The American Empire

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

Mother Jones has put together an impressive, if regrettable, interactive map of U.S. troops stationed overseas. Depending on how and when you count, we have now have a continuing military presence in 130 to 140 countries and territories. If Obama wins, it’s a safe bet we’ll add humanitarian missions in Africa. If McCain wins, it’ll be military missions in the Middle East, and possibly Africa. Either way, the map’s only going to get darker.

Setting aside the moral, sustainability, and good government arguments against a permanently global American military (and that’s quite a bit to set aside), one would think that even national defense hawks would be troubled by this map. You’re both fostering animus against the United States (ask your favorite hawk how he’d feel waking up to see another country’s troops setting up base in his town, or flying sorties over his home), and diluting our ability to respond should an actual threat present itself.

We libertarians often get the “isolationist” smear because we’re bothered by a world map that looks like the late stages of a lopsided game of Risk. That’s not the case at all. I’m all about trading with, visiting with, learning about, employing, and being employed by foreigners–as much or more, I’d guess, than your average American Greatness type who looks at the map below and hears Kate Smith warbling up through his bosom. I just happen to think it’s a bad idea to regularly have our guns pointed at them, or to have our troops marching around in their yards.

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26 Responses to “The American Empire”

  1. #1 |  Hunter | 

    Be a little careful with the final image. The edges of the continents are given a shadow, so the difference between the previous image and the final one looks huge, but might not be that big after all.

  2. #2 |  Chris M | 

    Does it occur to you that we get invited to a vast majority of those countries?

  3. #3 |  Radley Balko | 

    Depends on what you mean by “invited.”

    And just because country’s government invites us to set up shop within their borders doesn’t mean that country’s people are okay with it–or that it’s wise for us to be there.

  4. #4 |  Tokin42 | 

    When you start scrolling around the map you find that the vast majority of places outside of europe have less than 100 military personnel. Since each embassy has a military contingent attached, the map actually shows what little footprint the u.s. military has worldwide. The places that host u.s. military bases outside this country are generally very happy they’re where they are and there is a long line of nations that would love to be a host nation to a military base.

    Once again we have people acting like the sole purpose of our military is to run around pointing their weapons at foreigners for no apparent reason other than that’s just how we american military types behave.

  5. #5 |  Marty | 

    It’s become a rite of passage for a lot of people- join the military and see the world. Lots of guys put in a few years and can say they’ve been all over the world. Of course, many of them spend the bulk of their time on the bases drinking… or chasing hookers in the Phillipines…
    I was stunned the first time I was in Germany- the only time I saw litter was around the American bases. Embarrassing. It’s a bad idea to send a bunch of kids out into the world to be your ambassadors. I never heard citizens from other countries express gratitude that our soldiers were sowing their oats in their countries. ‘Disrespectful’ was a term I heard quite a few times when the subject of our military came up. Bring ’em home.

    ‘I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture… and kill them. I wanted to be the first kid on my block to get a confirmed kill!’
    Private Joker

  6. #6 |  billy-jay | 

    Chris M.,

    Are you okay with other countries inviting us to spend a ton of money for their benefit?

  7. #7 |  Mal Armstrong | 

    Two things:

    1. How interesting that President Thomas Jefferson authorized regime change in the states that supported the Barbary pirates without even Congress’s knowledge much less approval. There’s got to be some irony there since Jefferson seems to be one of the anti-war types’ patron saint. By the way, while a flawed in his policies on slavery, he is one of my patron saints because he generally exemplified Locke domestically and Hobbes internationally.

    2. The international system of trade is sponsored by the US and would not exist without enforcement by the US military. Our sponsorship is the closest thing there is to an international rule of law. You may not like that fact, but who else is going to do it, the UN? Our presence in other nations may cause some ill will but there is a tradeoff here that you need to acknowledge.

  8. #8 |  chance | 

    Eh, like Tokin mentioned above, counting Marine Guards and Defense Attaches kind of skews the count. A better map would be based on mission rather than raw numbers.

  9. #9 |  Ray | 

    I’ll say this first. We use troops far too often for humanitarian and police work instead of their designed purpose; to break stuff and kill people. Yes, the military does get stretched, not by “empire building” but by the tons of stupid little off mission tasks that they’re asked to do. However, if a referendum was required before troops could be stationed somewhere there are US cities or states where troops couldn’t be based. That argument seems to be a little bit of off the cuff populism, despite their leaders, the cost/benefit, or the consequences, if the People are uncomfortable with troops being there, then it’s a bad idea.

    As was mentioned, the ability to project power and yes, force to the far corners of the globe is one of the cornerstones global trade. The incentive to invest in third world backwaters (thus enabling all the visiting with, learning about, and employing) is increased when you and the local Generalissimo know your investment and your person is protected by a military that’s nearby. There’s a reason why we jet off to Tokyo without a thought as opposed to Bogota. Libertarians tend to look foolish when they claim that the ability to protect your assets and allies abroad means that you’re building an “empire”.

  10. #10 |  Les | 

    The international system of trade is sponsored by the US and would not exist without enforcement by the US military.

    Really? I couldn’t do business with Canada or Australia or countries in Europe without enforcement by the U.S. military. Please explain.

  11. #11 |  ceanf | 

    true les, but the ships carrying your cargo would have a tough time getting there without enforcement of the US military. pirating is a huge concern in international trade, though you seldom hear about it. the US military fosters the environment that makes trade and the transportation of trade goods relatively safe. not that i necessarily support our presence in a large majority of places around the world because i think that the money could be better spent at home. just wanted to point that out.

  12. #12 |  chsw | 

    According to the Mother Jones map, the USA has 100,000 troops in Russia. No wonder Putin’s pissed! He must be operating from this map!


  13. #13 |  The_Chef | 

    How many of those are defensive Marine detachments at US Embassies?

    Methinks this map needs some serious revision.

  14. #14 |  Marty | 

    How many corporations would build in these risky third world environments without the military protecting their investments? To me, it looks like at least part of our industrial base would’ve never left the US if our military wasn’t trying to make the world safe for US corporations to invest…

  15. #15 |  Les | 

    Thanks, ceanf, I see what you’re saying, but certainly, the U.S. isn’t the only military power making international trade safe and possible? I mean we all expect our government will enforce piracy laws along our coasts and in international waters, but don’t all powerful governments do this?

    Marty, let me play devil’s advocate, here. A large corporation wants to expand its business into a dangerous part of the world. Are you suggesting that it’s the role of the taxpayer funded U.S. military to help that happen? Shouldn’t the corporation pay for its own protection? What part of making the world safe for U.S. corporations has anything to do with defending the borders or the Constitution of the U.S.?

  16. #16 |  josephdietrich | 

    To me, the most imperial thing about the map is that the places where we have the most troops are the places where we won or tied major wars in the last century. Victors, spoils and all that. It’s not so much the fact that we have troops everywhere, so much as the fact that if we invade, we will never leave.

  17. #17 |  Marty | 

    I guess I’m not cut out for journalism- my post is a little muddy.
    I DON’T think the US military should be protecting the corporations making these risky investments. However, that’s been the case since WWI. I think the country would be much stronger with much less military presence throughout the world. Our corporations would build in safer places (here, perhaps?) and we wouldn’t be securing our financial interests with our already over-sized and too-expensive military.

  18. #18 |  Eric | 

    Don’t forget that we spend just over $1 trillion on our military presence in 130+ countries. That is an 11 year payoff of our national debt… That’s better than most mortgages!

  19. #19 |  Steve Verdon | 

    Be a little careful with the final image. The edges of the continents are given a shadow, so the difference between the previous image and the final one looks huge, but might not be that big after all.

    My thinking as well. While the point Radley is making is a good one, I’m not sure about that last image. Oh, and how much of that is due to troops in embassies?

  20. #20 |  Steve Verdon | 

    The little commentary is of dubious value as well. For example, zooming in and scrolling over Chile we see, “How America disabled a democracy.” With 33 troops? Goddamn we are good! Could that be embassy security? Scroll over to Nigeria we get, “Lost of oil. Few troops.” Uhhhmmm…okay. The point please? Ghana, “A US base in Ghana is bull? Not so fast.” With 13 troops?

  21. #21 |  Steve Verdon | 

    Don’t forget that we spend just over $1 trillion on our military presence in 130+ countries. That is an 11 year payoff of our national debt… That’s better than most mortgages!

    Uhhmmm no. Unless you are tossing in Iraq and Afghanistan as well. The entire defense appropriations for 2008 is $500 billion. I’m not even sure you’d get to $1 trillion when you include both Iraq and Afghanistan.

  22. #22 |  Big_Texan | 

    As a military man (national guard) I have to point out that most embassies have at least a Marine Detachment, and a good deal of countries have some military trainers. I’m not sure why those would be counted, unless, *gasp* – it was to make it look like the United States was trying to control the world. I think, if you take a really close look you’ll find that the only countries that have more than 1,000 troops are Germany, Japan, and South Korea. And of course Iraq and Afganistan. I have never been to Japan or S Korea, but Germany also has heavy concentrations of French and British troops. The Germans people are divided on the question of American troops staying there, but the German Government is hell bent on keeping us there. We spend billions there and it is great for thier economy. I personally think we could and probably should close the bases, and I remember several years back there was talk of closing some of the German bases. The German gov talked to the pentagon long and hard to get them to stay. I’m less sure on S Korea gov position but, I know the people there want us to leave and we absolutely should. I think we keep about 30,000 there as a ‘trip wire’ against N. Korea (Yeah join the army see the world, be a trip wire for a fanatical, recluse kingdom) Anyway I clicked on a few of the articles listed at the website and it said that 20% of the ferdal buget was spent on the military. If you look at a % of what that is in the total economy though it’s just a drop in the bucket. US GDP is some 13 trillion dollars, so 500 billion is some 4%. That the real story of our modern military. We can project nation destroying power for 4% of what we make nationally. I guess the bottom line is that the map isn’t really indiactive of real world projections. The articles were pretty much anti-military and making the point that we spend to much on the military. I don’t think we spend enough.

  23. #23 |  jwh | 

    Please, list the countries with which the US DOES NOT have a security treaty or agreement which authorizes our troop presence.

    That’s going to be a very short list………

  24. #24 |  KBCraig | 

    chsw wrote:
    According to the Mother Jones map, the USA has 100,000 troops in Russia.

    Or 72. Whatever. Close enough!

  25. #25 |  Mike Mechanic | 

    The Pentagon’s figures aren’t really the point, nor are they particularly accurate. The true US presence has to be ascertained from the details relative to humanitarian training missions, weapons, and funding America provides. The figures do likely include embassy guards (the Pentagon won’t say); but the 0-10 troops color is neutral on the map in order to minimize that concern. Read Herbert Docena’s piece on the Philippines; it makes clear how America can have a strong presence in a place while officially having few troops there. The Table of Contents is at

  26. #26 |  Paavo Ojala | 

    A similar map about Chinese would be a lot darker.

    That one looks bad, but it’s because they make a big deal about coloring medium green those countries that have 10-20 “troops”. That’s not really military presence. That means in lot of these cases just embassies and trade in military technology.

    I’m surprised how little troops there actually are.