A Defense Against Threats or a Cause of Them? The United States’ Global Military Presence

by John Whitehead



The United States’ military presence extends across the earth. U.S. military personnel are located in hundreds of U.S. bases and outposts in dozens of countries around the globe. Like the U.S. military’s enormous size (about 1.3 million troops) and enormous expense (over $700 billion per year), American troops’ international presence demonstrates the U.S. military establishment’s immense power. However, this power exacts a cost on the communities where American troops are stationed. Also, the far-flung U.S. military presence might be creating threats even as it supposedly protects against them.


The Defense Department reports that as of September 2021, over 170,000 military personnel (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines) are permanently assigned overseas. The United States has more than 500 overseas sites under its jurisdiction which are associated with the U.S. military. These sites are located in 40 different countries. The U.S. military has an additional 111 sites located in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam. These numbers were reported in 2018, the last year the Defense Department provided such information.


Such numbers are probably underestimated. A Quincy Institute analysis of America’s overseas military presence says Defense Department figures are incomplete: for example, the Pentagon claims to have only one military base in Africa, despite evidence of many more such installations. The Quincy analysis estimates that the United States has roughly 750 base sites across 80 foreign countries and U.S. territories.


U.S. troops can also be present in other countries even when a U.S.-affiliated base or similar site is not. The Defense Department identifies overseas personnel as present in over 170 countries—far more than where acknowledged military sites are located. The base-independent troops may be performing tasks such as guarding U.S. embassies or assisting other nations’ armed forces.


U.S. military sites overseas come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Sites such as Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, or Camp Humphreys in South Korea are the equivalent of small cities, complete with hospitals, housing, and similar amenities. Sites can also be airfields, ports, warehouses, or housing for drones or surveillance aircraft.


The United States established its first permanent overseas base over 100 years ago at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. World War II and the Cold War led to a vast expansion in the U.S. military presence overseas. After the Cold War, this presence diminished, but it remains significant. The United States still has far more overseas military sites than Russia, China, Britain, or France. Such an overseas military presence supposedly allows the United States to deter adversaries, reassure allies, and respond quickly to threats and crises. Yet the U.S. military presence fosters its own share of dangers.


Military facilities create environmental pollution. The U.S. military uses products, most notably fire-fighting foam, containing chemicals known as PFAS. These chemicals are linked to cancer, developmental delays in children (both inside and outside the womb), and other health problems. PFAS have contaminated communities around U.S. military sites; for example, in 2016, authorities in Okinawa detected high PFAS levels in the island’s drinking water—water used by 450,000 Okinawans as well as U.S. service personnel and their families. Other military-related sites in Okinawa have been contaminated with lead, asbestos, and other toxins. Such contamination is not limited to overseas bases, either. Unacceptably high PFAS levels have been found in drinking water or groundwater on or close to 126 military sites within the United States.


Military facilities also pose another danger to local communities: sexual assault by military personnel. Okinawa again provides a grim example. One infamous case is the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by U.S. troops. The feminist group Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence estimates hundreds of people have been rape victims since the U.S. military presence on the island began in 1945. Marine court-martial records show that 69 Marines were convicted in Okinawa during 2015-2020 for sexual offenses involving minors, including actual or attempted sexual assault (whether the targeted children were Okinawans or the children of other service personnel is unknown).


Further, U.S. military sites may endanger U.S. troops or other Americans by provoking hostility toward the United States. The U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia was one of the chief grievances that motivated al Qaeda’s terrorism. The U.S. military presence in countries such as Japan and South Korea, while no doubt partly intended to defend against China, may be perceived by Chinese policymakers as a threat and thus increase U.S.-China hostilities.


The United States should consider limiting and reducing its military bases, just as specific weapons should be limited and reduced. Like traditional arms control, controlling military bases could be pursued in cooperation with rival nations such as China and Russia; the United States could reduce its bases in return for a limit on Chinese and Russian bases. A world with fewer military bases could prove a safer one.


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