The Question of Overseas Military Bases

One of the ways that a country can project power and develop their overseas diplomatic interest is through the establishment of military bases outside their national borders. Many countries including Australia, India, Greece and the UK have a military presence in one or more countries. However, no nation has as many bases as the United States. This has only occasionally been the subject of real public debate either in the US or the countries these bases are stationed in. 

Across 70 countries and territories, the US operates nearly 800 bases [1]. These bases are not just in war-torn nations which need (or have been strongarmed into accepting) US military support. In Germany, 31 years since the fall of the Berlin wall, the US maintains approximately 38,000 personnel across a multitude of garrison’s and air force bases scattered across the country[2]. While the US has indicated it is interested in closing some bases, it remains unknown what course Biden will take. Proponents of the bases state that they are a ‘sound deterrence’ to nations like Russia who may act belligerently[3]. They are also said to support the US military in the case of conflict or incident which requires a military response. It is said that: ‘Oversea bases provide support for diplomacy, intelligence and a strong infrastructure from which to protect American interests in an increasingly dangerous world’[4]. However, it is this last point which has caused significant controversy and brought the existence of the bases into question. Okinawa, Japan, 77 years after VJ day, protested against the US Marine Corps Air Station. In 2019, the island held a non-binding referendum on the building of a new air base. Despite 70% of people opposing the construction, the Japanese Government said the building will go ahead[5]. Protestors have opposed the presence of the US military on their island for years, yet there are no plans to either force the US out (on the part of Japan), or the US to voluntarily leave. The US wants a presence in the area as a deterrent to growing Chinese influence. However, protestors say the base ‘will destroy the area’s delicate marine ecosystem which, given the climate crisis, is an indefensible act of violence. This local opposition is supported by academics and experts that say the US bases do more harm than good.

Some argue that the presence of US military bases helps to ‘keep the peace’[6]. However, I would question when the US has kept the peace, rather than propagating conflict and tension. According to some estimates (dependent on your definition of war), the US is currently involved in 134 wars (as of 2014)[7]. Some experts have also argued that the presence of bases near the borders of certain hostile nations are viewed as a threat to their own security which ‘encourages military spending’ and ‘can actually make war more likely and America less secure. Bases also cost billions to maintain, money which would be put to much better use as foreign aid which an estimated 235 million people will need next year as a result of the pandemic and related upheavals[8]. This is without considering the developments in technology which has ‘largely made them obsolete’[9]. The resentment locals feel at having a foreign occupying force is clear, especially in the case of Okinawa. In the UK, the extent of public conversation has been in condemning the killing of Harry Dunn, by the wife of a US intelligence officer in Northamptonshire. The actual presence of the US military in the UK has not been widely questioned.

The presence of these bases is not only disrespectful to the residents of the locality in which foreign military bases are housed, it can actually increase the risk of threats to the occupying nation. ‘The principal cause of suicide terrorism is resistance to foreign occupation’. Indeed, ‘since the surge in US military presence in the [Middle East] post-9/11, terrorist attacks on troops and bases have dramatically increased’[9].

There must be a serious public reckoning regarding the establishment of a military presence abroad. While the US is the most egregious example, many other nations have established similar bases, including the UK. One young person, Kaiya Yonamine, has made a documentary, detailing her island's battle against military occupation. ‘Our Island’s Treasure’ can be watched using this link: