Do America's Military Bases Abroad Help Or Hinder Global Security?

Aug 23, 2015
Originally published on August 25, 2015 9:47 am

The U.S. has around 800 military bases outside of the nation's borders. They're home to hundreds of thousands of troops and family members, and, in many cases, they're a cause of controversy.

David Vine, an associate professor of anthropology at American University, argues that we've become too dependent on such overseas bases — and that many of them cause serious opposition abroad. He lays out his thinking in his new book, Base Nation: How the U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World.

Most of the bases were established during or shortly after World War II. And ever since, Vine says, there have been pockets of local opposition.

"I think there were tensions almost immediately in Germany and Japan, in particular, where these bases were helping U.S. troops and allied troops to occupy the enemy territory," Vine tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Tess Vigeland.

"Pretty quickly, as the Cold War developed, we see France evict the United States in the mid-1960s. We see countries like Trinidad and Tobago evict the United States, also in the 1960s, and we see growing protest movements in places like Okinawa that continue to the present."

He argues that the U.S. ought to take those protests seriously.


Interview Highlights

On why other countries want to kick out U.S. bases

Largely, people of course don't like their land occupied by foreign troops — and I think it's worth thinking, for American audiences, to think about how it would feel to have foreign troops living next door, occupying your land with tanks. ... There have also been a number of harms that these bases have inflicted on local communities — there have been accidents, crimes committed by U.S. personnel, environmental damage — a whole range of damage that people were quite upset about.

On whether the U.S. needs to have so many foreign bases

I think that's a question that many are asking, and I'm pleased to report that ... this is one of the rare bipartisan issues where there are people across the political spectrum asking whether we need 800 military bases outside the United States, in an era where technological advancements have allowed the U.S. military to deploy forces from the continental United States just as quickly as from most bases overseas, whether we really need these bases which are extraordinarily costly compared to keeping U.S. troops in the United States.

On the possibility of closing all of the bases

The book is not initially calling for the closure of every U.S. base overseas. It's calling for, first of all, a conversation about this massive network of bases and whether they're increasing national security or the security of the world. It's important also to point out that a major way in which the United States engages with the rest of the world is through these military bases that are occupying other people's lands. And I think a fundamental transition needs to take place now to emphasize increasingly diplomatic engagement rather than military engagement.

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Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

The United States has become far too dependent on military bases abroad. That's the argument of a new book by anthropologist David Vine. It's called "Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America And The World." When I spoke with Vine earlier this week, I began by asking him exactly how big the U.S. military footprint is overseas.

DAVID VINE: We have somewhere around 800 U.S. military bases outside the 50 states and Washington, D.C. And there are hundreds of thousands of troops and hundreds of thousands of family members living on and around these bases.

VIGELAND: Well, let's talk history for a moment. What was the original reasoning for these bases, and how are they received by the countries we built them in to start with?

VINE: The vast majority of U.S. bases overseas were built during or after World War II; many of them, of course, were in Germany and Japan. So they were bases of occupation initially and over time, transitioned to bases that some locals felt were a continuation of occupation and others embraced in a variety of ways. But this network - really unprecedented network of bases grew up in World War II, shrunk a bit after the end of the war and then basically has stayed in place ever since. There was a shrinkage of the base network at the end of the Cold War. But a massive network of still, at that point, around a thousand bases remained in place.

VIGELAND: What was the first sign that maybe not everybody wanted these bases to stick around?

VINE: I think there were tensions almost immediately in Germany and Japan in particular, where these spaces were helping U.S. troops and allied troops to occupy the enemy territory. But I think we saw pretty quickly as the Cold War developed, we see France evict the United States in the mid-1960s. We see countries like Trinidad and Tobago evict the United States also in the 1960s, and we see growing protest movements in places like Okinawa that continue to the present.

VIGELAND: And what is the reasoning? Why does the U.S. get kicked out?

VINE: Largely people, of course, don't like their land occupied by foreign troops. And I think it's worth thinking - for American audiences to think about how it would feel to have foreign troops living next-door, occupying your land with tanks. But there have also been a number of harms that these bases have inflicted on local communities. There have been accidents, crimes committed by U.S. personnel, environmental damage - a whole range of damage that people were quite upset about.

VIGELAND: David, in a post-9/11 world, what is the argument against having bases around the globe because logic would seem to dictate that this is exactly the time when you should have them?

VINE: I think that's a question that many are asking, and I'm pleased to report that there are actually people across the political spectrum - this is one of the rare bipartisan issues where there are people across the political spectrum asking whether we need 800 military bases outside the United States in an era when technological advancements have allowed the U.S. military to deploy forces from the new continental United States just as quickly as from most bases overseas - whether we really need these bases, which are extraordinarily costly compared to keeping U.S. troops in the United States.

VIGELAND: So then what happens if we just close all the bases? What does world security look like then?

VINE: The book is not initially calling for the closure of every U.S. base overseas. It's calling for, first of all, a conversation about this massive network of bases and whether they're increasing national security or the security of the world. It's important also to point out that a major way in which the United States engages with the rest of the world is through these military bases that are occupying other people's lands. And I think a fundamental transition needs to take place now to emphasize increasingly diplomatic engagement rather than military engagement.

VIGELAND: David Vine is the author of "Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America And The World." It's on bookshelves starting Tuesday. David, thank you.

VINE: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.