A Defense against Threats or a Cause of Them? The United States’ Global Military Presence

The United States’ military presence extends across the earth. US military personnel are located in hundreds of US bases and outposts in dozens of countries around the globe. Like the US military’s enormous size (about 1.3 million troops) and enormous expense (over $700 billion per year), American troops’ international presence demonstrates the US military establishment’s immense power.[1] However, this power exacts a cost on the communities where American troops are stationed. Also, the far-flung US military presence might be creating threats even as it supposedly protects against them.

The Defense Department reports that over 170,000 military personnel (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines) are permanently assigned overseas, as of September 2021.[2] The United States has under its jurisdiction more than 500 overseas sites associated with the US military.[3] These sites are located in 40 different countries.[4] The US military has an additional 111 sites located in US territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam.[5] (These numbers were reported in 2018, the last year the Defense Department provided such information.)[6]

These numbers are probably underestimates. A Quincy Institute analysis of America’s overseas military presence says Defense Department figures are incomplete: for example, the Pentagon claims to have only one military base in Africa, despite evidence of many more such installations.[7] The Quincy analysis estimates that the United States has roughly 750 base sites in 80 foreign countries and US territories.[8]

Also, US troops can be present in other countries even when a US-affiliated base or similar site is not. The Defense Department identifies overseas personnel as present in over 170 countries—far more countries than where acknowledged military sites are located.[9] The base-independent troops may be performing tasks such as guarding US embassies or assisting other nations’ armed forces.[10]

US military sites overseas come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Sites such as Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, or Camp Humphreys in South Korea are the equivalent of small cities, complete with hospitals, housing, or similar amenities. Sites can also be airfields, ports, warehouses, or housing for drones or surveillance aircraft.[11]

The United States established its first permanent overseas base over 100 years ago at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.[12] World War II and the Cold War led to a vast expansion in the US military presence overseas. After the Cold War, this presence diminished but still remains significant.[13] The United States still has far more overseas military sites than Russia, China, Britain, or France.[14]

An overseas military presence supposedly allows the United States to deter adversaries, reassure allies, and respond quickly to threats and crises.[15] Yet the US military presence fosters its own share of threats and crises.

Military facilities create environmental pollution. The US military uses products, most notably fire-fighting foam, containing chemicals known as PFAS. These chemicals are linked to cancer, developmental delays in children (both inside and outside the womb), and other health problems.[16]

PFAS has contaminated communities around US military sites: in 2016, authorities in Okinawa detected high PFAS levels in the island’s drinking water—water used by 450,000 Okinawans as well as US service personnel and their families. Other military-related sites in Okinawa have been contaminated with lead, asbestos, and other toxins.[17] Such contamination is not limited to overseas bases, either: unacceptably high PFAS levels have been found in drinking water or groundwater on or close to 126 military sites within the United States.[18]

Military facilities pose another danger to local communities: sexual assault by military personnel. Okinawa again provides a grim example. One infamous case is the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by US troops. The feminist group Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence estimates hundreds of people have been rape victims since the US military presence on the island began in 1945.[19] Marine court-martial records show that 69 Marines were convicted in Okinawa during 2015-2020 for sexual offenses involving minors, including actual or attempted sexual assault (whether the targeted children were Okinawans or the children of other service personnel is unknown).[20]

US military sites also may endanger US troops or other Americans by provoking hostility toward the United States. The US military presence in Saudi Arabia was one of the chief grievances that motivated al Qaeda’s terrorism.[21] The US military presence in countries such as Japan and South Korea, while no doubt partly intended to defend against China, may be perceived by Chinese policymakers as a threat and thus increase US-China hostilities.

The United States should consider limiting and reducing its military bases, just as specific weapons should be limited and reduced. Like traditional arms control, controlling military bases could be pursued in cooperation with rival nations such as China and Russia: the United States could reduce its bases in return for a limit on Chinese and Russian bases. A world with fewer military bases could prove a safer one.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Rehumanize International blog.


[1] US Defense Department, DMDC, “Armed Forces Strength Figures for November 30, 2021,” accessed January 26, 2022, https://bit.ly/3ICTdpK; Leo Shane III and Joe Gould, “Congress Passes Defense Policy Bill with Budget Boost, Military Justice Reforms,” Military Times, December 15, 2021, https://bit.ly/3IH0Zie.

[2] US Defense Department, DMDC, “Number of Military and DoD Appropriated Fund (APF) Civilian Personnel Permanently Assigned, As of September 30, 2021,” accessed January 26, 2022, https://bit.ly/3G5UdB9.

[3] US Defense Department, “Base Structure Report – Fiscal Year 2018 Baseline: A Summary of the Real Property Inventory Data,” accessed January 26, 2022, https://bit.ly/3ACfyAM, 4, 18.

[4] Ibid., 73-88.

[5] Ibid., 18, 42-43, 62-63.

[6] David Vine, Patterson Deppen, and Leah Bolger, “Drawdown: Improving U.S. and Global Security through Military Base Closures Abroad,” Quincy Brief 16, September 20, 2021, https://bit.ly/3KPTMhG.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] US Defense Department, DMDC, “Number of Military and DoD Appropriated Fund (APF) Civilian Personnel.”

[10] David Vine, “The United States Probably Has More Foreign Military Bases Than Any Other People, Nation, or Empire in History,” The Nation, September 14, 2015, https://bit.ly/3rO9XDE.

[11] Ibid.; Michael A. Allen, Carla Martinez Machain, and Michael E. Flynn, “After Afghanistan, US Military Presence Abroad Faces Domestic and Foreign Opposition in 2022,” The Conversation, January 5, 2022, https://bit.ly/3tZH4Hn.

[12] For information on Guantanamo and its history, see Samuel B. Parker, “A ‘New Paradigm’: The Stunning History of Human Rights Violations at Guantánamo Bay,” Rehumanize International blog, January 10, 2022, https://bit.ly/3G2JJlN.

[13] Vine, “The United States Probably Has More Foreign Military Bases”; Allen, Martinez Machain, and Flynn, “After Afghanistan.”

[14] Vine, “The United States Probably Has More Foreign Military Bases”; Vine, Deppen, and Bolger, “Drawdown.”

[15] Allen, Martinez Machain, and Flynn, “After Afghanistan.”

[16] Tara Copp, “DoD: At Least 126 Bases Report Water Contaminants Linked to Cancer, Birth Defects,” Military Times, April 26, 2018, https://bit.ly/3o3ZGCd; Jon Mitchell, “US Military Bases Are Poisoning Okinawa,” The Diplomat, October 12, 2020, https://bit.ly/32zro28.

[17] Mitchell, “US Military Bases Are Poisoning Okinawa.”

[18] Copp, “DoD: At Least 126 Bases Report Water Contaminants.”

[19] Jon Mitchell, “NCIS Case Files Reveal Undisclosed U.S. Military Sex Crimes in Okinawa,” The Intercept, October 3, 2021, https://bit.ly/32DbmV6.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Osama bin Laden v. the U.S.: Edicts and Statements,” PBS Frontline, accessed January 26, 2022, https://to.pbs.org/3G4Jg2w.

© 2022 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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