In Foreign Affairs, Alexander Cooley writes about how a less unipolar world is prompting competition for foreign expansion among the great powers, particularly the US, Russia, and China in the Central Asian countries. And it means the American Empire is costing a lot more.
Most dramatically, in 2009, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan, host to the Manas Transit Center, initiated a bidding war between the United States and Russia by threatening to close the base. He extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from both sides, in the form of a Russian assistance package and a renewed lease at a higher rent with the United States. Since 2008, the United States also has paid transit fees, about $500 million annually, to the Uzbek and other Central Asian governments to ship equipment bound for Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network.
The same dynamic is playing out elsewhere. The availability of alternative patrons has made U.S. strategic engagement more expensive everywhere, both in terms of dollars and politics. In 2008, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa refused to extend a ten-year lease of the U.S. base at Manta, after having been offered $500 million to upgrade the facility by a Hong Kong port operator. Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has observed that in post-revolutionary Egypt the United States has continued to provide assistance in return for overflight rights and access to the Suez Canal, even as U.S. leverage over the country diminishes. And during Pakistan’s seven-month fallout with Washington, in which it closed Afghanistan-bound supply lanes, Islamabad publicly demanded an increase in transit fees and courted China. Eventually, U.S. officials reportedly agreed to release $1.1 billion for the Pakistani military from the Coalition Support Fund to get the route back open.
Comparisons to the Roman Empire and the overextended expansionism that helped lead to its downfall can sometimes get stale, but all of these examples make it clear that maintaining an empire of military bases and client states is getting increasingly unaffordable for a US government $16 trillion in debt. The Obama administration is also in the process of surging our expensive high-tech military presence in the Persian Gulf and all throughout the Asia Pacific region. And as David Vine recently wrote for TomDispatch, America’s Empire of Bases is growing worldwide. Sooner or later, America will be drained.
Incidentally, the late, great Chalmers Johnson predicted the very scenario Cooley relays. In Baseless Expenditures he wrote: “I have a suggestion for other countries that are getting a bit weary of the American military presence on their soil: cash in now, before it’s too late. Either up the ante or tell the Americans to go home. I encourage this behavior because I’m convinced that the US Empire of Bases will soon enough bankrupt our country.”