The United States maintains almost 800 military bases in over 70 countries, which far exceeds our modern day security requirements. American troops are already positioned to respond to any threat anywhere in the world, yet most of our allies want more American troops and bases because that would force us to play the first responder to any threat against those countries.
This is why Poland’s defense minister recently held talks with U.S. officials “about having thousands of U.S. troops permanently stationed as a deterrent in Poland.” Poland believes that this would both deter and defend Poland and its Baltic neighbors against Russia, which could potentially close off, through Polish territory, the short border between its Kaliningrad exclave and Belarus, cutting the Baltics off from the rest of NATO.
Such a move would be unwise and unnecessary for the United States, especially when we already have guaranteed Poland’s security through its membership in NATO as well as the presence of thousands of American soldiers in neighboring Germany.
The Polish government’s desire for American troops in its country is essentially the equivalent of obtaining human shields for itself. A hostile power ― Russia in this case ― is far less likely to overtly initiate hostilities against Poland if there were U.S. soldiers stationed there.
But in the case that hostilities do escalate, the U.S. could be drawn into a major confrontation with a great power, over what may have otherwise been relatively minor and manageable scuffles. Unfortunately, this is part of a trend in which U.S. military power is being used in lieu of diplomacy, backed up by military strength, in resolving issues.
We know from the example of Syria how dangerous it is to have American and Russian military personnel within the same country, as it is only a matter of time before their soldiers collide. Earlier this year, American planes reportedly killed up to 100 Russian mercenaries in Syria; such incidents cannot occur without retaliation forever, as it would be unacceptable for domestic reasons in both Russia and the United States to not seek vengeance after a certain point.
North Korea is not a direct threat to the U.S. However, it is a menace to the United States by virtue of the presence of American soldiers in South Korea and Japan, many of whom would become casualties if tension escalates on the Korean Peninsula.
This is why talk of cutting U.S. troop levels makes leaders of countries such as South Korea and Japan nervous. As Shin Won-sik, a retired three-star South Korean general said: “For South Korea, living with a nuclear-armed North Korea is much better than living without American troops. ... If they are gone, we will lose proof that the Americans will defend us.”
Bottom line: The more countries we base our troops in, the more conflicts we must be a direct party to, instead of functioning as a balancing military power that uses force as a last resort.
As is the case with any entrenched program or bureaucracy, once military bases are established, new reasons to justify their continued existence will be sought out, even in regions outside of East Asia and Europe that are irrelevant in maintaining U.S. prosperity and security. Almost any local problem, any ungoverned space that could be used by militants and terrorists, has now taken on the characteristics of being an immediate threat to America’s national security, justifying all sorts of first responses and military operations.
Take, for example, the African country of Niger, where some 800 U.S. soldiers are now based at a large new base in the Saharan town of Agadez. On Oct. 4, 2017, four U.S. soldiers in an advisory role were killed in an ambush in Niger. The attackers were linked to the Islamic State group.
Subsequently, our military presence across West Africa has increased. But this will merely ensure that our military will be involved in yet more operations, some of which will could lead to casualties and then spiral to an escalation by U.S. forces ― a recipe for constant conflict.
More U.S. soldiers stationed throughout the world, in places such as Poland, the Baltics or the Gulf, merely ensures that we will continue to be entangled as first-line troop providers to our allies and partners, regardless of our national interests. Our allies, too, will be disincentived from seeking their own solutions, as long as they can continue to use American troops as cannon fodder for their security.
Akhilesh “Akhi“ Pillalamarri is a fellow at Defense Priorities. An international relations analyst, editor and writer, he studied international security at Georgetown University. Find him on Twitter @akhipill.