On Continuity in U.S. Military Basing Practices

8 April 2023, 1200 EDT

If you are interested in U.S. military basing policy, you have a lot of good work to read these days.

Some recent contributions to this literature—Michael A. Allen et al.’s Beyond the Wire: U.S. Military Deployments and Host Country Public Opinion and Sebastian Schmidt’s earlier Armed Guests: Territorial Sovereignty and Foreign Military Basing—have already been covered on The Duck. Claudia Junghyun Kim’s new book, Base Towns: Local Contestation of the U.S. Military in Korea and Japan, is just the latest entry in a burgeoning field.

Much of this work is motivated at least in part by an increasingly powerful China and debate about the extent to which overseas U.S. bases will allow it to project sufficient power to deter Chinese revisionism in the region. (This similarly motivates recent work that seeks to specify different types of revisionism.) The debate on the efficacy of “tripwireforces, for example, is oriented toward such concerns.

Given such interest in current U.S. basing arrangements, this literature tends to focus on basing as it has been practiced since the end of World War Two (or, instead, since the Spanish-American War of 1898). There is often good reason to do so, but as I will discuss in an MPSA presentation next week, I believe that there is more continuity in the history of U.S. military basing policy than is typically assumed.

Allen et al. offer a helpful starting point in thinking about this continuity. As they write, “The US has a long history of using military bases to expand its influence. The process of westward expansion across the North American continent was accompanied by the construction of numerous military bases to aid in the projection of military power against Great Britain, Spain, France, Mexico, and Native Americans, as it sought to assert control over the increasingly vast territories settlers occupied.”

Allen et al. ultimately distance this pre-1898 basing from post-1898 basing: “[T]he US ultimately sought to extend direct control over these territories, making them a part of the country itself. …The US began actively sending troops overseas on long-term deployments after the Spanish-American War.”

If the United States used early military bases “to expand its influence” through the concentration of military power in strategic locations, however, is that so different from the ways bases are used today?

We might also reconsider the foreign/domestic distinction that often divides pre- and post-1898 basing. The United States did construct bases on territory that others claimed as their own earlier in its history; policy-makers simply did not recognize those claims. That is, to contrast early “domestic” basing with later “overseas” basing elides Indigenous claims to sovereignty that gave rise to violent contestation.

For example, the U.S. military’s eventual success in the Northwest Indian War depended largely on the construction of forts in the Northwest Territory. That land had been ceded by Britain to the United States in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, but in the Ohio River Valley, groups such as the Shawnee and the Miami claimed the land as their own. The United States would go to war to enforce its claims by 1790.

After early battlefield defeats, the United States only managed to more effectively project power by creating a string of forts in the region. Those forts served varying roles—some served primarily to maintain supply lines while others served more clearly offensive or defensive purposes—but they were all designed to enable the projection of power and the expansion of U.S. influence.

If I’m right in arguing that there is more continuity here than is typically appreciated, research on modern U.S. military basing might more frequently turn to the pre-1898 period to consider how, for example, anti-base contestation and elite legitimization of basing arrangements manifested on the early American frontier. Similarities or differences in those earlier practices may help us to better understand practices of the more recent past and present.