Why Does The Us Have So Many Military Bases Overseas

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Why Does The Us Have So Many Military Bases Overseas

US Army soldiers during a military exercise in Drawsko Pomorskie, Poland, on August 11, 2020. Maja Hitij / Getty Images

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There is a myth that Americans tell themselves: After World War II, the United States had no choice but to be the world’s superpower and pre-eminent military power. No other country was strong enough after years of fighting, and it was up to the United States alone, by virtue of its position, to rebuild and reorganize the world.

The reason is incorrect, says Steven Wertheim, author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Primacy.

Because the United States made a conscious decision to seek military dominance before World War II ended. Such a strategy, formulated in the heat of battle, would help the United States thwart totalitarian regimes—namely, the Soviet Union in later years—while pursuing its own interests.

For now, Wertheim argues, the plan makes some sense. After all, Nazi Germany was winning in Europe, and the United States did not want to live in a world full of brutal dictatorships. The problem, however, is that the US hasn’t changed its strategy since then – and it’s largely counterproductive.

Chart: United States: World Police?

Instead of focusing on issues like climate change and epidemic diseases, for example, the United States has prioritized building and deploying a strong force that has made a large number of unnecessary enemies. And despite some horrific outcomes like the Iraq war, the United States refuses to rethink its game plan, even after the Cold War has ended and domestic appetites for adventure have waned.

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“Far from contributing to American security, the global military supremacy plan has made America — and Americans — less safe,” Wertheim, deputy director for research and policy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Government in Washington, D.C., tells me.

To understand why Wertheim believes the United States should focus less on military superiority and not more, I called him and asked him to expand on his argument in an interview. Our talk follows, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Your book shows that American leadership was not appreciated. It was a choice. Explain what this option was actually.

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I had a really basic question in my mind: When was the choice to install the United States as the dominant military power around the world?

It is a consensus, an intuitive view, that the United States, for its national security interests, needs to be the world’s foremost military power, and must have forces on bases in foreign countries to secure its own and global interests. This is intended to nip any potential aggressors in the bud rather than waiting for an attack, or preventing others from gaining dominance in their own territory.

It is widely believed that this idea emerged after World War II when the United States was the only real world power remaining. But this is not true. This idea of ​​”primacy” arose in the aftermath of the fall of France to Nazi Germany in 1940.

By October 1940, after only months of imagining that the United States might be confined to a region no bigger than a “quarter of a ball” in central Brazil, postwar planners had reached a startling conclusion: the United States had to keep An indisputable force in the world. , protecting by force as much of the non-German world as possible.

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In his famous article announcing the arrival of the “American Century” in February 1941 — 10 months before Pearl Harbor — publishing magnate Henry Luce wrote: “The big and important point to be made here is simply that the full opportunity of leadership is ours.”

Henry Robinson Luce, editor and publisher of Time, Fortune, and Life, lived from 1898 to 1967. Picture Post / Getty Images

Luce urged his fellow Americans to “honestly accept our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world, and thus to exercise the full effect of our influence on the world, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means ‘as we see fit’.”

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Well, I wanted to make sure I had that clarity because that’s not usually the story Americans tell themselves.

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Provocatively, your book is essentially a lament on the idea that the United States is the number one power in the world, supported by its mighty military. In your opinion, why is the United States not the pre-eminent power in the world? After all, he helped us reach this place of unprecedented strength.

Far from contributing to American security, the global military supremacy plan has made America — and Americans — less safe.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the architects of American military dominance. I think they faced difficult circumstances. How could I not sympathize with the desire to rid the Axis powers from Earth and ensure something like this never happens again? I have complete sympathy with this goal.

But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reason why the United States was superior to the world has ceased to exist. There was an original argument that the United States bore the enormous burdens of global military dominance: without it, totalitarian powers would control much of the Earth. The thinking went that this would be terrible for the world, and it might be bad for the United States.

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The problem, however, is that the pursuit of military hegemony since then has created many enemies of the United States who did not need to be enemies of the United States. We have participated in bad behavior and pitted it on others.

I worry that—in a world where the main threats to the American people are pandemic disease and climate change—America will continue to define its greatest threats in military terms, even if it is not.

However, part of what underpins these sentiments these days is the idea that the United States had reached a “unipolar moment” — the United States was the unquestioned power and world leader with no clear rival. It is implied in what you are saying that that moment is truly and forever gone.

We will never get our unipolar moment back. It was rightfully called a moment at that time in the 90s. But since then, the United States has caused much destruction and grief to itself and others. I’m really worried about where this is going because the world is getting a lot more difficult.

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Some will read this interview or your book and conclude that what really pisses you off is high defense budgets. But if I understand your argument correctly, you are saying that the strategy conceived before World War II ended might have made some sense then, but it has no sense now, especially because it had the unintended effect of weakening the national security of the United States.

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Accurately. Look, I’m going to present the hardest possible case for my situation: World War II. If there ever was a good argument for making the best use of American military power, oh my god, that’s exactly what my book is about. I’m actually trying to focus us on what I think is the best argument for US military dominance.

A flight of a pre-WWII US Army BT-13A Valiant in 1939. World History Archive/Universal Image Collection via Getty Images

And what I found in that history is that the roots of our current problems are linked to the best thing we have ever done as a nation. I think that’s why this problem exists. I’m trying to understand why militarism seemed attractive at first.

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But I think if these postwar planners — whether they existed today or even in the 1990s — would say, “Wait a minute.” They would have realized how perilous it was to take on a global organizing role by force, as we understood the British Empire to have done in the last century. After all, they were worried to themselves that what they were planning contained some amount of imperialism in it. But at the time, they felt it was better than the alternative, which is understandable.

You make the argument that an emphasis on military superiority has led the United States to care less about other elements of power, namely economic well-being. This is not to say that America wasn’t interested in having a lot of money and a strong economy – it did – but your point is that America’s actions have caused widespread damage at home and abroad.

Since 1991, I think everyone has lost, except for major defense companies and some ruling elites. America’s strategy has been incredibly devastating to people across the Greater Middle East, and of course the Iraq War has resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.

And I don’t think the American people have won either. I think we’re becoming less safe and more fearful as a society as a result all the time

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