Friday, January 29, 2010

Review of Base Politics: Democratic Change and the U.S. Military Overseas

A recent draft version of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review suggests the need for a "new architecture of cooperation" when considering the U.S. military’s future overseas posture. The document notes that the post—Cold War reduction in forward-stationed forces, a trend continued by the 2004 Global Defense Posture Review, has both generated benefits and incurred costs: "This approach undervalued our long-term relationships while overvaluing reliance on technological solutions to security challenges."

Defense policymakers contemplating the erection of this "new architecture" may find some insight in Alexander Cooley’s Base Politics: Democratic Change and the U.S. Military Overseas (Cornell University Press, 2008), reviewed for Joint Force Quarterly by David A. Mastro.

Base Politics: Democratic Change and the U.S. Military Overseas
By Alexander Cooley
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008
328 pp. $29.95
ISBN–13: 978–0–8014–4605–4

Reviewed by DAVID A. MASTRO

Base Politics is an exceptional academic study on how domestic politics in countries hosting U.S. military bases affect the status of those bases and the degree to which the military has been integrated into their local and national landscapes. Cooley, an assistant professor of political science at Barnard College and the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, draws on cases from Southern Europe, East Asia, and Central Asia to explain how and why politicians in host countries accept or contest the presence of the U.S. military on their territory. Through comparative case study analysis, he finds that democratizing states are the most politically volatile base hosts due to low contractual credibility, whereas consolidated democracies are the most stable since contractual credibility is high. Cooley also shows how authoritarian states will only honor basing agreements if they further regime survival. When taken together, these findings represent the first comprehensive theory for understanding the conditions under which U.S. military basing arrangements in host countries become politicized. This makes Cooley's book required reading for defense policymakers charged with establishing and maintaining America’s overseas military influence.

Base Politics is a superior study for several reasons, one of which is the variety of cases Cooley examines. Researchers often focus on cases that they are either intimately familiar with or where data are easily obtainable. However, Cooley, who is originally a scholar of post-Soviet politics, conducted extensive field research to examine several cases from different geographic regions. As Cooley explains, "[b]y executing cross-regional comparisons, I move away from region-specific accounts or purely historical narratives and explore theoretically comparable institutional characteristics within the political systems of different base hosts" (51). This approach is a hallmark of comparative political study as it facilitates generalization, which gives Cooley’s theory applicability beyond the cases he examines. Therefore, Cooley’s theory can be used by defense policymakers who are contemplating the future political dynamics of America’s basing presence in various countries. This is especially important given the current security climate in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Second, Cooley discusses how his theory challenges alternative explanations in international relations literature and other discussions of U.S. overseas bases. In particular, he compares his theory of base politics to explanations that focus on security pressures, base size and troop levels, base use and incidents, and social attitudes. Cooley posits that although the alternative explanations all have the potential to explain selected episodes or trends in the cases he examines, none of them can explain the full range of issues surrounding "base politics" across different regions and historical eras (262). What makes this exercise in comparison so important is that it allows researchers and policymakers to easily see the value and importance of Cooley’s theory. Indeed, by comparing his theory of base politics to competing explanations, Cooley makes it very clear that his theory is original and has more explanatory power than previous explanations.

Despite its various advantages, Base Politics does suffer from a few shortcomings. First, nowhere does Cooley define democracy or authoritarianism. This makes it difficult to identify the political conditions under which his theory works best. Second, although Cooley selects a range of useful cases, more cases need to be examined before his findings can be considered a truly general theory of base politics. Similarly, Cooley needs to analyze cases that challenge his theory instead of ones that are likely to confirm it. A good candidate for an extreme case study would be the recent decision by the Kyrgyz government to evict the United States from its base at Manas. Here, Russian pressure, not domestic politics, appears to be the most important factor in the Kyrgyz government’s decision. Finally, the role of external factors on the host country’s decisionmaking process regarding the basing issue should be emphasized more. Although Cooley does discuss the role of external influences in all of his cases, he argues that their impact is negligible. This is troublesome given that, in certain geographic regions, the role of a regional hegemon (for example, Russia in Central Asia) must be taken into account. Moreover, in today’s globalized world, international relations and domestic politics are inextricably linked.

Nevertheless, because these shortcomings are mostly academic in nature, they do not detract from Base Politics’ practical usefulness. Defense policymakers, as well as researchers and analysts of base politics, should embrace Cooley’s book as it is the most comprehensive study on the topic to date. It presents a compelling explanation as to why U.S. basing arrangements in host countries become politicized. This will help identify the potential risks of entering into basing contracts with certain regimes, as well as make sense of the current “base politics” in host countries. Base Politics should also be embraced because it demonstrates that overseas bases are not simply military installations that serve a military purpose. Rather, they symbolize military power. Recognizing this fact is essential to establishing and maintaining a stable overseas basing presence, especially at a time when America’s popularity has dwindled throughout the world.

David A. Mastro holds a Ph.D. in political science from West Virginia University. His research focuses on foreign policy decisionmaking, national security policy, and post-Soviet politics.

1 comment:

  1. love to see this discussion! It’s great to see you all working through the issues and also, it’s great to see recommendations for testing. In the end, it’s what your actual users do and prefer that should be your biggest driver in making these decisions.

    study abroad