Again and again I run into people on the right and left sides of the political fringe who hold to the bizarre idea that the United States has some sort of international empire because we have troops deployed overseas. While I agree that we have far too many troops in other countries and could save a lot of money in these hard times by bringing some of them home, these deployments certainly don’t seem to fit the characteristics you would expect of troops who are part of an international empire.
The common claim is that we have “700 bases in 130 countries”. That’s almost as many countries as there are member states in the United Nations. Now, the definition of an empire is one nation exercising economic, political and military control over another. If these troops were deployed for that purpose, their role would presumably be to control the governments of those 130 countries, keep the civilian population under control, and protect the vast administrative network of our empire.
Yet if you look at what our troops are doing overseas you see something very different. Conveniently, the Heritage Foundation has compiled historical data on our overseas troop deployments. Foreign Policy in Focus also provides some useful information in a recent report.
The first problem is that to get to this popular figure of “700 bases in 130 countries,” you have to cumulatively add up all of the deployments of the last 50 years and count extremely small deployments and minor facilities which are considered bases even when they have no actual military personnel stationed at them. You have to count as “bases” the the contingents of marine guards at 165 US embassies and smaller consular offices and such things as the hundreds of military golf courses, movie theaters, post exchanges and other recreational facilities. In fact, if you count all the facilities considered “bases” and all the embassies, you get about 860 bases in 165 countries, so the popular figures are a bit out of date.
The truth is that most of these deployments are not really military in character and at any given time the number of significant deployments is much smaller. 20 men guarding an embassy are not building an empire. When you look at deployments of 1000 men or more, you find that there are currently fewer than 20 countries hosting deployments of that size. When you look at deployments of 100-1000 men you find that there are fewer than 30. So rather than 130 countries with significant numbers of US troops in them there are actually only about 40, mostly in Europe and parts of Asia. What’s more, rather than building an empire, these numbers have been steadily declining, and are about half what they were in the 1950s.
In addition, all of these large deployments are the result of mutual defense arrangements which date back for decades where our troops are there at the invitation of and with the cooperation of the local government. The overwhelming majority of our troops are deployed in coordination with the United Nations or NATO or by arrangement with a few major allies like Germany, England and Japan. In many cases, rather than representing some sort of mythical US empire, they are often deployed on behalf of extra-national groups or programs or working in coordination with local forces.
In fact, a great many of these American troops deployed overseas are not even involved in normal military activities, but are engaged in various humanitarian aid programs. In 2006, the US military took part in 556 relief efforts in 99 countries. These efforts on behalf of various international organizations are a major deployment, but they are hardly empire building. They’re things like aiding victims of natural disasters and distributing food aid and medicine in troubled places like Haiti, Georgia and Somalia. Rather than oppressing these nations with our imperial rule, these missions are enormously popular and poll results in disaster-ravaged countries like Indonesia show a substantial increase in pro-American sentiment as a result of our humanitarian activities there.
Yes, we almost certainly have far too many overseas facilities, too many men deployed outside our own borders and are spending way too much money on these efforts. Right now we have about 400,000 troops deployed outside of the US and only about half of them are involved in peacekeeping in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan. Some of the remainder provide support services, but the truth is that we really don’t need 200,000 or more men in Europe and Japan and other friendly countries. In times of economic hardship we could save a lot of money by closing some of those bases. In fact, substantial closures of overseas bases were carried out by the Bush administration and the total number of bases overseas has been reduced over the last 20 years from over 1000 to under 800.
Our overseas military installations and deployments are generally not engaged in anything imperial in character. An empire is not defined by a bunch of troops engaged in humanitarian aid, peacekeeping and security work. It is defined by economic, political and military control of other countries. To have an empire we would need to be controlling and administering foreign territories, running their governments and profiting from their economies, resources and industrial production. While the United States has a nominal presence in hundreds of countries and troops spread far and wide, with facilities to support them, with the exception of the occasional wartime deployment, the overwhelming role of American forces overseas is to provide aid and support and to fulfill treaty obligations and help our allies. Embassy guards, hospital ships, food distribution centers and golf courses are not conquering or plundering or oppressing anyone.
So by all means, let’s close as many overseas bases and bring back as many troops as we can, but let’s do it for the right reasons, not because of the delusion that the United States is an empire.