Do US Bases Increase Our National Security?

My Stanford seminar on “Nuclear Weapons, Risk and Hope” emphasizes the role that critical thinking can play in defusing the nuclear threat. While reducing the number of weapons and other concrete changes are needed, the most important first step may be to reexamine the assumptions that form the foundation for our worldview, root out any that are wrong, and thereby establish a more rational basis for our national security.

There is also great hope in taking that approach because critics can argue that concrete changes in our nuclear posture are dangerous – overlooking, as I have noted repeatedly, that our current posture also entails risk. In contrast, what risk can anyone argue is entailed by reexamining potentially fallacious assumptions? Correcting false assumptions lays a new foundation for our worldview that can profoundly affect our nuclear posture and national security.

A recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists applies critical thinking to our network of military bases by asking an important, but little-asked question: Do US military bases abroad increase or decrease our national security? Here are some key excerpts from that article:

[Our foreign] bases constitute 95 percent of all the military bases any country in the world maintains on any other country’s territory. … the United States spends about $102 billion a year to run its overseas bases … And in many cases you have to ask what purpose they serve. … [Today] it makes as much sense for the Pentagon to hold onto 227 military bases in Germany as it would for the post office to maintain a fleet of horses and buggies. …

American leaders speak of foreign bases as cementing alliances with foreign nations, … [but] these bases can become flashpoints for conflict. Military bases invariably discharge toxic waste into local ecosystems. … It is also inevitable that, from time to time, U.S. soldiers – often drunk – commit crimes … [thereby injuring] U.S. relations with important allies.

The 9/11 attacks are arguably the most spectacular example of the kind of blowback that can be generated from local resentment against U.S. bases. In the 1990s, the presence of U.S. military bases near the holiest sites of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia angered Osama bin Laden and provided Al Qaeda with a potent recruitment tool. …

U.S. foreign bases have a double edge: they project American power across the globe, but they also inflame U.S. foreign relations, generating resentment against the prostitution, environmental damage, petty crime, and everyday ethnocentrism that are their inevitable corollaries. …

The Declaration of Independence criticizes the British “for quartering large bodies of armed troops among us” and “for protecting them, by a mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these States.” Fine words! The United States should start taking them to heart.

Martin Hellman

Further Reading
The entire article in the Bulletin.

My notes on critical thinking start on page 12 of handout #6 for my seminar.

All handouts for that seminar.

Andrew Bacevich’s book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War explores the larger issue of American foreign involvement. Bacevich is a West Point grad, a Viet vet, and retired from the US Army as a colonel. He currently teaches at Boston University.

A Request
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About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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1 Response to Do US Bases Increase Our National Security?

  1. Wesley Parish says:

    Just an additional note, from an impeccably American source: Dr Paul M. A. Linebarger’s Psychological Warfare, 2nd Ed., pg 264:

    “[Sir Henry Gurney’]s approach to the problem of confronting Communism was hopelessly sane. The Communists were offering young Chinese the intoxication of craziness, of a mad and heroic righteousness to justify the mis-spending of their lives. Sir Henry’s answer was decency, goodness, security, prosperity, authority, liberty under law. He offered everything except glamour, terror, inspiration and romance-
    Everything except the chance to join the British side.
    What kind of British side?
    A British side which, like the Communist side, would welcome the makers of the future, the builders of the next civilization, the arbiters of history.”

    It’s all there. US military bases in a Europe now at peace, subliminally suggest the Europe is still not trustworthy; US bases in the states of the Arab nation blare out that the US doesn’t and won’t consider the Arab nation anywhere near being equals – which the one-sided support of Israel drives in like a hot knife into the hamstrings Ditto the US bases in Latin America, Asia, etc …

    It’s a culture of failure.

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