Imperialism, meaning militarily stronger nations dominating and exploiting weaker ones, has been a prominent feature of the international system for several centuries, but it may be coming to an end. Overwhelming majorities in numerous countries now condemn it—with the possible exception of some observers who believe it promotes “stability” and some United States politicians who still vigorously debate the pros and cons of America’s continuing military hegemony over much of the globe.
Imperialism’s current decline began in 1991 with the disintegration of the former Soviet Union and the collapse of its empire. The United States now seems to be the last of a dying species—the sole remaining multinational empire. (There are only a few vestiges of the old Dutch, English, and French empires, mostly in the form of island colonies and other enclaves in and around the Caribbean.) As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made clear, the United States is increasingly stressed by the demands of maintaining its empire through its own military resources. Change is in the air.
According to the Pentagon’s 2008 “Base Structure Report,” its annual unclassified inventory of the real estate it owns or leases around the world, the United States maintains 761 active military “sites” in foreign countries. (That’s the Defense Department’s preferred term, rather than “bases,” although bases are what they are.) Counting domestic military bases and those on US territories, the total is 5,429.
The overseas figure fluctuates year to year. The 2008 total is down from 823 in the Pentagon’s 2007 report, but the 2007 number was up from 766 in 2006. The current total is, however, substantially less than the Cold War peak of 1,014 in 1967. Still, given that there are only 192 countries in the United Nations, 761 foreign bases is a remarkable example of imperial overstretch—even more so considering that official military reports understate the actual size of the US footprint. (The official figures omit espionage bases, those located in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and miscellaneous facilities in places considered too sensitive to discuss or which the Pentagon for its own reasons chooses to exclude—e.g. in Israel, Kosovo, or Jordan.)
“The characteristic form of US power outside its territory is not colonial, or indirect rule within a colonial framework of direct control, but a system of satellite or compliant states,” observes Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian of modern empires. In this sense America behaves more like the Soviet empire in Europe after World War II than the British or French empires of the 19th century.
To garrison its empire, as of last December, the United States had 510,927 service personnel (including sailors afloat) deployed in 151 foreign countries. This includes some 196,600 fighting in Iraq and 25,700 in Afghanistan.
The reach of the US military expanded rapidly after World War II and the Korean truce, when we acquired our largest overseas enclaves in the defeated countries of Germany, Italy, and Japan, and on Allied turf in Great Britain and South Korea. But despite the wartime origins of many overseas bases, they have little to do with our national security. America does not necessarily need forward-deployed military forces to engage in either offensive or defensive operations, because domestic bases are more than sufficient for those purposes. The Air Force can shuttle troops and equipment or launch bombers from continental American bases using aerial refueling, which has been standard Strategic Air Command doctrine and practice since 1951. Only after the Cold War was well under way did the Strategic Air Command expand into several overseas bases in Canada, England, Greenland, Japan, Oman, Spain, and Thailand in an effort to complicate Soviet retaliatory strategy.
We also project power through our fleet of strategic submarines, armed with either nuclear-tipped or conventional high-explosive ballistic missiles, and some 10 naval task forces built around nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. With these floating bases dominating the seas, we need not interfere with other nations’ sovereignty by forcing land bases upon them.
In fact, the purpose of our overseas bases is to maintain US dominance in the world, and to reinforce what military analyst Charles Maier calls our “empire of consumption.” The United States possesses less than 5 percent of global population but consumes about one-quarter of all global resources, including petroleum. Our empire exists so we can exploit a much greater share of the world’s wealth than we are entitled to, and to prevent other nations from combining against us to take their rightful share.
Some nations have, however, started to balk at America’s military presence. Thanks to the policies of the Bush administration these past eight years, large majorities in numerous countries are now strongly anti-American. In June 2008, a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee issued a report titled The Decline in America’s Reputation: Why? It blames falling approval ratings abroad on the Iraq War, our support for repressive governments, a perception of US bias in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and the “torture and abuse of prisoners.” The result: a growing number of foreign protest movements objecting to the presence of American troops and their families, mercenaries, and spies.
The most serious erosion of American power appears to be occurring in Latin America, where a majority of countries either actively detest us—particularly Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Cuba—or are hostile to our economic policies. Most have been distrustful ever since it was revealed that the US stood behind the late 20th-century tortures, disappearances, death squads, military coups, and right-wing pogroms against workers, peasants, and the educated in such countries as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, and Uruguay. The citizens of Paraguay appear to be recent converts to anti-Americanism thanks to speculation that the US is trying to establish a US military presence there. The only places where American troops are still more or less welcome in Latin America are Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, and, tentatively, Peru, plus a few European colonial outposts in the Caribbean.
In Ecuador, the primary battleground has been Eloy Alfaro Air Base, located next door to Manta, Ecuador’s most important Pacific seaport. In 1999, claiming to be interested only in interrupting the narcotics traffic and assisting the local population, the US military obtained a 10-year deal to use the airfield and then, after 9/11, turned it into a major hub for counterinsurgency, anti-immigrant activities, and espionage. Ecuadorians are convinced that the Americans based at Manta provided the intelligence that enabled Colombian forces to launch a March 2008 cross-border attack, killing 21 Colombian insurgents on Ecuador’s turf.
In 2006, newly elected Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa declared that he wouldn’t renew the American lease when it expires in November 2009—unless, he tauntingly proposed the following year, the United States would let Ecuador have a base in Miami. Correa has since offered to lease the air base to the Chinese for commercial use. Ecuador also rejected a US bid to set up a base on the island of Baltra in the Galápagos, a protected wildlife refuge. The 180 US soldiers and several hundred contractors (according to the New York Times) at Manta are said to be seeking a new home in either Colombia or Peru.
Peru has proved problematic for the Pentagon. In July 2008, the US sent close to 1,000 soldiers to “dig wells and do public health work” in the southern Ayacucho region, an area once controlled by the Shining Path guerrillas. The US deployment, while seemingly harmless, has provoked demonstrations in many Peruvian cities, where such “friendship” missions are viewed as a pretext for an expanded US military presence. There is an airfield in Ayacucho—Los Cabitos—that the Americans would like to occupy, as it might provide easy access to Bolivia and Colombia. At the end of July, Colombia’s defense minister chimed in, declaring that the country will not welcome a US base, although it will continue to cooperate with US military efforts in the region.
The US faces popular protests against its bases in numerous other countries. Disputes over military pollution and the handling of soldiers suspected of crimes have led to widespread resentment of US troop presence in South Korea and the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa. Meanwhile, in Italy, where the United States still has at least 83 military installations, demonstrations erupted in 2006 when it was revealed that the government would let the US Army greatly enlarge its base in the northern city of Vicenza.
A town of about 120,000 nestled midway between Venice and Verona, Vicenza was home and showplace of the renowned Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, whose work so impressed Thomas Jefferson that he incorporated Palladian themes into his plantation at Monticello and the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. Vicenza already housed 6,000 US troops when, in late 2003, US officials began secretly negotiating to bring in four more Army battalions from Germany. The Americans proposed closing Vicenza’s small municipal airport at Dal Molin, across town from the existing base, so they could build barracks and other facilities at the airport for 1,750 additional troops.
But locals still haven’t forgotten the 1998 incident in which a US Marine pilot from nearby Aviano Air Base severed an Italian gondola cable with his jet, killing 20 skiers. The pilot, who’d been flying his Prowler faster and lower than Pentagon regulations permit, was later acquitted by a US military court, although he did serve five months in prison for destroying evidence in the form of a cockpit video. Local opposition to the Vicenza proposal led local judges to suspend work at Dal Molin in June, leading to a standoff with the Berlusconi government, which supports the base expansion. A month later, the Council of State, Italy’s highest court, overturned the local decision, declaring that “the authorization of a military base is the exclusive competency of the state.”
Similar disputes are unfolding in Poland, the Czech Republic, South Korea, and Japan. For several years the Pentagon has been negotiating with the Polish and Czech governments to build bases in their countries for radar-tracking and missile-launching sites as part of its proposed anti-ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) network against an alleged threat from Iran. Russia, however, does not accept the US explanation, and believes these bases are aimed at it. In July, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice successfully concluded a missile defense deal with the Czech government, but it still requires ratification by the Parliament, with two-thirds of the population said to be opposed. While the Polish government had been slow to sign on, Russia’s recent attack on Georgia appears to have changed its attitude. In light of Russian assertiveness, the Poles quickly accepted the American proposal to base anti-missile missiles on their soil. It remains to be seen whether this will solidify American defensive commitments to Poland or further inflame Russia’s relations with NATO.
In South Korea, America faces massive protests over its attempt to construct new headquarters at Pyeongtaek, some 40 miles south of Seoul, where it hopes to locate 17,000 troops and associated civilians, for a total of 43,000 people. Pyeongtaek would replace the Yongsan Garrison, the old Japanese headquarters in central Seoul that US troops have occupied since 1945.
Meanwhile, the United States and Japan are locked in a perennial dispute over the $1.86 billion Japan pays annually to support US troops and their families on the main islands of Japan and Okinawa. The Japanese call this the “sympathy budget” in an expression of cynicism over the fact that the US cannot seem to afford its own foreign policy. The Americans want Japan to pay more, but the Japanese have balked.
All overseas US bases create tensions with the people forced to live in their shadow, but one of the most shameful examples involves the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. During the 1960s, the US leased the island from Great Britain, which, on behalf of its new tenant, forcibly expelled the entire indigenous population, relocating the islanders some 1,200 miles away in Mauritius and the Seychelles. (See “Homesick for Camp Justice.”)
Today Diego Garcia is a US naval and bomber base, espionage center, secret CIA prison, and transit point for prisoners en route to harsh interrogation at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. It has an anchorage for some 20 ships, a nuclear-weapons storage facility, a 12,000-foot runway, and accommodations and amenities for 5,200 Americans and 50 British police. According to many sources, including retired General Barry McCaffrey, the base was used after 9/11 as a prison for high-value detainees from the Afghan and Iraq wars. It is called Camp Justice.
Perhaps the most recent sign of trouble brewing for America’s overseas enclaves is the world’s condemnation of its long-term ambitions in Iraq. In June, it was revealed that the US was secretly pressing Iraq to let it retain some 58 bases on Iraqi soil indefinitely, plus other concessions that would make Iraq a long-term dependency of the United States. (See “Our Way or the Highway.”) The negotiations over a long-term American presence have been a debacle for the rule of law and what’s left of America’s reputation, even if the lame-duck Bush administration backs down in the end.
Like all empires of the past, the American version is destined to come to an end, either voluntarily or of necessity. When that will occur is impossible to foretell, but the pressures of America’s massive indebtedness, the growing contradiction between the needs of its civilian economy and its military-industrial complex, and its dependence on a volunteer army and innumerable private contractors strongly indicate an empire built on fragile foundations. Over the next few years, resistance to America’s military overtures is likely to grow, meaning the agenda of national politics will be increasingly dominated by issues of empire liquidation—peacefully or otherwise.