Outpost of empire

The US has up to 1,000 bases in more than 130 countries. Wilber van der Zeijden reports on the global military network underpinning the world's only superpower.

March 1, 2007
9 min read

A few years ago, it was briefly fashionable to claim that empire had been ‘deterritorialised’, meaning that the physical outposts of imperial control had been replaced with more amorphous forms of political control. But if you map the remaining networks of foreign military bases worldwide, they tell a different story. More than 1,000 such bases and installations remain, most of which are run by the US military – which has a military presence in over 130 countries. These range from vast installations, like Guantanamo Bay, to smaller spy bases or joint training camps, stores for nuclear missiles, ‘rest and recuperation’ facilities and refuelling stations. In addition, the US and some of its Nato allies complement this vast military presence with an even more elaborate network of port-of-call rights, landing rights for military and intelligence planes, refuel rights and flyover rights.

Locating military bases outside one’s territory is as old as the concept of an organised army. But the history of the current global network of foreign military bases starts with the colonial period, during which the UK and other European powers set up competing military infrastructures to repress local discontent, ward off other powers and support all kinds of military or civilian operations in and close to colonial possessions. The UK and France still maintain foreign bases today – the remains of this colonialism.

But the bulk of today’s foreign military bases belong to the US.

Building the base

Although the US tried to maintain the aura of non-colonial foreign politics throughout the 20th century, its first overseas bases were established in 1898, after it won the last Spanish-American war and confiscated Puerto Rico, Guantanamo Bay, the Philippines, Guam and Hawaii. Hawaii was regarded as crucial at the time by the McKinley administration ‘to help us get our share of China’. After the second world war, the US expanded its empire of bases rapidly, carving out the bipolar political world map by overloading Europe and east Asia with US troops and armaments, in an attempt to ‘roll back’ the USSR’s aspirations and to be able to fight proxy wars in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

After 1989, the US started a massive ‘base restructuring’ programme. The programme intended to reduce the number of US troops based in Europe and east Asia, while at the same time expanding its global military reach by opening strategic, often small, bases in previously US-army free areas. In the past decade, this drive towards ‘full spectrum dominance’ has concentrated on establishing a global network of spy bases along similar lines to the Echelon ‘listening posts’, such as Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, ground posts necessary for the projected global missile defence project and small ‘forward located’ stations that enable the US to strike fast against anyone at any given moment.

The inability to sustain military ground invasions in Somalia in the 1990s, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, shed doubt among US military elites over the original aim to reduce the presence of its ground troops overseas. As a result, the withdrawal of troops from Germany, Italy, Japan and Korea seems to have stopped. In addition, the US seems to be planning about a dozen ‘enduring’ bases supporting thousands of its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, expanding its overseas military infrastructure as well as putting debates about US ‘withdrawal’ into perspective.

Bases are not singular isolated military strongholds.Without its vast network of military bases globally, the US would not have been able to conduct 300-plus overseas military interventions in the 20th century. It would have been a lot more difficult to overthrow Latin American democratic governments friendly to socialist change, or to be so deeply involved in south east Asian wars and campaigns. It would have made the prolonged bombing campaigns against Iraq in the 1990s, not to mention the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the US-backed invasion of Lebanon by Israel, a lot harder. And while bases in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Diego Garcia were crucial to these campaigns, the current build-up of military means in Iraq, Afghanistan, central Asia, Pakistan and the Gulf states will allow the US to suppress or even invade Iran in the future.

Foreign bases, local impacts

Foreign military bases are meant to project military power globally, but at the same time, the more visible and everyday effects are seen on a local or national level.There are numerous reasons why these bases should come with a health warning, including their devastating effects on local economies, environments and public health. In several cases, as in Diego Garcia, Thule (Greenland) and Vieques (Puerto Rico), they have also led to the loss of land, housing and even holy ancestral grounds. And while the extent to which local populations are confronted with these effects differs in each case, many similar experiences are shared around the globe.

The environmental and health impact of bases can be devastating. At the US base in Thule, Greenland, for example, the campaign group Greenpeace observed the dumping of hundreds of barrels of waste and piles of metal without protection. It also measured high levels of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and radioactive material from tests and accidents, including the crash of a nuclear bomber that released plutonium, working their way up the food chain. Such pollutants are absorbed from the environment by shellfish and are concentrated when those creatures are eaten by fish, birds and land carnivores, resulting in birth defects, cancers and other diseases in the animals of this formerly pristine environment. Similar loss of biodiversity is reported from Guam and Okinawa, due to chemical pollution and the introduction of alien species to the island by military ships and planes.

Bases also result in a loss of sovereignty for the ‘host nation’ since they evade all channels of democratic accountability, not to mention raising serious moral issues regarding the complicity of the host countries in cases where international law is violated. Most US bases are covered by ‘status of forces agreements’, negotiated between the US and host governments, which often exempt US military personnel from visa and tax requirements and from local criminal jurisdiction, as well as granting US forces wider abilities to act outside the usual laws of the country.

As Roland Simbulan, a leading peace activist and opponent of US military bases in the Philippines, explains: ‘The Philippine government granted US troops involved in joint military exercises special treatment, such as exemption from customs and immigration procedures and immunity from the regular court procedures should they commit crimes on Philippine territory. They are given special treatment not accorded to Filipino citizens.’ The bases cause other problems too for the local communities.

The opening of new bases tends to cause a spike in local crime rates, although most host countries are unable to place US servicemen on trial. More disturbingly still, these bases bring with them high rates of prostitution, as well as rape and other violence towards women. High profile examples, such as the grotesquely sexualised murder of a young woman bar worker by a US serviceman in Korea in 1992, and the rape of a 12 year old girl in Okinawa by three GIs in 1995 are just the visible end of the everyday difficulties faced by women and girls in base towns from Honduras to Guam to Labrador.

Striking back against empire

Resistance to foreign military presence is almost as widespread as the bases themselves, whether they be colonial strongholds, cold war forward located defence facilities or current ‘full spectrum dominance’ platforms.

For example, Vicenza, in Italy, is currently witnessing a powerful movement against plans to construct a new base at Dal Molin, the city’s old airport. ‘We are against that base. We defend our land and do not want to be at the forefront of the global war against terrorism,’ says Francesco Pavin from ‘No to Dal Molin’, a coalition of citizens, antiwar activists, church groups and environmentalists.

But this is more than simply a local struggle. As Toni Pigatto, of the local boy scouts’ association, told Inter Press Service, ‘We do not protest only because they will build yet another military base in Vicenza. We say not here, not anywhere else. We reject the idea that democracy can be spread with weapons.’ This same spirit underlies a global network of campaigners, activist and researchers that has emerged over the past three years with the aim of meeting the phenomenon of foreign military bases head-on. During 5-9 March, this network is convening a global conference in Quito, Ecuador, where it is calling for the abolition of foreign military bases.

Underlying this new initiative, which is embedded in the larger global movements for social justice and against war, is a recognition that, while it remains important to strengthen each individual campaign against any foreign military base, it is time to challenge the whole structure of bases globally.This means questioning the moral, economic and political justifications that underlie the idea that some countries are allowed to export their militarism on such a universal level.

For those struggling to free themselves from the yoke of US and other foreign military involvement, the US Declaration of Independence provides a good starting point. The US aimed to free itself of British rule ‘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.’ Communities are organising now, worldwide, to declare their own independence from the US and its bases. Additional reporting by Sarah Irving and Oscar Reyes. For more information on the International Coalition for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases, see www.abolishbases.org


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out


1