Top Menu

Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

U.S. Military Bases and Empire

The Bases of Empire

Empires throughout human history have relied on foreign military bases to enforce their rule, and in this respect at least, Pax Americana is no different than Pax Romana or Pax Britannica. “The principal method by which Rome established her political supremacy in her world,” wrote historian Arnold Toynbee in his America and the World Revolution (1962),

was by taking her weaker neighbors under her wing and protecting them against her and their stronger neighbors. Rome’s relation with these protégées of hers was a treaty relation. Juridically they retained their previous status of sovereign independence. The most that Rome asked of them in terms of territory was the cessation, here and there, of a patch of ground for the plantation of a Roman fortress to provide for the common security of Rome’s allies and Rome herself.

At least this is the way Rome started out. But as time passed, “the vast territories of Rome’s one-time allies,” originally secured by this system of Roman military bases, “became just as much a part of the Roman Empire as the less extensive territories of Rome’s one time enemies which Rome had deliberately and overtly annexed” (pp. 105-106).

Britain, in its heyday as the leading capitalist power in the nineteenth century, ruled over a vast colonial empire secured by a global system of military bases. As Robert Harkavy has explained in his important work, Great Power Competition for Overseas Bases (1982), these were deployed in four networks along sea corridors dominated by British naval power: (1) the Mediterranean through Suez to India; (2) South Asia, the Far East, and the Pacific; (3) North America and the Caribbean; and (4) West Africa and the South Atlantic. At the British empire’s peak these military bases were located in more than thirty-five separate countries/colonies. Although British hegemony declined rapidly in the early twentieth century, its bases were retained as long as the empire itself continued, and its base system even expanded briefly during the Second World War. In the immediate aftermath of the war, however, the British Empire crumbled, and the great majority of bases had to be relinquished.

The fall of the British empire was accompanied by the rise of another, as the United States took Britain’s place as the hegemonic power of the capitalist world economy. The United States emerged from the Second World War with the most extensive system of military bases that the world had ever seen. According to James Blaker, former Senior Advisor to the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this overseas basing system at the end of the Second World War consisted of over thirty thousand installations located at two thousand base sites residing in around one hundred countries and areas, and stretching from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica. U.S. military bases were spread over all the continents and the islands in between. “Next to the U.S. nuclear monopoly,” Blaker writes, “there was no more universally recognized symbol of the nation’s superpower status than its overseas basing system.”*

The official stance of the United States toward these military bases after the war was that they should be retained to whatever extent possible, and further bases should be acquired. At the Potsdam Conference on August 7, 1945, President Harry Truman declared:

Though the United States wants no profit or selfish advantage out of this war, we are going to maintain the military bases necessary for the complete protection of our interests and of world peace. Bases which our military experts deem to be essential for our protection we will acquire. We will acquire them by arrangements consistent with the United Nations Charter.*

Nevertheless, the dominant trend from the end of the Second World War until the Korean War was the reduction of the number of U.S. overseas bases. “Half the wartime basing structure,” according to Blaker, “was gone within two years of V-J Day, and half of what had been maintained until 1947 had been dismantled by 1949” (p. 32). This postwar reduction in the number of overseas bases, however, ended with the Korean War when the quantity of such bases increased once more, followed by further increases during the Vietnam War. Only after the Vietnam War did the number of U.S. overseas base sites begin to fall once again. By 1988, these bases numbered slightly less than at the end of the Korean War, but reflected a very different global pattern than at the beginning of the post-Second World War period, with the sharpest declines in South Asia and Middle East/Africa (see Table 1).

see Table 1

Historically, bases have often been acquired during wars. For example, the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba was obtained in the aftermath of the Spanish American War. Although that base is technically “leased,” the lease is permanent. According to the treaty, U.S. jurisdiction over the base can be terminated only by the mutual consent of both Cuba and the United States as long as nominal annual payments are made—giving the United States “rights” to this part of Cuba in perpetuity, regardless of the views of the Cuban government and people. Since the Cuban Revolution, the checks issued on behalf of the United States to pay for the leasing of the base have been cashed only once (in the case of the first such check made after the revolution). All subsequent checks have simply been held by Cuba, without being cashed, in line with Cuba’s demand that the base be removed from its territory.

Many current U.S. bases were acquired in subsequent wars—the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the war in Afghanistan. U.S. military bases in Okinawa, formally part of Japan, are a legacy of the U.S. occupation of Japan during the Second World War.

Like all empires, the United States has been extremely reluctant to relinquish any base once acquired. Bases obtained in one war are seen as forward deployment positions for some future war, often involving an entirely new enemy. According to a December 21, 1970 report issued by the Subcommittee on Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad, U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, “Once an American overseas base is established it takes on a life of its own. Original missions may become outdated but new missions are developed, not only with the intention of keeping the facility going, but often to actually enlarge it. Within the government departments most directly concerned—State and Defense—we found little initiative to reduce or eliminate any of these overseas facilities” (pp. 19-20). In the 1950s and 1960s the United States articulated a specific doctrine of “strategic denial” that argued that no withdrawal should be made from any base that could potentially be acquired thereafter by the Soviet Union. The majority of U.S. bases were justified as “ringing” and “containing” Communism. Yet, upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States sought to retain its entire basing system on the grounds that this was necessary for the global projection of its power and the protection of U.S. interests abroad.

After the Cold War

Glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s, followed by the collapse of the Soviet-dominated regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union itself in 1991, generated a strong expectation, particularly among those who had swallowed the claim that U.S. bases were simply there to contain the Soviet threat, that there would be a rapid dismantling of the U.S. basing system. Yet, the Department of Defense insisted in its annual Report of the Secretary Defense, 1989 that the “power projection” of the United States necessitated such “forward deployments” (p. 41).

On August 2, 1990 President George Bush issued a statement indicating that, while the U.S. overseas basing system should remain intact, by 1995 U.S. global security requirements might be met by an active force 25 percent smaller than in 1990. On that same day Iraq invaded Kuwait. The massive introduction of U.S. troops into the Middle East during the Gulf War led to the proclamation of a New World Order rooted in U.S. hegemony and U.S. military power. “By God we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all,” Bush declared.* New military bases in the Middle East were established, most notably in Saudi Arabia, where thousands of U.S. troops have been stationed for more than a decade.

Although the Clinton administration was to insist more strongly than the Bush administration that preceded it on the need to diminish U.S. foreign military commitments, no attempt was made to decrease the U.S. “forward presence” abroad represented by its far-flung military bases. The main shift rather was to reduce the number of troops permanently stationed overseas by deploying troops more frequently but for shorter stays. As reported in the Los Angeles Times (January 6, 2002),

A 1999 Army War College study found, “While permanent overseas presence has decreased dramatically, operational deployments have increased exponentially.”…In earlier times, members of the armed forces were routinely “stationed” overseas, usually for tours of several years and often accompanied by their families. Now they are “deployed,” with the length of tour more uncertain and dependents almost never allowed. The deployments are both frequent and lengthy, however. On any given day before September 11, according to the Defense Department, more than 60,000 military personnel were conducting temporary operations and exercises in about 100 countries. While the mammoth European installations have been cut back, Defense Department records show that the new operational mode calls military personnel away from home about 135 days a year for the Army, 170 days for the Navy and 176 days for the Air Force. For the Army, each soldier now averages a deployment abroad once every 14 weeks.

In addition to such frequent, periodic deployments, bases were to be used for pre-positioning equipment for purposes of rapid deployment. For example, the United States has pre-positioned a heavy brigade set of equipment in Kuwait, and has pre-positioned the equipment for a second heavy brigade along with a tank batallion set of equipment in Qatar (Report of the Secretary of Defense, 1996, pp.13–4).

The 1990s closed with U.S. military intervention in the Balkans and extensive U.S. support for counterinsurgency operations in South America as part of “Plan Colombia.” Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the onset of the “War on Terrorism,” a rapid increase in the number and geographical spread of U.S. military bases commenced.

According to the Defense Department’s Base Structure Report, 2001, the United States currently has overseas military installations in thirty-eight countries and separate territories. If military bases in U.S. territories/possessions outside the fifty states and the District of Columbia are added, it rises to forty-four. This number is extremely conservative, however, since it does not include important strategic forward bases, even some of those in which the United States maintains substantial numbers of troops, such as Saudi Arabia, Kosovo, and Bosnia. Nor does it include some of the most recently acquired U.S. bases. Through Plan Colombia—aimed principally at guerrilla forces in Colombia but also against the less than servile government of Venezuela and the massive popular movement opposing neoliberalism in Ecuador—the United States is now in the process of expanding its base presence in the Latin American and Caribbean region. Puerto Rico has replaced Panama as the hub for the region. Meanwhile the United States has been establishing four new military bases in Manta, Ecuador; Aruba; Curaçao; and Comalapa, El Salvador—all characterized as forward operating locations (FOLs). Since September 11, the United States has set up military bases housing sixty thousand troops in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, along with Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, and Bulgaria. Also crucial in the operation is the major U.S. naval base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. All told, the United States now has overseas military bases in almost sixty countries and separate territories (see Map 1).*

see Map 1

In some ways this number may even be deceptively low. All issues of jurisdiction and authority with respect to bases in host countries are spelled out in what are called status of forces agreements. During the Cold War years these were normally public documents, but are now often classified as secret—for example, those with Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and in certain respects Saudi Arabia. According to Pentagon records, the United States now has formal agreements of this kind with ninety-three countries (Los Angeles Times, January 6, 2002).

Imperialism abhors a vacuum. Apart from the Balkans and the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia, which were previously within the Soviet sphere of influence or part of the Soviet Union itself, the forward bases that are now being acquired are in regions where the United States had experienced drastic reductions in its number of bases. In 1990, prior to the Gulf War, the United States had no bases in South Asia and only 10 percent as many in the Middle East/Africa as in 1947. In Latin America and the Caribbean the number of U.S. bases had declined by about two-thirds between 1947 and 1990. From a geopolitical/geomilitary standpoint, this was clearly a problem for a global economic and military hegemon such as the United States, even in the age of long-range cruise missiles. The appearance of new bases in the Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean since 1990 as a result of the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, and Plan Colombia therefore can be seen as a reassertion of direct U.S. military and imperial power in areas where this had to some extent eroded.

Military doctrine insists that the strategic significance of a foreign military base goes beyond the war in which it was acquired, and that planning for other potential missions using these new assets must begin almost immediately. For this reason the build-up of bases in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and three of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia is inevitably seen by Russia and China as constituting additional threats to their security. Russia has already indicated its displeasure at the prospect of permanent U.S. military bases in Central Asia. As for China, as the Guardian (London) noted on January 10, 2002, the base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, where U.S. planes are landing daily, “is 250 miles from the western Chinese border. With U.S. bases to the east in Japan, to the south in South Korea, and Washington’s military support for Taiwan, China may feel encircled.”

The projection of U.S. military power into new regions through the establishment of U.S. military bases should not of course be seen simply in terms of direct military ends. They are always used to promote the economic and political objectives of U.S. capitalism. For example, U.S. corporations and the U.S. government have been eager for some time to build a secure corridor for U.S.-controlled oil and natural gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea in Central Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. The war in Afghanistan and the creation of U.S. bases in Central Asia are viewed as a key opportunity to make such pipelines a reality. The principal exponent of this policy has been the Unocal corporation, as indicated by its testimony to the House Committee on International Relations in February 1998 (reprinted as “A New Silk Road: Proposed Pipeline in Afghanistan” in Monthly Review, December 2001).* On December 31, 2001 President Bush appointed Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad from the National Security Council to be special envoy to Afghanistan. Khalilzad is a former adviser for Unocal in connection with the proposed trans-Afghan pipeline and lobbied the U.S. government for a more sympathetic policy toward the Taliban regime. He changed his position only after the Clinton administration fired cruise missiles at targets in Afghanistan (aimed at Osama bin Laden) in 1998 (Pravda, January 9, 2002).

During the present war in Afghanistan, the U.S. media have generally been quiet about U.S. oil ambitions in the region. Nevertheless, an article in the business section of the New York Times (December 15, 2001) noted that, “The State Department is exploring the potential for post-Taliban energy projects in the region, which has more than 6 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and almost 40 percent of its gas reserves.” In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times (January 18, 2002), Richard Butler, of the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledged that, “The war in Afghanistan…has made the construction of a pipeline across Afghanistan and Pakistan politically possible for the first time since Unocal and the Argentinean company Bridas competed for the Afghan rights in the mid-1990s.” Needless to say, without a strong U.S. military presence in the region, through the establishment of bases as a result of the war, the construction of such a pipeline would almost certainly have proven impracticable.


History teaches that foreign military bases are a double-edged sword. The most obvious indication of the truth of this proposition is the present “War on Terrorism.” There can be little doubt that attacks over the last decade or more directed against both U.S. forces abroad and targets in the United States itself have been a response in large part to the growing U.S. role as a foreign military power in regions such as the Middle East, where the United States has not only engaged in military actions, even full-scale war, but also since 1990 has stationed thousands of troops. The establishment of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia was regarded by some Saudis as an occupation of the holiest land of Islam, to be repelled at virtually any cost.

The perception of U.S. military bases as intrusions on national sovereignty is widespread in “host” countries for the simple reason that the presence of such bases inevitably translates into interference in domestic politics. As the 1970 report by the Subcommittee on Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee noted: “Overseas bases, the presence of elements of United States armed forces, joint planning, joint exercises, or excessive military assistance programs…all but guarantee some involvement by the United States in the internal affairs of the host government” (p. 20). Such countries become more and more enmeshed in the U.S. empire.

U.S. overseas military bases thus frequently give rise to major social protests in the subject countries. Until the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1992, the U.S. bases in the Philippines were widely regarded in that nation as a legacy of U.S. colonialism. Like nearly all U.S. military bases overseas, they brought with them a host of social problems. The town of Olongapo next to the U.S. base at Subic Bay was devoted entirely to “rest and recreation” for U.S. troops and housed more than fifty thousand prostitutes.

U.S. bases in Okinawa, which became the hub for the U.S. overseas basing system in the Pacific following the loss of the bases in the Philippines, exist at odds with the population. According to Chalmers Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, in his book Blowback (2000), the island of Okinawa, a prefecture of Japan, “is essentially a military colony of the Pentagon’s, a huge safe house where Green Berets and the Defense Intelligence Agency, not to mention the air force and Marine Corps, can do things they would not dare do in the United States. It is used to project American power throughout Asia in the service of a de facto U.S. grand strategy to perpetuate or increase American hegemonic power in this crucial region” (p. 64).

In 1995, anti-base protests broke out in Okinawa in response to the rape of a twelve-year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen, who had rented a car for the purpose, so that they could take her to a remote location and rape her; and in response to the callous view of Admiral Richard C. Macke, commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, who told the press: “I think that [the rape] was absolutely stupid. For the price they paid to rent the car, they could have had a girl.” The widespread protests, led by an organization called Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence, were not, however, just in response to this single rape, brutal though it was. Between 1972 and 1995, U.S servicemen were implicated in 4,716 crimes, nearly one per day, according to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, a conservative Japanese newspaper. The Japan-U.S. agreement that governs the Okinawa base allows U.S. authorities to refuse Japanese requests for military suspects, and few indeed have suffered any inconvenience for their crimes.

The continuation, despite massive popular protests, of land bombing by the U.S. military in Vieques, in Puerto Rico, where training is given for bombing runs later to be carried out in places like the Persian Gulf, is an indication of Puerto Rico’s continuing colonial status. Besides the land bombing range in Vieques, the Pentagon operates what is called an “outer range” of almost 200,000 square miles in waters near Puerto Rico, that encompasses an underwater tracking station for submarines and an electronic warfare range. These are used by the Navy and by various military contractors to test weapons systems.*

The current use of the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba to imprison and interrogate prisoners of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, under conditions that have generated global outrage and in the face of Cuban opposition to the war, is still another crude instance of U.S. assertion of imperial power through such bases.

The Globalization of Power

The United States, as we have seen, has built a chain of military bases and staging areas around the globe, as a means of deploying air and naval forces to be used on a moment’s notice—all in the interest of maintaining its political and economic hegemony. These bases are not, as was the case for Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, simply integral parts of a colonial empire, but rather take on even greater importance, “in the absence of colonialism.* The United States, which has sought to maintain an imperial economic system without formal political controls over the territorial sovereignty of other nations, has employed these bases to exert force against those nations that have sought to break out of the imperial system altogether, or that have attempted to chart an independent course that is perceived as threatening U.S. interests. Without the worldwide dispersion of U.S. military forces in these bases, and without the U.S. predisposition to employ them in its military interventions, it would be impossible to keep many of the more dependent economic territories of the periphery from breaking away.

U.S. global political, economic, and financial power thus require the periodic exercise of military power. The other advanced capitalist countries tied into this system have also become reliant on the United States as the main enforcer of the rules of the game. The positioning of U.S. military bases should therefore be judged not as a purely military phenomenon, but as a mapping out of the U.S.-dominated imperial sphere and of its spearheads within the periphery. What is clear at present and bears repeating is that such bases are now being acquired in areas where the United States had previously lost much of its “forward presence,” such as in South Asia, the Middle East/Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean, or in regions where U.S. bases have not existed previously, such as the Balkans and Central Asia. There can be no doubt, therefore, that the last remaining superpower is presently on a course of imperial expansion, as a means of promoting its political and economic interests, and that the present war on terrorism, which is in many ways an indirect product of the projection of U.S. power, is now being used to justify the further projection of that power.

For those who choose to oppose these developments there should be no illusion. The global expansion of military power on the part of the hegemonic state of world capitalism is an integral part of economic globalization. To say no to this form of military expansionism is to say no at the same time to capitalist globalization and imperialism and hence to capitalism itself.

* James R. Blaker, United States Overseas Basing (New York: Praeger, 1990), 9, 37. The research for Blaker’s seminal study was supported by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. On the data provided in that study it should be noted that there is no agreed definition of what constitutes a military base, so calculation as to numbers is difficult. Blaker defines a military base site as an installation “routinely used” by military forces. All installations within a twenty-five mile radius are classified as part of a single base site associated with the nearest town or city; installations that are more than twenty-five miles apart are seen as different base sites. Installations and base sites are demarcated primarily on the basis of data on the capital value of facilities.

* Quoted in C.T. Sandars, America’s Overseas Garrisons: The Leasehold Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 5.

* Quoted in Thomas J. McCormick, America’s Half Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 249. Two years before Bush senior declared the Vietnam Syndrome dead, Paul Sweezy had written in this space: “Prior to Vietnam, the U.S. ruling class had taken it for granted that the people of the country would be willing to fight any wars that the defense of its imperial interests would require: such, after all, had been the essential precondition throughout the ages for the viability of empires. But Vietnam proved, at least in the case of the United States in the late twentieth century, that this was no longer true. This new situation has been given a name, the Vietnam Syndrome, and has come to play an increasingly important part in the history of our time.” Paul M. Sweezy, “U.S. Imperialism in the 1990s,” Monthly Review (October 1989), 6.

* This estimate of the number of countries in which U.S. bases are located cannot be directly compared to the figures provided in Blaker’s study referred to above, since the latter includes only bases recorded by the Defense Department in its lists of installations (based on capitalization value), while we have also included here: (1) bases not listed in the Pentagon’s Base Structure Report, but housing substantial numbers of U.S. troops; (2) bases in U.S. territories/possessions outside the fifty states and the District of Columbia (viewing these as essentially outside the United States); and (3) recently acquired forward operating locations in strategic areas (mainly in the Middle East, South/Central Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean). Nevertheless, the figures here, though not strictly comparable to the earlier ones provided, suggest that the geographical spread of U.S. bases has not contracted since the end of the Korean War (and probably not since the end of the Vietnam War) and is now in a phase of renewed expansion.

* The history of Unocal’s Central Asian pipeline project is discussed in detail in Ahmed Rashid, Taliban (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 151-80.

* John Lindsay-Poland, “U.S. Military Bases in Latin America and the Carribean,”Foreign Policy in Focus 6 (October 2001)

* Harry Magdoff, Imperialism: From the Colonial Age to the Present (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 205.

2002, Volume 53, Issue 10 (March)
Comments are closed.