Military spending has many points of contention: Closing overseas bases isn’t one of them
The military budget debates in Congress provide members a chance to discuss closing overseas bases to save billions and make America safer. In an era of bitter political divisions, consensus is growing around a long-overlooked but crucial part of how the United States engages with the world: the nearly 75-year-old Cold War-era strategy of maintaining hundreds of military bases overseas.
A diverse and growing group of military experts, national security scholars, and organizations agree on the need to close U.S. military bases abroad to save billions of dollars and, some say counterintuitively, improve national security.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump reflected this growing consensus when he asked: “What are we getting out of this?” about the billions spent on bases and troops in places such as Germany and South Korea.
Today, the United States maintains around 800 military bases in more than 80 countries and territories outside the 50 states and Washington, D.C. The vast majority of these bases were built or occupied during World War II or at the start of the Cold War. Despite the end of that war almost three decades ago, the infrastructure of bases remains. For example, there are still 194 base sites in Germany, 121 in Japan, and 83 in South Korea; others are in places from Aruba to Italy to the UAE, to name just a few.
U.S. bases represent 90-95 percent of the world’s foreign bases, constituting the largest collection of extraterritorial bases in world history.
For more than a year, we have worked as part of a non-partisan group of national security and military base experts to overturn this long-outdated Cold War-era strategy. Operating as the Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition (OBRACC), 41 experts drafted and signed an open letter to the Trump administration, the Pentagon, and Congress calling for the drawdown of bases abroad.
We, and our co-signers on the letter, have different ideas about how many bases to close, which bases to close, and how to close them. But despite our differences, we agree on nine major reasons to begin closing foreign bases.
To start, overseas bases are much more expensive than comparable domestic bases. Even when host countries such as Japan pay for some of the expenses, it costs on average $10,000-$40,000 more per year to station a member of the military overseas rather than at a domestic base.
In total, the country spends an estimated $51.5 billion annually to build and run bases abroad. The total rises to more than $150 billion every year if you include the cost of troops overseas. Just think what even a fraction of these funds could do to improve our crumbling domestic infrastructure, public schools, and health care, or to help address the nearly $22 trillion national debt and other pressing needs.
More troubling, overseas bases provide a dangerous temptation and have long fueled a hyper-interventionist foreign policy by making war look like an easy solution. Since 1980, U.S. administrations have used bases at least 23 times to launch military interventions and wars of choice in 14 countries in the greater Middle East alone.
Technological advancements have rendered overseas bases largely obsolete: Today, rapid response forces can deploy to virtually any region fast enough to be based in the continental United States. Foreign bases are also outdated because of their vulnerability to increasingly accurate ballistic missiles.
The presence of overseas bases increases security threats for countries including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, who, each encircled by U.S. bases, feel encouraged to boost their own military spending and activity. Imagine how the United States would respond if Russia or China built a single base near U.S. borders.
Overseas bases have undermined U.S. security further by causing blowback. In the Middle East, U.S. bases and troops have provoked radicalization, anti-American propaganda, and militant attacks, such as those of September 11, 2001.
Contrary to claims that overseas bases help spread democracy, our bases can be found in at least 40 countries led by dictators and repressive, undemocratic regimes, including Bahrain, Niger, and Turkey. Bases in colonized U.S. territories are a major reason Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana and Virgin Islands, and American Samoa have neither gained full independence nor full democratic rights.
Because people tend not to like their countries occupied by foreign militaries, it’s unsurprising that our bases generate protest almost everywhere. Crimes by military personnel and deadly accidents have fueled local anger. The reputation of the United States has been harmed further by a long history of environmental damage caused by bases.
U.S. military personnel and their families are also harmed. Deployments overseas separate military personnel from their families. Accompanied tours disrupt the careers, schooling, and lives of spouses and children.
Encouragingly, closing overseas bases is relatively easy compared to closing domestic bases. Unlike the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process required for domestic bases, Congress need not be involved in overseas closures. Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush closed hundreds of unnecessary bases in Europe and Asia. The Trump administration can do the same and make good on the concerns Trump rightfully raised during the 2016 campaign.
Members of Congress should be supportive given that closing installations overseas could be an economic boon at home, as well as a contribution to peace. Closures abroad would return thousands of military personnel and family members to bases in the United States, where there is considerable excess capacity and where military paychecks would contribute to local economies.
This is not a call for isolationism. Drawing down overseas must be accompanied by boosting U.S. diplomatic engagement abroad. Until we do so, maintaining 800 bases overseas distracts and weakens the military and its ability to protect the United States, while preventing our government from developing the diplomatic tools that would more effectively protect national and global security.
In the interest of global security, and U.S. physical and fiscal security, we urge President Trump, supported by Congress, to begin a process to close unnecessary bases overseas and relocate military personnel and families to domestic bases. We must chart a different course.
Medea Benjamin is Co-founder of CODEPINK and author of 10 books; including, most recently, “Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
John Tierney is a former nine-term Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts, serving on the House Intelligence Committee and as chair of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee. He is now Executive Director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
David Vine is a Professor of Anthropology at American University and author of books including “Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World.”
Lawrence B. Wilkerson is a retired U.S. Army Colonel and former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. He is now a Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary.