The latest issue of Foreign Affairs has a fascinating piece by Alex Cooley called “Base Politics.” Cooley writes about the dilemmas posed by American basing policy in the context of the kinds of political regimes that play host to US military bases.

Cooley echoes some of the claims I made way back in a debate over Uzbekistan and K2, but he does so with far greater knowledge and eloquence. None of this is surprising, since Cooley has spent a great deal of time studying American basing policy and the “political economy” of American bases abroad. As he argues, there are real costs associated with basing US forces in countries with authoritarian regimes. Even though they might seem more pliant than democracies, they’re a bad bet in the long term:

… the political complications sometimes associated with dealing with democracies are ephemeral.For another, setting up bases in nondemocratic states brings mostly short-term benefits, rarely helps promote liberalization, and sometimes even endangers U.S. security. Engaging authoritarian leaders by striking basing deals with them has done little for democratization in those states because these leaders know that, at bottom, U.S. military planners care more about the bases’ utility than about local political trends. The practice can also imperil U.S. strategic interests. Even as authoritarian leaders flout U.S. calls for liberalization, they often manipulate basing agreements to strengthen their personal standing at home. And when one of these autocrats is eventually ousted, the democratic successor sometimes challenges the validity of the deals the former regime had struck.

Basing agreements made with mature democracies involve far fewer risks. Such deals come at no cost to U.S. legitimacy, and they tend to be more reliable since security commitments approved and validated by democratic institutions are made to last. As U.S. military planners design a global network of smaller, more versatile military facilities abroad, they would do well to reconsider whether the limited benefits of establishing bases in nondemocratic countries are worth the costs those arrangements inevitably generate.

Unfortunately, the full piece is behind Foreign Affair‘s subscription firewall; if you have the means or the opportunity, give it a read.

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