrial complex is wholly unnecessary for national security maintenance or even necessary at all, particularly as such funds could easily be channelled to more constructive issues. For instance, as of December 31 2010, the US owed 80 per cent of the United Nations member’s arrears to the Regular Budget of $348 million. Granted, the UN may not be the ideal vehicle to address numerous issues and may need to revamp bureaucratic concerns, but it is concerning that the US can incur such monumental military costs, compared to its funding of universal initiatives such as fighting poverty, battling climate change, and improving global sanitation.

Also, in recent times, debates persist within the US as to the nature of receding spending on important sectors like education (a key priority for any nation regardless of levels of development). Nonetheless, opposing claims consistently reinforce the perceived benefits of defence spending in sustaining the American economy and civilians, rather than exclusively military apparatus. Nick Schwellenbach, however, has highlighted that a disparate share of US public funds is spent on Research and Development, and technological innovation than on labour costs, and that more of these funds are spent outside the American economy to maintain presence abroad.

The Costs of a Global Military Presence

Growing inequality, a huge budget deficit, and stalling economic growth are not the right conditions to justify excessive spending to maintain military bases abroad. Furthermore, these issues effectively discount funding infrastructure and human capital initiatives. Analysts have also revealed “for every dollar invested in education programs, society benefits to the tune of $8.60, about half of which comes from increased earnings for children when they grow up.” The above instances elucidate the opportunity costs of US military spending are indeed significant.

The United States’ strategic nature of maintaining alliances and military bases across the world has fostered a culture of military intervention and retaliation, even in cases where diplomacy would have sufficed. For instance, the US launched “Operation Urgent Fury” in the wake of increased communist influence in 1983 and a power struggle in the Caribbean island of Grenada. According to Stephen Kinzer, the Reagan administration “never made any attempt to negotiate with Grenada’s leaders” and was adamant to pursue military action, despite underwhelming diplomatic support and the United Nations condemning the invasion as a “flagrant violation of international law”. We can, thus, appreciate how military preponderance encourages an American culture of military intervention and de-emphasises compromise.

In addition, military presence has propagated anti-Americanism across the globe. According to John Glaser in Time Magazine, local resentment over the presence of foreign military bases can linger for generations. He adds that, in 1991, the Philippine Senate “assailed [US military presence] as a vestige of colonialism and an affront to Philippine sovereignty,” and President Corazon C. Aquino ordered their full withdrawal. In June 2016, 65,000 Okinawans in Japan protested in the streets against US military presence.

Military-fuelled anti-Americanism has also been known to, sometimes, manifest in extreme ways. Far from ensuring national security, US military presence across the globe has, perhaps, even fostered a culture of militarism that has led to repercussions on home soil. For instance, the rise in US terrorist threats in recent years is often linked to US intervention in the Gulf States and the establishment of military bases in Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.

To a large extent, it can also be argued that the global presence of the US military has contributed to global and regional stability, and has dissuaded many nations from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. However, while nations such as South Korea and Japan have relied on U.S. guarantees and curtailed weapons proliferation, “those same guarantees” writes Glaser, “can provoke nuclear proliferation in other regional actors, like North Korea”. The argument for non-proliferation is further contradicted by the acquisition of nuclear weapons by staunchly allied nations such as the United Kingdom, Israel and France, in spite of the overwhelming nearby US support.

Additionally, US presence often emboldens weak allies, creating “moral hazard”. For instance, in August 2008, Georgia launched military operations against Russia, and the Russians responded twofold. The five-day incident left over 300 people mortally wounded, and displaced over 100,000. Though Georgia is not a member of NATO, it is a US ally and was offered membership into the alliance at the 20th NATO Summit held in April 2008 in Bucharest. The US, consequently, bolstered its military operations in the Black Sea during the crisis. If Georgia were a member of NATO, the US—under the “entanglement” (that is Article V of the NATO Treaty)—would have had to risk a nuclear war to protect Georgia’s sovereignty. A scathing E.U. report on the Georgia-Russia conflict stated: “[One] has to consider the impact of… a small neighbour’s penchant for overplaying its hand and acting in the heat of the moment”. Such entanglements and commitments by the US risk its entry into unnecessary skirmishes, conflicts, and ultimately wars, and threaten global and national security.

Furthermore, the development of modern technology has transformed warfare and the military establishment. In the past, it could take months to move supplies and troops across vast distances, but modern technology has made such issues obsolete. According to John Glaser, “lighter ground forces can deploy by air from the United States almost as quickly as they can from within a region” and, he further contends, “long-range bombers can fly missions up to 9,000 miles, and after that they can be refuelled in the air, reducing the need to have in-place forces abroad.” Modern technology has provided sizable advantages in ensuring homeland security, challenging the need for bases scattered across the globe.

In Short…

The international system has evolved tremendously, and the current global structure is anchored on norms and values propagated by the United States. But of what relevance is the United States’ vast, global military presence? As Richard Haass, current president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, recently expressed, “The biggest threat to the United States comes not from abroad but from within… shortcomings here at home directly threaten America’s ability to project power and exert influence overseas, to compete in the global marketplace, to generate the resources needed to promote the full range of US interests abroad, and to set a compelling example that will influence the thinking and behaviour of others.”

This quote encapsulates the essence of this essay: preponderant US military presence and commitments are unsustainable means of maintaining national and global security, and if consistently pursued, could result in widespread calamity⎈