Withdrawing From Overseas Bases: Why a Forward-Deployed Military Posture Is Unnecessary, Outdated, and Dangerous

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: In the absence of a major peer competitor, and in an era of low-security threats, the policy of maintaining a constant worldwide overseas military presence is unwise. A less aggressive strategy requiring fewer overseas bases would greatly reduce both military spending and security dangers to the United States. The United States should withdraw its permanent peacetime military presence abroad and abandon its forward-deployed posture in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. 

The United States maintains an empire of military bases throughout the world—about 800 of them in more than 70 countries. This forward-deployed military posture incurs substantial costs and disadvantages, exposing the United States to vulnerabilities and unintended consequences. The strategic justifications for overseas bases—that they deter adversaries, reassure allies, and enable rapid deployment operations—have lost much of their value and relevance in the contemporary security environment.

Problems with U.S. overseas bases include: 

  1. Modern surveillance and targeting technology have made the bases increasingly vulnerable, even while increasing our allies’ ability to marshal their own defenses and to cooperate with U.S. forces outside the allies’ theater. 
  2. The presence of U.S. military bases can militarize disputes and can antagonize opponents who otherwise would have been more docile. 
  3. U.S. bases can encourage allies to take risks they might otherwise avoid, thus heightening instability and entangling the United States in peripheral conflicts.
  4. Forward-deployed forces are a temptation for U.S. leaders; they can set in motion calls for intervention where core U.S. interests are not at stake.

America’s forward-deployed posture is not intended to protect the nation from direct attack. Rather, its goal is to provide security for other states and protect against contingencies that, for the most part, would not involve vital U.S. interests.

Despite the tendency of policymakers and the news media to exaggerate dangers and inflate threats from abroad, much scholarship shows that international conflict and overall levels of violence are at historic lows. The remarkably secure position of the United States, along with the relatively peaceful state of international politics, enables a withdrawal from this global network of overseas military bases. 

The United States should encourage allies to carry the burden of their own defense and should extricate itself from regional disputes lest it get drawn into conflicts in which its vital interests are not at stake. 

To the extent that overseas bases are intended to prevent war and manage faraway disputes through deterrence and reassurance, they serve outdated foreign policy objectives and a grand strategy that needs to be narrowed. On top of that, modern technology has reduced the problems of travel times over long distances and simultaneously has increased the vulnerabilities of in-place forces. 

Acknowledging these new realities and initiating appropriate reforms, including full withdrawal from nearly all overseas bases, would serve U.S. interests.

Read the full report here.