Imperial Restraint - Why it's Essential that the U.S. Reduce its Global Military Presence

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For nearly two centuries the United States has been an expansionist power.

Though it was the War of 1812 when the U.S. solidified its dominion over the Americas, it was at the twilight of the Spanish-American War when the American Empire finally came of age. The first two decades of the 20th Century marked America’s transition - for better or worse - into a global superpower. After emerging from World War II as the world’s dominant economic and military force, it would continue expanding its global network of military installations to curtail Soviet influence. Now, nearly three decades after the USSR’s collapse, there are still eight-hundred formal U.S. bases across eighty countries worldwide. Not only is this unacceptable, it is also needlessly wasteful. 

From 2001 to 2017, the total sum of money spent on bases in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone amounted to $880 billion. The utility of the empire’s foreign military infrastructure is simply not worth the cost required to sustain it; therefore, the number of bases worldwide should be strategically reduced to only those installations that are essential to defending the homeland and protecting international commerce.

Though the U.S.S.R. no longer threatens Liberal Hegemony, U.S. foreign policy is still rooted in a Cold War mindset. While an official plan for base realignment & closure was presented in the 1990s, few installations were shut down; most have simply been re-purposed in order to deter other perceived threats to U.S. primacy. None of these installations do anything to help secure the homeland, which was not even why they were originally built; they were designed to defend Liberal Hegemony, which is no longer the centralized bloc it once was. While American primacy made sense in the Post-War Era, there is no longer any practicality in the extent of its power to being so needlessly expansive.

Today, the single largest concentration of U.S. foreign bases is located within the Eurozone, where there exist 350 military installations. Since 1942 the U.S. has maintained a permanent presence in Europe, and, after the Second World War, played a significant role in stabilizing the continent, which would go on to serve as the key focal point for NATO’s formation. Since then, the EU has become incredibly self-sufficient; the combined European armed forces, along with French nukes, are more than capable of deterring potential threats without U.S. assistance. Every European nation is wealthy enough to afford its own defense. Thus, it is strategically useless for the U.S. to maintain any significant military presence in the EU, whose members are already among America’s closest allies.

Having more military bases does not mean that there will be more deterrence. The U.S. currently has several dozen forward operating bases in the Middle East, hundreds of smaller outposts, and, as of 2014, a combined garrison of 54,000 soldiers; if deterrence were a certainty, then a force of that magnitude would be able to ensure stability in the region. More soldiers does not equate to more stability however; more likely is that there is a maximum threshold of marginal utility. There are seven bases in Iraq. In a country that size, having seven active bases and nine-thousand soldiers ready to respond is no more effective than having only three bases and three-thousand soldiers. 

The U.S. military has a high technological advantage over other countries as well. This means fewer soldiers are required for an occupation to be successful. Regarding defense of the homeland, a high-tech defense system would be enough to deter potential aggressors; bases and outposts in islands throughout the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic oceans would be the only foreign installations needed in order to supplement that.

While the purpose of military occupation is to create deterrence, it often has the opposite effect. It often makes a population more wary and resentful towards the occupying force. Attempts to exhort hegemony have undermined the sovereignty of some countries, resulting in the rise of reactionary elements that oppose Western influence. The rise of ISIS, for example, was something that happened largely in response to the Invasion of Iraq. Additionally, Russia expanded into Georgia & Ukraine partially in retaliation to NATO’s own incursion.

As of 2019, the national debt sits at $22 trillion. The military budget accounts for roughly 17% of federal spending, and, since 2016, over $600 billion has been spent every year on “national defense” alone, making it the largest of all discretionary budgets. Up to $120 billion of this is spent on the upkeep of foreign bases, and an additional $70 billion on contingency operations. Even if just half of all nonessential U.S. bases were closed, it would save billions of dollars. This surplus could be allocated toward domestic spending or paying off the national debt.

In approaching the question of debt and national defense, China currently owns most of the U.S. debt, yet the U.S. keeps borrowing money from Beijing every year just to maintain an unnecessary global troop presence. If America cannot afford to sustain its own military, then there is no reason that its military needs to be that large.

Unrestrained militarism and high levels of deficit spending have contributed to the demise of countless great powers throughout history. Having a military is important, but it is also important that the U.S. only finance what it can afford; this requires relegating spending to focus on funding the essentials. The easiest way to start would be by closing foreign bases that are of no importance to national defense.

A common concern among interventionists is that base closure will create power-vacuums in unstable regions; this, they argue, leads to more violence and war, especially in the Middle East. A popular belief is that the military does not just deter U.S. adversaries, but its allies as well. Without America to keep them in check, nothing would stop Western-aligned authoritarians from violating human rights and/or invading other countries. While closing bases in Europe would be an effective means of cutting spending, some argue against doing so, as these bases provide the U.S. military with quick & easy access to Eurasia in case there were ever need for intervention. 

Geopolitical primacy is not necessarily a byproduct of military supremacy; in order to remain an influential superpower, all America has to do in order to remain strong is defend its sphere of influence and secure its economic interests in Asia. This would entail maintaining at least one base in either Japan or South Korea in order to deter North Korea and/or China, establishing naval control over the Strait of Malacca, and restoring a central military presence in the Philippines. The extent of America’s presence in the Middle East would pragmatically best be relegated to only a handful of bases in Djibouti, Kuwait, and the UAE to protect commerce and serve as strategic staging locations in case conflict were to ever break out. Finally, the United States European Command’s area of responsibility should be reduced to encompass only four or five bases between Greenland, Iceland, Turkey, and the Balkans. Other than that, there is no need to maintain a vast network of military installations around the world; not only are they relics of a bygone era, but they are also nothing more than a drain on resources and taxpayer dollars.

To save the empire, it must be restrained. If America hopes to remain a superpower, it can no longer afford to cannibalize its economy in the name of imperialism. Wanton military supremacy at any cost is unsustainable. America should instead predicate its empire on economic hegemony.