America’s bases: collateral damage for the US economy

America’s foreign military bases are bad business. (This article first appeared in the January 2011 issue of the American Conservative.)

TOKYO. When German executives visit Tokyo, they are often treated to a
session at Bernd’s Bar, a notably authentic German pub. A bit too
authentic, perhaps, given the place’s Axis-era accoutrements. The last
time I was there, one of the walls still featured a huge photograph of
Willy Messerschmitt in conversation with Charles Lindbergh.  It had
evidently been taken at a German aerodrome in the late 1930s and a
couple of Messerschmitt’s eponymous fighter planes — the sort that a
few years later were to cause such grief for the British — loomed in
the background.

It is all a bit of a joke for the Japanese, who tend to be less
embarrassed than their German counterparts about their shared military
past. Indeed it is said that proceedings at Bernd’s sometimes get so
raucous that it is not unknown for a Japanese host to dig a German
guest in the ribs and stage-whisper, “Next time without the Italians!”

No doubt no one at Pearl Harbor need lose much sleep over this. But
there is still a grain of truth in the joke — and not just because
the Japanese and Germans fought better than the Italians in World War
II. Whatever pieties may be recited in Washington about America’s need
to continue to provide — from now until kingdom-come  — a
massive defense umbrella over an allegedly helpless Japan, the
Japanese are probably more capable than most of coping with any
national security threat the future may hold. So too, for that matter,
are the Germans.

Given that more than twenty years have elapsed since the Berlin Wall
came down, many American budget hawks are understandably wondering why
Uncle Sam needs so many bases, not least in nations as rich and
potentially militarily self-sufficient as Japan and Germany. The scale
of America’s “forward deployments” is hard to exaggerate: as recorded
in a recent book by the military analyst Andrew Bacevich, Uncle Sam
continues to deploy fully 300,000 troops in more than 760 bases in 39
foreign countries, not to mention a further 90,000 sailors and marines
at sea. More than 40,000 troops and back-up staff are stationed in
Japan alone.

While Washington’s reasons for persisting with the Cold War status quo
have come in for considerable scrutiny lately, less attention has been
paid to why so-called host nations have been so apparently meek in
tolerating what amount to armies of occupation on their soil. It is a
significant oversight, as many host nations harbor a private agenda at
odds with the American national interest.

I will focus here mainly on Japan. It happens to be the case I know
best, and it is also the most relevant. As the late Chalmers Johnson
has pointed out, few nations seem less in need of U.S. protection than
modern Japan. After all, its peace constitution notwithstanding, Japan
has long boasted one of the world’s most sophisticated military
establishments.  (The peace constitution has, of course, been honored
more in the breach than the observance since as far back as the early
1950s. Its only real significance these days is as an excuse for
staying out of harm’s way when America becomes embroiled in another war.)
Japan moreover is now in key ways far more technologically advanced
than the United States. As I have documented in several books and pace
all talk of “two lost decades,” Japan has now leapt far ahead of the
United States in countless militarily crucial if virtually invisible
manufacturing technologies. Examples range from advanced materials
such as gallium arsenide and carbon fiber to vital production machines
such as the so-called steppers used in the semiconductor industry and
the hyper-accurate machine tools needed to make state-of-the-art
aircraft. Even in nuclear technology, Japan is no slouch. It has been
building its capabilities since as far back as the 1950s and, having
bought what remained of the erstwhile world-beating Westinghouse
nuclear division some years ago, now ranks as the world leader in
nuclear power. What makes Japan particularly relevant is its finesse
in manipulating an often nervous and short-sighted Pentagon for
purposes that, to put it politely, serve Japan’s interests more than

To be sure, in former times even the most significant of host nations,
not least Japan, genuinely valued Uncle Sam’s protection, particularly
in staring down Soviet expansionism. But that was a long time ago and
from the late 1950s on it has been apparent – to close observers at
least – that a simple wish to bolster their defenses has not
necessarily been the main reason, let alone the only one, why the more
militarily capable host nations have played along with Washington’s
imperial illusions. In most cases there has been an unstated
understanding about other matters, particularly economic ones. Indeed,
in a phenomenon that has attracted far less than attention than it
deserves, many host nations have long viewed the Pentagon as a sort of
geopolitical Santa Claus, ever willing to shower his favorites with
economic goodies.

As Chalmers Johnson suggested, the Pentagon has played a
decisive role in particular in hosing down American anger over
mercantilist trade policies in several host nations. By far the most
significant beneficiary has been Japan but if anything the trade
policies of South Korea have been even more blatantly at odds with
American ideas of fair play. To a lesser extent key European allies,
not least the Germans, have also been permitted to perpetuate policies
and structures that render their markets resistant to American

Although for the most part the economic rationale behind the host
nations’ cooperation has remained sub-rosa, there have been notable
occasions over the years when it has been hard to overlook. It is
probably not an accident, for instance, that when war broke out in
Korea half a century ago, American policymakers, desperate for bases
in Japan, fell over themselves to help Japan crank up its then stalled
export engine. Not only did the Pentagon’s sourcing program strongly
favor Japanese suppliers, but the State Department campaigned
vigorously to get European nations to open their markets to Japanese
exports. As the economic historian Alfred Eckes has recorded, the
United States even went so far as to cut tariffs on imports from
certain European nations in return for those nations boosting imports
from Japan, not from the United States! The State Department moreover
worked energetically to overcome then massive European resistance to
Japan’s wish to join key international bodies such as the Organisation
for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The Pentagon’s need for bases also proved highly serendipitous for
Japan during the Vietnam war. By then the Japanese economic system had
several American industries, most notably the television set
industry, on the ropes and U.S.-Japan commercial relations were
poisoned by numerous charges of aggressive Japanese dumping.
Nonetheless, bogged down in a hopeless war in Vietnam and badly in
need of logistical support from Japan, the Nixon administration was
persuaded to go easy on the Japanese television set cartel.
“Essentially we gave away our electronics industry in return for
Japanese support in Vietnam,” says Washington-based trade expert Pat
Choate. “In any other country there would have been riots in the

For Japan as well as several other host nations, another key advantage
of cooperating with the Pentagon has been that it has received
countless officially sanctioned transfers of American technology, not
least crucial military technology such as the secrets to build Japan’s
latest generation of fighter jets. Meanwhile as Pat Choate points out,
the U.S. Justice Department has often been persuaded to turn a blind
eye to wholesale theft of U.S. intellectual property.

The bases have also stood Japan in good stead in pitching for U.S.
defense contracts. Indeed Washington has come to regard contractors
based in several host nations as “honorary Americans” – a position
officially acknowledged  in the mid 1990s, when, under budgetary
constraints imposed by the Clinton administration, the Pentagon more
or less abandoned  its previous policy of preferring domestic
contractors. Abandoned too was the traditional idea that the United
States should maintain self-sufficiency in fundamental military
components, materials, and equipment.

A key fact generally overlooked or at least downplayed in American
discussions is that American bases evoke a powerful not-in-my-backyard
response almost everywhere. The full strength of this feeling is
particularly well hidden in the case of the Japanese and South
Koreans, thanks in part to the extreme politeness and lavish
hospitality they confer on foreign bigwigs. Such ritual deference does
not gainsay the fact that the Japanese and Koreans, in common with
most other East Asians, are highly xenophobic and the presence in
their midst of troops from the other side of the world is to say the
least a strain.

One foreign policymaker who has badly misread the tea leaves is
William Cohen, who served as Defense Secretary in the Clinton
administration. He argued in 1998 that America’s bases in Asia and
Europe were vital “to shape people’s opinions about us in ways that
are favorable to us.” The host nations’ views of the United States are
bolstered when “they see our power, they see our professionalism, they
see our patriotism, and they say that’s a country that [they] want to
be with.” Cohen added: “You can only do that if you’re forward

Peddling a similarly self-satisfied line, the Clinton administration’s
assistant secretary of defense Joseph Nye has argued that America’s
massive bases in East Asia helps promote “democratic development.”

It is a view that is outspokenly scorned by better informed observers.
Here, for instance, is how David Vine, a scholar at American
University, put it in 2009: “Bases abroad have become a major and
unacknowledged ‘face’ of the United States, frequently damaging the
nation’s reputation, engendering grievances and anger, and generally
creating antagonistic rather than cooperative relationships between
the United States and others. Most dangerously, as we have seen in
Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and as we are seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan,
foreign bases create breeding grounds for radicalism,
anti-Americanism, and attacks on the United States, reducing, rather
than improving, our national security.”

Chalmers Johnson made much the same point in Blowback a decade ago. He
focused in particular on the sexual side of base life, a topic notable
for its absence in most Washington discussions of “forward
deployment.”  In the history of foreign occupations, American GIs are
undoubtedly a lot better behaved than most but prostitution and
venereal disease are only the most obvious of several social problems
that bases bring in their wake. It is worth remembering that even in
the darkest days of World War II the British were sufficiently
ambivalent about U.S. bases that they only half-jokingly referred to
American GIs as “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” What is clear is
that it takes only a few bad actors to do enormous damage, and that
damage is compounded when top policymakers like Cohen and Nye seem so
out of touch.

In Japan particularly popular discontent over the bases has usually
been hushed up. Over the years many rapes and other serious incidents
have been swept under the carpet not only by American generals but,
for the most part, by Japanese officials. The catalog of Japanese
citizens’ grievances goes back to the earliest days after Japan’s
surrender in 1945. The point was well documented by Richard Deverall,
a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. In a little noticed
book privately published in 1953, he showed that the reality of the
early post-war U.S.-Japan relationship was far from the marriage made
in heaven  it was portrayed by occupation chief Douglas MacArthur.

Deverall, who was later to bequeath his papers to the American
Catholic History Research Center in Washington, wrote: “In areas such
as Northern Japan and Hokkaido I saw many incidents which made me
blush deeply. For example, in Sapporo I saw a cute little Japanese boy
shine the shoes of a burly paratrooper. When finished, the kid said
‘Okeh!’ and looked for his fee. The paratrooper carefully leaned over,
spat down the boy’s neck, and walked away.”

The full significance of this incident is apparent only when you
realize that the child was in all probability a war orphan (even in
the near-starving conditions of the late 1940s, a strong taboo existed
against boot blacking among the Japanese).

Deverall added: “During 1947-48, I invariably saw GIs chasing Japanese
girls, staggering around and teasing Japanese men, or indulging in
other infantile pursuits such as jeeping past a car [bus] stop and
holding a stick or fist to hit every Japanese en route.”

To be fair it should be noted that even Deverall acknowledged that for
the most part the GIs’ behavior was “not bad.” Actually exceptional
efforts were made on both sides to insulate ordinary Japanese citizens
from the worst side-effects of occupation. In a characteristic move
instituted within days of surrender, the Japanese authorities, for
instance, set up a vast system of quasi-regulated brothels for the
Occupation forces. The intention was clearly, among other things, to
minimize the risk of the GIs’ sexual demands instigating an outbreak
of venereal disease.

Yet despite all efforts to keep a lid on tensions, Deverall reported
that just below the surface “a smoldering resentment boiled and
bubbled.” He added: “They can suffer interminable insults and
mistreatment. But the foreigner is deceived if he thinks the Japanese
can take it forever.”

One Japanese citizen quoted by Deverall had this to say of the
Americans: “Many of us are not impressed with the crime rate, the
superiority complex, vulgar speech, racial prejudices, the lynch mobs,
etc of your ‘civilized’ country.”

As recounted by Chalmers Johnson, the tensions lessened little in
subsequent decades. Nonetheless top Japanese officials constantly
ignored popular discontent about the bases. By the same token they
kept the Pentagon constantly on tenterhooks about how much longer the
basing arrangements would be tolerated. Writing in The Fragile Blossom
in 1972, Zbigniew Bzrezinski reported that Tokyo was
supposedly on the brink of asking the Americans to leave and he
predicted that by 1975 they would be gone. This proved a false alarm
but it was well-calculated to strengthen the Pentagon’s wish to do
whatever it took to keep Tokyo on side.

Tokyo’s true position became apparent a few years later when, in an
early effort to rein in the federal budget deficits, the Carter
administration toyed with the idea of pulling out of Korea. Tokyo’s
response was to institute the so-called omoiyari yosan – the “sympathy
budget” – under which it has ever afterwards picked up a significant
proportion of the cost of the Pentagon’s Japanese bases. In
combination with other factors this headed off the risk of an American
pull-out. It should be noted, however, that Tokyo’s subventions fall
far short of covering the total cost even of the Japanese bases and
do nothing to cover the cost of bases in the Middle East whose main
economic purpose is to secure Japan’s oil.

Close observers of Japan, however, sense that the end is now nigh for
this strange marriage of convenience. From a Japanese point of view
there is little more to be gained from suppressing popular resentment
against the bases. After all Japan no longer much needs the Pentagon’s
help in trade diplomacy any more: quite simply the United States has
now become so enfeebled that it can no longer retaliate against even
the most egregious deviations from fair trade on the part of its trade
partners. Moreover there is little left in America’s technology
cupboard that Tokyo particularly covets.

Of course, one question remains: what will happen if and when the
Americans withdraw? The answer, at least where East Asia and Europe
are concerned, is probably nothing. Certainly, as people like Andrew
Bacevich and Chalmers Johnson have argued, the role of the bases in
maintaining peace has long been grossly exaggerated.

In any case a more pertinent question is simply how much longer the
United States can afford to enfeeble its economy in pursuit of
secondary national security goals. Given that China counts as both
America’s greatest perceived national security threat and its largest
creditor, the answer is surely obvious.

Eamonn Fingleton is the author of In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s
Fate in the Coming Era of Chinese Dominance.

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