Alex Domanski / REUTERS Paratroopers of the U.S. Army 86th Army Wings leave an Air Force C-130J transport plane after a training flight at the air base in Ramstein, February 2012. 

The Case Against U.S. Overseas Military Bases

Why They Are No Longer a Strategic Asset

Over the last several decades, the digital revolution has fundamentally transformed business best practices. The changes have been slow to penetrate the public sector, however, which remains tied to traditional thinking and practices. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is trying to review all aspects of the State Department to get it up to speed, which is all to the good. But even bigger game would be the Pentagon, the world’s largest bureaucracy. The strategy, structure, and funding priorities of the U.S. military were set decades ago, in response to an entirely different geopolitical, economic, and technological environment.

Consider today’s elaborate and expensive network of U.S. overseas military bases, which first emerged as coaling stations for navy ships a century and a half ago. Modern surveillance and targeting technology have made the bases increasingly vulnerable, and the presence of U.S. military bases can militarize disputes and antagonize opponents that would have otherwise been more docile. U.S. bases can also encourage allies to take risks they might have avoided, thus heightening instability and entangling the United States in peripheral conflicts. Finally, forward-deployed forces are a temptation for U.S. leaders: they can make calls for intervention—even where core U.S. interests are not at stake—seem more reasonable.

As the circumstances of international politics have changed, and as innovations in technology have both shortened travel times and made in-place forces more vulnerable, the strategic and operational utility of overseas bases deserves renewed scrutiny. The three main strategic justifications for overseas bases—to deter adversaries, reassure allies, and enable rapid contingency response by the U.S. military—are no longer sufficient to justify a permanent peacetime military presence abroad.

THE DETERRENCE PROBLEM

The deterrence value of overseas military bases is frequently exaggerated. For starters, it is hard to actually demonstrate. Because success is measured by the absence of an unwanted action by an adversary, determining whether something did not happen because of deterrence, because the

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