Close America’s Overseas Bases

John Glaser proposes a policy shift that would save money and make the United States safer: closing some or all of America’s 800 overseas military bases.

Previous Episode
The Fate of the West
Next Episode
Free Thoughts on Free Thoughts: 200 Episodes and Counting

John Glaser joins us to talk about a policy shift that would save money and make the United States safer: closing some or all of America’s 800 overseas military bases.

Where are these bases concentrated? Why does the military think they’re necessary? Would the world be a more dangerous place if the US wasn’t a global hegemon?

Show Notes and Further Reading

If you’re interested in this topic we encourage you to read Glaser’s policy analysis, “Withdrawing from Overseas Bases: Why a Forward-Deployed Military Posture Is Unnecessary, Outdated, and Dangerous” and his op-ed in Time, “Why We Should Close America’s Overseas Military Bases.”

Other Free Thoughts episodes on foreign policy:


Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

Aaron Powell: Joining us today is John Glaser. He’s the Associate Director of Foreign Policy Studies here at the Cato Institute. Welcome to Free Thoughts, John.

John Glaser: Thanks.

Aaron Powell: What is America’s “forward-deployed military posture?”

John Glaser: So that’s a fancy Pentagon way of saying that we have a lot of overseas military bases. We have about 800 of them, of varying sizes, [00:00:30] in about 70 countries abroad. It’s a massive presence. Some of these bases have people for years, and years, and years, permanently stationed there with their families. They build little cities inside these military bases to sustain life. Others are really small, with only a few troops. Just to get a sense of the size of it, it has roughly 250,000 [00:01:00] troops at all times, all around the world. In comparison, Russia, our geopolitical competitor, has only about nine overseas bases. China has just one, in Djibouti. It’s a uniquely American preoccupation, this forward deployed presence.

Trevor Burrus: Has that number, 800, changed much in the last 20 years or so?

John Glaser: Yeah.

Trevor Burrus: Or maybe 50 years?

John Glaser: Sure. [00:01:30] Since the Cold War, the number of troops deployed abroad has definitely gone down. The number of bases has gone down as well, but they went back up with regard to the Middle East. We took a lot of troops and bases out of Europe at the end of the Cold War, and reduced some bases that we had in Asia. Our presence and activity in the Middle East increased. Since the end of the Cold War, we’ve [00:02:00] actually increased our presence there.

Aaron Powell: Where are these? You said they’re in 70 countries, and we have more in the Middle East than we used to; but in general, where are these located? Are they highly concentrated in specific parts of the world? Or, are we pretty much covering everything?

John Glaser: They’re highly concentrated, especially the major ones with lots of troops in them, in Europe, the Middle East, and North-east Asia; so Japan and South Korea have very large numbers of US troops. Germany has a lot of US troops. We have them scattered throughout the rest [00:02:30] of Europe as well. Then, in the Middle East, we have roughly 50,000 troops. We have major, 13 to 14,000 in Kuwait. We have 7,000 roughly rotating in and out of Iraq right now. We have, of course, the major presence still in Afghanistan. We’re still fighting a war there. Major air bases in Qatar, and about 6 or 7,000 troops permanently stationed in the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, which is right in the [00:03:00] Persian Gulf.

Trevor Burrus: Now, you argue that we shouldn’t have as many … I mean, we could cut that in half and we would still have substantially more. We could have 400 bases and we still would have substantially more than any other country. That would definitely be a significant change in US Foreign Policy if we were not so, as we say, ‘forward deployed’ out there. Is it asking too much, first of all, to not be able to put our force abroad at any sort of … five minutes from [00:03:30] being able to bomb Iran. That’s the way we think about American Foreign Policy. Stepping back from that is really rethinking the entirety of American Foreign Policy.

John Glaser: Yeah. I will reveal my own bias here. I think yes, our foreign policy needs a fundamental re-think. We shouldn’t be playing the global policeman. I think the purpose of American foreign policy ought to be what it used to be, which is essentially protecting the physical security of the United States territory and it’s citizens. [00:04:00] Managing local disputes in remote regions of the world that don’t have all that much impact for our security or our economic interest, I don’t think is in our interest. I don’t think that makes sense for us.

Part of the problem with having lots of bases in lots of different countries around the world is that it tends to suck us into conflicts that we otherwise might not be engaged in. For example, [00:04:30] after the Second World War in 1945, we established what was supposed to be a temporary presence in South Korea. We were supposed to work with the Russians to develop some kind of situation in which the Korean Peninsula could operate on it’s own, and have it’s own government. In 1947, 48, and 49, three successive years, the top military strategists in the Truman Administration recommended full withdrawal. [00:05:00] They did so because they said Korea is of little strategic importance to us. The fact is that we had a presence there, and then when the North Koreans invaded in 1950, it obligated the United States to continue to be involved. This is the case with our current commitments.

For example, we have bases in the Philippines that … and Japan. Japan and the Philippines both have maritime and territorial disputes with China. If it’s the case that they end up getting into some kind [00:05:30] of dispute, our forces act as a trip wire. They obligate the United States, make it politically costly for us not to get involved in optional elective conflicts. I think that’s one of the major problems with it.

Aaron Powell: But doesn’t this get to the … The argument in part for these bases is precisely that that’s the sort of stuff we should be doing, that if we … We don’t want the North Koreans taking over the Korean Peninsula. We don’t want China destroying Japan. If we’ve got these bases there, [00:06:00] be they act as a deterrent in the first place, and if they don’t, they make us more capable and make those countries more capable of defending themselves.

John Glaser: Indeed. As we deter adversaries and reassure allies, this has the effect of, according to advocates of forward deployment, pacifying the international systems. Sometimes it’s called the American pacifier. We basically prevent spirals of conflict happening around the world, because this major hegemonic power has troops everywhere. [00:06:30] That’s an argument; but I think you have to consider the other plausible, causal explanations for the dramatic decline in international conflict and violence over the past 70 years.

It is true that our forward presence was established after World War II. It’s also true that since then, there’s a correlation between the establishment of those bases and the decline of overall interstate violence. But, there’s other [00:07:00] factors as well. For example, the fact that most great powers and some not-so-great powers have nuclear weapons. This creates a situation of mutually assured destruction, and it makes people really not want to go to war because that means the destruction of your society. Some people, that’s called the ‘Nuclear Peace Theory.’ Very honorable and respected theorists like Kenneth Waltz in the international relations field have proffered that one.

Some people look at the Nuclear Peace Theory and say, “Well, sure, but that’s probably [00:07:30] redundant. The conventional power that modern militaries have, as we saw in World War I and World War II are so destructive. They can destroy empires. They can kill people almost as effectively as nuclear weapons, and so that acts as enough of a deterrent: the modern capacity of industrialized militaries is too great.”

Then, some people look at economic interdependence, which of course, has proliferated in the [00:08:00] post-war era. If you trade with someone and you have economic interdependence, you’re much less likely to go to war with them. Some other people still look further. John Mueller, for example; who you guys know, he’s a political scientist out of Ohio State University. He has senior fellow here at Cato. He’s one of the foremost proponents that there have been dramatic normative shifts in the way most civilized people see war in this era. [00:08:30] It’s something if you go back to the World War I era, you can hear people in Germany and even our own leaders like Teddy Roosevelt at the time, talking about war as something to aspire to. It was a cleansing national experience that made people strong and glorious, and masculine. That’s different from today. Even the war mongers among us tend to talk about war as something of a last resort. Then of course, there’s ‘Democratic Peace Theory.’ There are more [00:09:00] democracies these days. Democracies for some reason or another, tend not to go to war with each other.

You have all of these different trends, all of these different trend lines of … that have various support in the academic community. They all point in the direction of less war and less violence. Under those conditions, I think it’s worth scrutinizing the American pacifier theory.

Aaron Powell: We turn to history, briefly. We’re talking a good [00:09:30] prompt for this conversation today is a paper you recently published with Cato, which we’ll put a link to in the show notes, about these overseas bases. You have a section on the how the motivations for having them have changed over time. Can you tell us a bit about that [inaudible 00:09:47] … long history of putting troops in places that aren’t your own territory?

John Glaser: Sure. I don’t know how much of the long history I can go into detail about, but the things that I talk about in the-

Trevor Burrus: Actually, I’m going to interject with the first … Before World War II, [00:10:00] we did have the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. When was the first sort of forward deployment? We had Guam. We had Philippines. Starting in the early 20th century, we did have troops abroad, correct?

John Glaser: Yeah. 1898, after the Spanish-American War, we did adopt some pretty major overseas bases that also ended up … We sort of annexed territory. We still own Guam, for example, and lots of other pieces of territory. It’s hard [00:10:30] to say when our first overseas military base. Sometimes in the mid-1800s and actually early 1800s, we had some outposts in China to try to facilitate trade between the United States and China. I wouldn’t really count that as a full military base in the sense that we’re currently talking about. The 1898 style discussion, some people sometimes call that the ‘saltwater fallacy,’ because we were still an expanding continent [00:11:00] here in the contiguous United States. We had all sorts of military bases out West. When it got past the salt water, people talk about that being more imperial inclinations.

With regard to the history, overseas military bases are not all that new. You had Athens and Sparta building military bases throughout Greece. You had Rome building military bases from Britannia all the way to [00:11:30] the other end of the Mediterranean. Empires of old used to build military bases to colonize distant lands with their own people. They used to build them for mercantilist reasons, to gain economic advantage over their other competitors. It was only in the really the start of the Cold War, the end of World War [00:12:00] II, that overseas bases started to develop this current justification. Which is to, number one, deter adversaries. Number two, reassure allies. Number three, make it really easy for us to get places quickly if we decide we want to go to war.

Aaron Powell: If we take the arguments, we accept the arguments of people who think that there should be overseas bases, those arguments would seem to apply to other countries as well. [00:12:30] Then, why is that … The United States has a bigger military than Russia, and a bigger military than China; but the difference in the number of bases we have versus the number of bases they have can’t be explained just by the ratios there. If these bases are valuable, why don’t other countries have so many? Why are they all sitting in the single digits?

John Glaser: The United States is unique in it’s definition of it’s national interests. We have truly expansive definition of what our national interests are, what our [00:13:00] global responsibilities are. China doesn’t have, within it’s own national security strategy, what kind of military intervention they would engage in if there’s a humanitarian conflict in Latin America, or something. No other country has such an expansive definition of it’s national interests as the United States does.

The other thing that’s important in that context is that the United States is safer than most other great [00:13:30] powers. We have weak and pliant neighbors to our North and South. We have vast oceans to our East and West, which act as a defensive barrier to most conventional kinds of threats. We spend … roughly 38% of the global military spending is our own. We could cut our military spending in half and still outspend China right now. We have a nuclear deterrent, which prevents anyone from attacking our own territories. This [00:14:00] situation puts us in a really secure place. When you’re really secure, unfortunately, and you’re the unipolar power, the hegemony in the world, you start to think about what you can do elsewhere as opposed to just protecting your own borders.

Trevor Burrus: Don’t you think that other … You said we have our … We conceptualize our interests very broadly, but don’t you think that other countries also do that to us? That they expect us to do the right thing, and that we’re the benevolent hegemony, and that that’s actually the [00:14:30] entire point? That it’s not that big a deal that we’re in Germany because we are generally a good country that … What’s [inaudible 00:14:39], we will do the right thing after we’ve exhausted all other options. People know that about us, but I think that Germany probably wants us there.

Aaron Powell: They’re not scared, at least, that we’re going to up and decide to take them over.

Trevor Burrus: Yeah. No one’s afraid of that. No one’s thinking that we’re Rome and we’re trying to take over the whole world. Maybe in some of these places like Bahrain or a place where we [00:15:00] have … We might [engineer 00:15:02] conflict and put our people in danger, because there are people there who want to get them. That’s a totally different analysis than say, Germany, which is probably creating good relations between America and Germany, and allowing us to do what they’re asking us to do; which is to be the benevolent hegemony. Which, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that.

John Glaser: Yeah. So first of all, it’s totally true that Germany is not worried about the United States taking over Germany. That’s not our M-O. But if you’re talking about the perception of [00:15:30] our military posture abroad, you also have to take into account people that aren’t benefiting off American largess, that aren’t having their defense subsidized by the United States and our presence there. For example, one of the most dangerous points in the entirety of the Cold War, was of course, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Only a matter of months prior to that crisis, the Kennedy Administration put missiles, Jupiter missiles, [00:16:00] in Turkey, which bordered the Soviet Union. Of course, Moscow perceived this as deeply threatening. The leadership at the time in Russia, in the Soviet Union discussed in papers that have since been declassified that, ‘We feel we’re being surrounded by military bases from the United States, and so we’re going to give them a taste of their own medicine and put one in Cuba.’ That precipitated literally the closest we’ve come to nuclear war, [00:16:30] so that was obviously not a good thing.

That translates to today. For example, the expansion of NATO, and the establishment of US military bases further and further East towards Russia, and even up to the Russian border in some cases, is the source of profound and lingering anxiety and resentment in Russia. They don’t like the perception that they’re being sort of encircled. You can also compare this in [00:17:00] Asia. The United States has almost roughly 50,000 troops in Japan, right at the end of the Japanese archipelago, which is sort of pointed like a dagger at the center of China. We have about 30,000 troops in Korea, which of course, is very close to China. We guarantee the security of the Philippines. We have 60% of our naval presence in the Asia Pacific region. [00:17:30] This is perceived in China as deeply threatening.

Every country and it’s allies tends to view themselves as benevolent and wonderful, and non-threatening. The problem is when you get into other people’s heads, they see it much differently. Just to conclude this part, one of the foremost grievances cited for the 9/11 attacks was the US military presence in Saudi Arabia. It was something that Al Qaeda cited [00:18:00] in order to rally Muslim support against the United States. It was one of the foremost reasons and justifications that they used to attack us.

Our presence abroad can create all kinds of resentment. That’s not just in countries in the Middle East. Just a year or so ago, there was a protest of 65,000 Okinawans in Japan in opposition to the US military base presence there. This can happen [00:18:30] all over the world, even among allies.

Trevor Burrus: I want to, on the 9/11 point, do you believe it is the case that, but for American military bases, the ones cited in the Al Qaeda letter, in Saudi Arabia in particular, I believe, but for those, 9/11 wouldn’t have happened.

John Glaser: Well, there was a number of grievances that Al Qaeda-

Trevor Burrus: Well, we still would have been attacked. I guess to clarify my question, too, if we just flew [inaudible 00:18:58] from Germany [00:19:00] and attacked them, how much is the bases, and how much is it the military actions? If we were bombing places, but flying from Germany, or we were still treating the … muslim [inaudible 00:19:12]. That seems like a bigger thing than just the presence of a base that we’re discussing right now.

John Glaser: That’s true. In general, of course, lots of Muslims, particularly the extremist ones, oppose aggressive military action in the Middle East. The presence of US military forces [00:19:30] inside Saudi Arabia, which is the site of the two holiest places in Islam, was the source of particular concern to very religious Muslims because they felt that the Saudi government was inviting infidels and crusaders to the holiest place in Islam. That was the source of a particular and unique religious concern. It’s also the case that Robert Pape, one of the foremost [00:20:00] scholars on terrorism, has said his studies that foreign occupation is the foremost determinative of terrorism, a motivator for terrorism. If you can go back in history, for example, when we had our massive military presence in Lebanon in the 1980s. In 1983, that’s when Hezbollah committed an attack that killed something like 241 … I might get that number wrong … US service personnel. [00:20:30] In 2000, the USS Cole was attacked out of Yemen.

These foreign military bases are symbols of American power in the region. All the other stuff, whether it’s Israel/Palestine, the sanctions regime on Iraq, which ended up killing lots of people, all kinds of other more tangible elements of US influence in the region, the bases [00:21:00] themselves … as I say, operate as a kind of symbol of American power that can generate a lot of resentment.

Aaron Powell: Okay, but I can … putting on my rah-rah war hat for a moment.

Trevor Burrus: It doesn’t fit you very well.

Aaron Powell: No.

Trevor Burrus: It’s been in the closet for a long time.

Aaron Powell: Yeah. I guess, so what? Russia, they’re the bad guys; a powerful military run by a mad man. China is the bad [00:21:30] guys. The Islamic extremists are the bad guys. Yeah, having super powerful good guys next to them makes them uncomfortable, and they don’t like it, and it makes them resent that we’re more powerful than they are. So what? Why should that factor in? Why should we just give in to the psychological pain of the bad guys and not protect our interests?

Trevor Burrus: Yeah, if we hadn’t done Hitler with a bunch of military bases and it made Hitler uncomfortable, you’d be like, “That’s the point.”

John Glaser: [00:22:00] It depends on what kind of results you want. If you believe in the power of American deterrents, and that everywhere we put bases, it’s going to keep bad guys in check, then that’s one reason to further the argument that you just made. The problem is that there are reactions to our overseas military presence. It’s what’s called counter-balancing in the IR literature. [00:22:30] For example, it’s hard to find someone in Moscow or in the Kremlin that describes the motivations for their military actions in Georgia and Ukraine in ways that doesn’t cite NATO expansion.

Lots of analysts point to Chinese aggressive and assertive actions in the South China Sea as being motivated by a fear that the United States in the largest [00:23:00] naval presence there. Therefore, that’s where they get all their oil, through the straights of Malacca coming through the Persian Gulf, in the Strait of Malacca … and we could possibly interdict Chinese shipments. When you make foreign powers nervous unnecessarily, you tend to get unintended consequences that result from that. Usually those aren’t too pretty. Now, the problem is that people see these things very differently. People that advocate [00:23:30] for a foreign deployed presence, they don’t like to admit that Russia has taken aggressive actions in Eastern Europe as a result of the expansion of our military presence.

Instead, they say, “Well, that’s proof that we don’t have enough of a military presence there,” which is an argument for always having military bases everywhere, forever. I think that gets so far from what the purpose of American foreign policy should be that it creates all kinds of problems. There’s costs problems, which I [00:24:00] think we can talk about a little bit. More to the point, if you are like me, and I again, be clear about my biases here, I think the United States government should be limited in it’s powers and it’s role in domestic societies should be somewhat limited, especially compared with the role that it’s currently conceived as. I think that translates as well to the foreign realm. I think it ought to be the role of the American foreign policy, the purpose in American foreign [00:24:30] policy, to protect the United States and managing global affairs, and trying to prevent conflict in various regions, et cetera, getting ourselves drawn into conflicts, incentivizing counter balancing, all these other negative unintended consequences, that doesn’t meld with my conception of what US foreign policy ought to be about.

Aaron Powell: The world is a relatively safe place, compared to [00:25:00] where it’s been. We don’t have a lot of wars between nations. Living in a dangerous world, even if we’re … across oceans from it, is still worse than living in a safe world. Wouldn’t us focusing only on our own interests narrowly defined and pulling back, make the world in general a more dangerous place? Because then you wouldn’t have [00:25:30] the US protecting countries or deterring countries, even if there are these occasional push-backs and aggression that’s provoked by it. Which would then, just aside from being bad for the world, would ultimately be bad for America.

John Glaser: Well, this gets back to the American pacifier thesis. If you believe that the world is a safer place these days because America has scores of military bases in scores of countries, then that’s a really powerful argument. [00:26:00] I think there are solid reasons to think that the world is a safer place these days for reasons other than American pacifier.

Aaron Powell: But I guess the question is how does the cost benefit, kind of. You could say you’ve got … There’s the American pacifier theory, and then there’s the other theories that you’re more inclined to endorse; but given the state of the world right now and how relatively good it is compared to where it could be and where it’s been, it’s a profound risk to test those theories.

We can’t test them on [00:26:30] the small scale and say, “Oh, it turns out to be … maybe the American pacifier theory is a little bit better than I thought,” Or, “Maybe these other ones aren’t quite as right,” and then roll it back. Are the current costs that we are incurring at the moment, both in terms of just how expensive it is and the danger that it puts American people, American troops in, high enough to warrant that risk of testing John’s theory about global stability?

John Glaser: Yes, because I don’t think it’s actually [00:27:00] that much of a risk. It might help to narrow this down to a specific context, as opposed to thinking about the entire world. If you can remember it in the 2016 campaign, one of the main things Donald Trump kept saying was that China, it’s China’s responsibility to pressure North Korea to behave better and stop it’s nuclear development, and missile development, et cetera. One of the main reasons that China continues to [00:27:30] be a patron of North Korea is that one of the main things that China fears is a unified Korean Peninsula under the American military umbrella with US troops there. If you go back in the study of international relations, especially … This is very popular in the great game era, and the European politics in the 1800s, buffer states are really important. Buffer states make [00:28:00] states feel secure from their enemies. If there’s a piece of territory there, it’s a measure of protection.

If China’s mostly concerned about a unified Korean Peninsula with the American military forces there, because it doesn’t want US military forces on it’s border, one thing that we could do in terms of negotiating settlement to the North Korean issue, or leveraging China to get more involved [00:28:30] in a constructive way on Pyongyang, we could offer a change to the US and South Korean alliance, and perhaps pulling away from our military presence there. That’s a situation in which we could reach a more peaceful situation, some kind of peace agreement, some kind of grand bargain between the United States, North Korea, South Korea, and China; but it’s being held back because China’s main hangup is that US forces are in [00:29:00] the region. That’s just one example. There are others, though. We don’t need forward deployed military bases to keep us safe, and we don’t need them to make the world more peaceful.

Trevor Burrus: Kind of dovetailing on Aaron’s question a little bit. I was reading your paper, trying to be a neocon-ish person as I read it. I could see the lines that they thought were laughable. [00:29:30] One of your lines is, ‘The rise in expansionist European power bent on a continental domination is nowhere on the horizon.’ Isn’t that what they would have said in say, 1930? Isn’t that one of these famous last words things that when we’re talking about Europe pulling out Germany, for example, as I said. I know we can get later you think some bases are worse than others, and maybe Germany’s not top of your list; but if you’re totally against the forward deployment, then we’re talking about getting out of [00:30:00] Germany, too. I think history has shown that it’s generally a bad idea to let European powers grow their militaries and figure out and fight a war that is total destruction.

We shouldn’t just be blindly saying, “This is not a concern. We’ll get out of there.”

John Glaser: Yeah, I don’t think today is comparable to the era in the lead-up to World War I or in the era in the lead-up to World War II. Europe is one of the most stable and peaceful [00:30:30] continents in the world. It’s a really safe and rich bit of territory. Since World War II, European countries have developed all kinds of institutional elements of cooperation, economic integration. They have close political and diplomatic overlaps, in terms of how they perceive their interests. It really is a demonstration of how things can become pacified [00:31:00] in a political and cultural way after the devastation of the cataclysms of the first and second World War.

I don’t think there’s really anyone that I’m aware of in the literature who points out that Germany is a risk of a growing power that’s going to gobble up it’s neighbors and start to gain a hegemonic influence on the European continent. I think today, people would more likely to be pointing to Russia as a concern, as a power [00:31:30] that wants to expand and gobble up other countries. The problem with that is that their GDP is about 1.3 trillion, which is roughly like Spain’s. The main thing that you need to build up military power is economic power. Russia just doesn’t have it. They’re a declining power in a lot of ways. They have an aging population. They have all kinds of internal problems that prevent them from being able to project power in distant regions. Their actions in Georgia, [00:32:00] Ukraine, and Syria lately, have actually bogged them down in problematic conflicts that they don’t quite see a way out of. They have nuclear weapons, and that protects them, but they don’t really have the power right now to start gobbling up and become a European hegemony.

The main thing you have to look at, if you’re concerned about a rising hegemony is the nature of the regime, the balance of power, … because the Western Europe [00:32:30] checks Russia’s power because they’re more powerful and richer … and the economic power and military power of the states in question. I think if you look at that, it’s pretty clear that we don’t need to have a permanent presence there to prevent that kind of contingency. It’s like we had, in the past, basically we served as a balancer of last resort. When other powers, European powers in particular, found that they couldn’t manage a [00:33:00] rogue nation on their own, then we would come in and balance. That was a very wise and strategic and cost-efficient way to manage the balance of power. Instead, now the dominant theory is we have to always be there to prevent this from ever happening again. If it happens, we’ll have plenty of lead time. I think we can easily deploy quickly, if we think we need to.

Trevor Burrus: If you were making the case [00:33:30] for, to a person who did not accept … I think a pretty mainstream foreign policy view right now, even amongst … well, some conservatives. They don’t accept the fullness of your critique of American involvement abroad, but they think we’ve done too. They weren’t a fan of Iraq, maybe they think we should get out of Afghanistan. So when Trump said we’ve been doing too much abroad, that resonated with them.

But then to say, “Okay, therefore we should take every military base away,” is like, ‘Okay, that’s too strong.’ [00:34:00] We’re going for a compromise position, and when you do this in your paper, you talk about other technologies. Maybe we do need to get there in three days, but we have aircraft carriers, we have planes that can fly from Missouri to the Middle East and back. If you were making the case for dramatically lessening how many bases we have and still being able to accomplish the military objectives that a lot of people think that we should have [00:34:30] the capabilities, even if we shouldn’t use it as much, how would you make that case for say, 400 bases rather than 800? Which ones would you first say we got to get out of because they’re not worth it? What technologies can still let us be somewhat of a military hegemony, but without making other people mad, without putting our troops in danger? How would you rank the bases? How would you adjust our military capability to still behave in the world?

John Glaser: We just talked about Europe. I think Europe is one of the most stable, peaceful, and [00:35:00] rich places in the world. That makes it a very good candidate to pull US military bases out of. We see eye-to-eye with most Europeans on how things ought to be on domestic liberal reforms, and foreign policy, and stuff like that. They’re really rich, and powerful, and can defend themselves. They can uphold the role that the United States now upholds in the region, if we were to leave. That’s a good test case. [00:35:30] There are less stable areas. I talked about the Korean Peninsula, for example, and of course, the Middle East. I think reducing overall our military bases and maintaining a few, like the major ones that we have in say, Japan, would allow us rapid contingency response to deal with any operational contingency that might come our way.

The other important thing is what you were saying [00:36:00] is that our travel … The technology that we have these days, to travel really quickly, and bomb from great distances, really allow us to engage in any type of mission that we think is necessary. The only thing that really prevents rapid deployment of massive mobilization of military forces, withdrawing from all bases would make that quite difficult. The [00:36:30] argument there I would make is that it’s not necessarily a bad thing to rob the executive branch of the ability to quickly intervene in any conflict in which they think they ought to intervene; and counter to constitutional ideas about checks and balances, and giving the executive branch more options to deploy more quickly is kind of … does violence, so to speak, to constitutional principles.

Aaron Powell: [00:37:00] You’ve argued a few times that we are … one of the effects that our bases have is subsidizing the defense of other nations, because they don’t have to then pour their own money into defending themselves. Do we know how much nations would react to us taking away those subsidies? Can we just assume that if we pulled our bases out of Europe, the Europeans would build up their militaries an equal amount, or the South Koreans [00:37:30] would?

John Glaser: It’s hard to say. I think you have to look at discrete examples. Certainly it’s the case, I think, that Eastern European countries, ones that are really close to the Russian border, would start to boost military spending. The Baltics already spend more as a percentage of their economy than a lot of Western European countries do. It’s hard to say whether or not places like Germany, France, Britain, would boost military spending if they didn’t [00:38:00] have American protection. One of the main reasons is because they don’t face any threats. In the United States, it’s become a bit of a pathology to overspend on military assets. We need more weapons, more equipment, more troops, more bases, et cetera, because we have this expansive definition of our national interests. If the Europeans don’t spend a lot on their military, it might be because [00:38:30] we subsidize their defense, or it might be because they don’t really face any threats. Who’s going to invade Germany right now? Who is the candidate that’s going to bomb Berlin? It’s not really in the cards in the policy-relevant future. They might inch up slightly, but it’s not a guarantee that they would boost spending.

Aaron Powell: How does terrorism factor into this, because … so ISIS has threatened to invade Italy; but were there prophecies, right? Berlin, [00:39:00] Germany has been attacked. I don’t know Berlin specifically has been attacked, but does that change the equation? Do we need, because there’s these … there are threats in a way that there weren’t from just troops marching across a border?

John Glaser: Permanent peacetime overseas military bases are just about the worst tool imaginable to prevent some guy driving into a crowd of people in East France. The operations [00:39:30] and attacks that ISIS and other similar groups have taken in Europe in recent years are mostly lone wolf attacks. Sometimes there’s some tenuous connection to some base in the Middle East that was directed from the official group; but mostly, these are really low level violence attacks. They kill a few people and it’s very tragic, but there’s literally no way to conceive of our permanent overseas military presence as preventing that [00:40:00] or doing anything to mitigate it, or responding to it. These are just low level attacks. Of course, the question of terrorism at a bird’s eye view, it should be noted as has been noted on this podcast in previous episodes, it’s a small threat that we face from terrorism. Every year since 9/11, I think the number of deaths in the United States from terrorism is about 6. Every year since 9/11, the average number of deaths from being struck by lightening is roughly [00:40:30] 50. This is a manageable threat. It’s not a war to be won, it’s a problem to be managed.

Trevor Burrus: But if, on the flip side as opposed to trying to stop people driving trucks through crowds, which I agree is probably impossible unless you want to live in a police state; but if we want to hit terrorists in a strategic fashion, which whether it’s through drones, or bringing in special forces, and landing them, and seeing a threat. Maybe we see that they have nuclear material or something like this, [00:41:00] it seems that we would want to be flying out of bases in Italy, bases in Germany, bases in Qatar. That would be better.

John Glaser: The Rand Corporation did a study on this. What they concluded is that the time benefit of doing a bombing mission from say, Germany into the Middle East, is so neg liable as to not very much be worth it. It shouldn’t be the justification that our bases in Europe need to be there so that we can quickly [00:41:30] bomb the Middle East, because the time benefit is just so negligible. For example, during the first Gulf War in 1991, we flew bombing missions from Louisiana, in round trip missions, that were refueled in the air in under 30 hours. We can so quickly bomb targets in the Middle East, really at a whim, that the foreign military bases that [00:42:00] enable those logistically, enable those missions often times right now, are just not necessary to complete the mission.

Trevor Burrus: I can picture someone with military experience listening to this and thinking that this … In your paper, you compare five days of response versus seven days, if we were coming from mainland United States, or you said that Guam and Diego Garcia. Guam is a territory, so we don’t have destabilization concerns; so you’re okay with Guam, and you’re okay with Diego Garcia … which is a British territory. [00:42:30] If you have a two day difference between flying from Louisiana to the Middle East, and what’s the big deal?

I could see in the military strategy being like, “Who does this guy think he is? Two days is an eternity in military speed. Two days is where … Gettysburg day one to Gettysburg day three.”

John Glaser: Yeah, so it’s important to make the distinction here. The couple of days difference is referring to a brigade combat team deploying to a foreign region. That [00:43:00] amounts to roughly 5,000 troops, lost of heavy equipment and vehicles, et cetera. That takes a little bit longer, but not long enough to prevent us from being able to head off some kind of major military conflict between militaries. The bombing missions don’t take a couple of extra days. Bombing missions take an extra hour, roughly; maybe a couple hours. We can easily field … the time difference is negligible for bombing missions. If [00:43:30] you want to get really technical, we have 11 or 12 aircraft carriers, which can be all over the world and all over the oceans, and we can fly bombing missions from them as well.

Trevor Burrus: Would you make a trade-off if you were trying to negotiate a bill, and you were saying, “Okay, let’s take 400 bases away. We still have 400, and let’s build three more aircraft carriers.” Would that be a trade-off you’d be willing to make, in the sense of saying that, “Okay, I’ll agree we need strike capability, but here are the 400 [00:44:00] bases that are costing the most in terms of our safety, anger towards the United States.”

John Glaser: Yeah.

Trevor Burrus: “I’ll give you three aircraft carriers.”

John Glaser: I’m a man of compromise. I’m happy with that trade. I don’t think we need the extra aircraft carriers.

Trevor Burrus: “And a destroyer to be named later in draft- [crosstalk 00:44:13].”

John Glaser: Yeah, name the destroy after me. I’ll be really happy to make that trade. I don’t think … We have more aircraft carriers than anyone else in the world. A lot more. We can put them in places all over the earth’s [00:44:30] oceans to easily deploy. We don’t need the extra, but if that’s the compromise I’m faced with, I’m kind of happy to do that. One thing about telling this military people, I got the idea for keeping bases in just Guam and Diego Garcia from a friend of mine in the military. I think the hawks that really insist that we must maintain a global military presence at all [00:45:00] times are frequently not from the military. For bureaucratic interests, military officials tend to insist that we don’t shutdown bases. Military people in general, people that serve in the military, I don’t think are necessarily by definition, insistent on the American pacifier thesis.

Aaron Powell: Are there any, or how many bases are there I guess that even if all of these arguments for why we should have [00:45:30] the US military spread all over the place are true, or just egregious examples of this base doesn’t accomplish anything.

Trevor Burrus: We give you a big red pin and a list of all the bases and American assets, and you say, “Okay John, cross ‘em off.”

John Glaser: What I’ll say is that there’s a lot of tiny bases in strategically insignificant places that we could just easily do away with. These would be the first to go. There’s a lot of bases that we have in a couple dozen, [00:46:00] or just over a dozen African countries. They’re really small. They don’t have that many personnel there. They’re often hubs to train militaries in those countries. We don’t need those. They don’t make us safer. They don’t make Africa safer. We have bases in Central and South America. Those aren’t needed. If you talk about getting places quickly, certainly we can deploy from bases in the United States to anywhere within our own hemisphere much quicker than [00:46:30] we can from distances far, far, far and away. In the Americas and in Africa, I think those would be the first to go. Least significant.

Trevor Burrus: Going forward, a lot of people criticize libertarian foreign policy a lot. We get it from both the left and the right.

We come in here, we say, “No more foreign … forward deployment of the massive scale, at least.” You made some very good points, but how do we start trying to convince people that this is generally a good idea [00:47:00] and we can draw it down. We don’t have to go all the way to our principled level, but draw it down. What sort of impediments do you see coming in that makes that difficult? Other than the obvious disagreement with you.

John Glaser: I worry about how lengthy this answer will be. The first point I’d make is that there’s something strange about the way foreign policy is handled in Washington DC. The debate in foreign policy in Washington DC represents the merest sliver [00:47:30] of the debate that occurs on foreign policy in the academic community more generally. For example, the foremost proponents of our current strategy in academia are two guys named Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth. I had them here at the Cato Institute for a book forum in March. According to them, they feel that they’re in the minority in the academic community. Let’s just say at least 50% of academics in the international relations field [00:48:00] are somewhat sympathetic to the Cato view of foreign policy.

Now, the Cato view on foreign policy is like an alien spaceship in Washington DC. We are lone wolves. Nobody cares to hear about this, both left and right. There’s a rough consensus on what US foreign policy ought to be, but it doesn’t represent most of the other really solid academically inclined viewpoints on what the role of the United States should be. In terms of persuading people, I think [00:48:30] that’s a key point to make, that there’s something weird about how foreign policy is done. That partly gets to this issue of what are the interests that are influencing people to disregard other valid points of view. There are all kinds.

I found this really interesting. If you go back to 1970, there was a congressional investigation called ‘Security Agreements and [00:49:00] Commitments Abroad.’ It explained why the strategic use of US military bases abroad is never seriously scrutinized, and I’m going to quote from it, if the listeners will forgive me.

Quote, “Once an American overseas base is established, it takes on a life of it’s own. Original missions may become outdated, but new missions are developed, not only with the intent of keeping the facility going, but often actually to enlarge it. Within the government departments most directly concerned, state department and defense department, [00:49:30] we found little initiative to reduce or eliminate any of these overseas facilities; which is only to be expected since they would be recommending a reduction in their own position.”

The same logic holds today. Entrenched interests both within government and outside it insist upon the current forward deployed military strategy. That creates basically no political incentive to propose changes to it. But I think it’s something we need to [00:50:00] consider. I know that this is a radical proposal. I did that partly to provoke people, but America’s inherent safety, at the very least, should incentivize people to scrutinize our overseas military base presence.

Aaron Powell: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us at