Will the COVID-19 pandemic instigate real changes in U.S. foreign policy? If so, what kind of changes? Determining the impact of this unprecedented emergency is difficult in the midst of it all, so reliable predictions on this front will be elusive for some time.
At War on the Rocks, however, Lt. Gen. David W. Barno (ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel take a whack at peering into the future at how COVID-19 will change the U.S. military. The pandemic, they write, “has now suddenly and vividly demonstrated that a large, forward deployed military cannot effectively protect Americans from nontraditional threats to their personal security and the American way of life. In a deeply interconnected world, geography matters far less, and the security afforded by America’s far‐flung military forces has been entirely irrelevant in this disastrous crisis.” Therefore, policymakers may develop alternative conceptions of national security that emphasize the cyber domain over the the more traditional land, sea, and air. The Pentagon’s budget will be squeezed by other priorities, meaning expensive weapons programs long targeted by budget hawks may be cut.
Barno and Bensahel also predict a possible change in force posture. Maintaining big expensive U.S. military bases and forward‐deployed forces overseas, they argue, may get a second look.
Reliance on Forward Defense Will Diminish
Forward defense has long been the cornerstone of U.S. defense strategy, but it will become less important as the focus grows on countering catastrophic threats against the homeland. In a post‐pandemic world characterized by huge deficits, massive debt, and economic recession, the United States will continue to defend its most vital interests overseas: keeping NATO alive, protecting Eastern Europe from Russia, supporting Israel, and deterring conflict in Asia. But U.S. forces across the Middle East, Afghanistan, Africa, and even in some parts of the Pacific are likely to be drawn down if not withdrawn completely.
The economic crisis may also require changes to U.S. force posture in the places where military forces remain, since the sprawling network of overseas bases remains expensive. The United States spends about $10 billion a year to operate these bases, a figure that would be far higher without the very substantial amount of host nation support (which includes cash payments as well as various forms of in‐kind support). Yet the global recession and rising debt levels spawned by the pandemic may make it harder for allies and partners hosting U.S. troops to continue providing such high levels of support. And here at home, the economic crisis will make members of Congress even more likely to support shuttering overseas bases in order to forestall any discussion of domestic base closures, since preserving jobs in their districts becomes even more critical at a time of such staggering unemployment levels.
There is very little that is “defensive” about our forward‐deployed posture, but leaving that semantic quibble aside, this should be a welcome prospect. My Cato Policy Analysis from 2017 addresses the cost and strategic value (or lack thereof) of forward basing and recommends large‐scale withdrawal. The “$10 billion a year” figure that Barno and Bensahel cite is a scandalous underestimate, though, as I explain in the paper, it very much depends on how one counts (the range I cite is about $60 billion to $120 billion annually). More importantly, overseas bases often do not achieve the geopolitical objectives they are intended to achieve, they tend to prime policymakers for interventions that should not happen, and they frequently backfire by creating new enemies or exacerbating regional rivalries.
Overseas bases are intended to be an insurance policy on stability abroad and to enable rapid U.S. deployment in a given situation. They do not protect the homeland, per se. They are supposed to protect other nations and deter adversaries that do not pose a direct military threat to the United States. As many of my colleagues and other commentators have explained, the ongoing pandemic crystallizes Washington’s failure to properly assess threats and allocate resources accordingly. Many Americans would surely be flummoxed by the enormous investments we have made in an empire of overseas bases to protect against minor (or even implausible) threats in the traditional military realm while non‐traditional threats that actually harm Americans go under‐funded. The legislative response so far suggests that Congress is inclined to borrow its way out of the crisis, but revenue is finite. Instead of keeping the federal budget the way it is and simply adding new funds for pandemic responses, at some point trade‐offs have to be made.