Commentary

The U.S. Military: Overextended Overseas

By Ivan Eland
July 24, 1998

The United States has over 200,000 troops stationed in 144 countries and territories. At any given time, it usually has another 20,000 sailors and Marines deployed afloat on Navy ships. In the more benign post-Cold War international environment, why does the United States need all of those forces positioned overseas?

Although some argue that ethnic tensions unleashed after the end of the Cold War have made the world less stable, statistical indicators of stability show otherwise. In the post-Cold War period, the number of armed conflicts has declined by more than half — from 55 in 1992 to 24 in 1997. In addition, most conflicts now occur within states, not between them. Of the 101 conflicts occurring from 1989 to 1996, 95 involved combatants within a state and only six took place between states. A threat to U.S. security is more apt to arise from cross-border aggression than from civil strife.

Another sign of increasing international stability is the substantial reduction in worldwide military expenditures after the Cold War. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that such expenditures have dropped by one third: from $1.1 trillion in the late 1980s to $740 billion in 1997. There has also been a drastic reduction in international arms sales: from 1986 to 1995, they plummeted 55 percent. Furthermore, the United States and its allies have increased their control over the worldwide arms market during the same period. The U.S. share of the market increased from 22 percent to 49 percent and NATO’s share increased from 44 percent to 78 percent. The U.S. and NATO shares increased as a result of greatly diminished subsidized sales of Russian weapons to Third World outlaw states such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba and North Korea.

In short, the absence of one superpower funneling arms and assistance to stir up opposition groups in client states of its rival superpower has led to a worldwide decline in conflicts, military expenditures and arms sales.


The vast majority of the deployments are vestiges of the Cold War.


So why do all of those U.S. forces remain overseas? Some of the 200,000 military personnel in 144 nations perform legitimate missions like protecting U.S. embassies and collecting intelligence. But the vast majority of the deployments are vestiges of the Cold War.

Most of the 100,000 troops in Europe (mainly in Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Spain, Iceland, Belgium and Portugal) and almost all of the 75,000 troops in Asia (in Japan and South Korea) are supporting wealthy nations against mild or declining threats. For example, the combined economies of the NATO allies exceed the economy of the United States. Each of the economies of Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom exceeds that of Russia — a country with a decimated economy and military. The economy of South Korea is 24 times the size of that of its arch enemy North Korea, an economic basket case. The economy of Japan is almost twice that of China — a nation that has not yet become a serious military threat — and almost eight times that of Russia.

The other 10,000 troops in Europe (in Hungary and Bosnia) are conducting and supporting a peace enforcement mission in Bosnia that has nothing to do with American vital interests. Indeed, the mission is already becoming a quagmire that is unlikely to prevent a resumption of fighting after NATO’s withdrawal.

Other relics of the Cold War include the U.S. military presence in Panama (6,000 troops) and Guantanamo, Cuba (almost 2,000 troops). With the end of the Cold War, the Panama Canal faces a drastically reduced threat of closure. Besides, the very large U.S. aircraft carriers cannot fit through it. With the Department of Defense acknowledging that the Cuban military poses little threat, the expensive U.S. base at Guantanamo serves only the symbolic purpose of tweaking Fidel Castro’s nose.

The United States also has almost 4,000 troops in the Persian Gulf (Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) to guard against an Iraqi attack that is now improbable. An analyst from the Defense Intelligence Agency noted that, because of the Persian Gulf War and grinding economic sanctions, less than 40 percent of Iraq’s military remains; Iraq is probably incapable of conducting an assault over an extended distance into Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps need a rotation base of over 150,000 people to have 20,000 people deployed afloat in overseas theaters (Europe, the Persian Gulf, East Asia and other locations) at any one time. The Navy claims that overseas naval presence deters aggressors in those regions and reassures allies. The claim of deterrence is unsubstantiated and dubious. Moreover, an overseas naval presence only reassures wealthy allies that the United States will come to their rescue, thus enabling them to forgo adequate spending for defense.

Therefore, most of the 200,000 American troops stationed overseas and most of the 20,000 sailors and Marines performing overseas naval presence missions could be withdrawn without harming U.S. national security. With no major adversary on the horizon in the post-Cold War world, the United States does not need to police every portion of the globe for its rich allies.

Ivan Eland is the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.