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Overseas Bases Could Do More Harm Than Good

Pictures: US Department of Defense

Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has implemented a foreign policy strategy where US troops are constantly stationed in foreign countries. For the host country, the presence of US troops has varying social, economic, environmental, and political implications. A 2016 study in the Journal of Conflict Resolution focuses on whether these implications, especially those related to human rights, depend on the host country’s relevance to US foreign policy objectives and the country’s proximity to threats to U.S. security.

Past research has found that the presence of US troops abroad can have both positive and negative effects on their host countries. Negative consequences include a false sense of security that leads to the reduction of the host country’s or police forces, which in turn leads to a corresponding increase in crime. A direct link between US troops and increased levels of prostitution and violence against sex workers has also been identified. US bases have caused lasting environmental effects in host countries including water, air, and soil pollution from fuel and lead. Also, the rise in property taxes and inflation in areas surround US bases has been known to push locals out of their homes to seek more affordable areas. In addition to these more direct consequences, countries that host US troops have shown a marked increase in their own defense spending, are more likely to initiate armed disputes with neighboring states, and are more likely to become targets of attacks from anti-US actors. However, past research has also shown positive economic links through the assumed security associated with the presence of US troops. This assumption leads investors to support host economies, trusting that a US security presence will transfer to the security of their investment. Trade has also been known to increase in host countries under the same belief that the US security umbrella will add to regional stability and open lines of commerce. The authors argue that these potential benefits of US troop presence motivate host country governments to increase their respect towards human rights as a way to petition the US to stay in their countries, knowing that human rights advancements are a valued goal among the US military officers and elected officials who make the decisions regarding troop deployments.

In this study, the authors analyze the effect of US troop presence on a host government’s respect for human rights, specifically physical integrity rights, or the right to be free from arbitrary physical harm and coercion by a government. The authors hypothesize that when host countries are irrelevant to US foreign policy or security interests, the presence of US troops can lead to positive human rights practices; but when host countries are more central to US interests, the positive effects on human rights will be less pronounced, or even negative. In addition, they seek to understand more about whether placing an emphasis on human rights training for US troops will improve human rights practices in their host countries.

To test their hypotheses, the authors measured host government respect for physical integrity rights and data on foreign US troop deployments from 1982 to 2005. “Invasion deployments,” including US troops during the 1991 Gulf War, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003, were not considered, as this research focused specifically on “peacetime” US troop deployments. The authors rated each host country based on its proximity to a US rival or strategic US foreign policy interest. Next, they used training documents and interviews with US military officials to measure the presence of human rights-related training provided to US troops over time. Then they looked to see if there was any relationship between these factors and the host government’s respect for physical integrity rights, measured partially by the extent to which a government “respects the rights of their citizens not to be tortured, politically imprisoned, disappeared, and extrajudicial killed.” Human rights violations by US troops were not included in the study.

The results show that governments’ respect for human rights only improved in host counties that were not important to US political or security interests. In strategically important host countries, respect for human rights either remained the same or got worse. The study also found an increase in the attention the US military has given to educating their troops on human rights issues in their own field operations and in their work with other militaries. Importantly, as human rights education for US troops increased, so did the positive effect the troops had on human rights of their host countries—but only in countries unimportant to US foreign policy. The authors suggest that these findings may be due to the (sometimes) positive economic and security benefits host countries receive during US troop deployments. Once these benefits are realized, host country governments are likely to adopt pro-human rights attitudes and laws in order to keep US troops around. However, the pressure to respect human rights is largely diminished when the host country is more significant to US foreign policy—in these cases, the US is more interested in the strategic positioning of their troops than in the host country’s attitude towards human rights. Consequently, the host country is less likely to change its attitude towards human rights knowing that their strategic importance to the US makes troop withdrawal unlikely.


Beyond the specific focus of this research on the relationship between US troop presence abroad and human rights, it is important to consider the more fundamental question of whether the US needs to maintain an overseas military presence in first place for the sake of security. The US has a network of 800 military bases spread over 70 countries around the world—more than any other nation or empire in history. Although some may justify US bases abroad with reference to US national security, it is worth remembering that the presence of US bases in Saudi Arabia was one of the primary justifications Osama bin Laden gave for the 9/11 attacks. The US military presence in South Korea is also one of North Korea’s primary motivations for building its nuclear arsenal.  In other words, these military installations—maintained at a huge expense to the US taxpayer, depleting the ability of the US to invest in schools, health care, and jobs—are actually harmful to US security. They have also spawned numerous resistance movements in their host countries—a sign that many people do not welcome a US military presence in their communities. This global network of bases is built on the idea that the US has special rights and responsibilities in relation to other nations. This vast expanse of bases is offensive militarism, and as peace activist and academic Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer writes, “militarism is not defense. Defending interests isn’t the same thing as defending legitimate security needs.” This is a reality most Americans don’t consider, but the consequences are felt in the countries hosting the bases, by the environment, and certainly by the taxpayer footing the now $700 billion budget of the US Department of Defense.


Since 1978, the US government has been required to consider the human rights practices of recipient states before making decisions on foreign aid or security assistance. The 1997 adoption of the Leahy Amendment made human rights an even larger priority.

An uncomfortable finding of this study is that if a host country is important enough to US foreign policy, then that country’s respect for human rights is less of a priority for the US. In other words, the US is a less principled supporter of human rights than officially stated. The point of departure for any practical implications should be improved human rights practices, regardless of US troop presence and regardless of the strategic value of the country. In cases where US troop presence has led to improved human rights practices, the task ahead is to ensure that those practices become independent from the troop presence. This means that the US needs to incentivize respect for human rights by these governments in other ways, as well as to support the work of local human rights defenders in these countries and facilitate their connections to broader transnational human rights networks.

More importantly though, the very premise of an extensive US military presence abroad must be questioned, and action on human rights practices in other countries should be reframed accordingly. While particular wars might provoke widespread US antiwar activism, the US military presence on 800 bases across the planet is normalized as part of the US’ role in the world. A concern for human rights, however, should draw our attention to the broader social, economic, environmental, and security costs of US military bases for surrounding communities, as well as for the US public.

Published in collaboration with the Peace Science Digest, which summarizes and reflects on current academic research in the field of peace and conflict studies. To subscribe or download the full piece, which includes additional resources, visit their website.

Peace Science Digest


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