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Will US maintain global military dominance under Biden?

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the South China Sea.
The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the South China Sea. © AP - Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) 3rd Class Kimani J. Win

After the victory of US President-elect Joe Biden, the world is anxiously watching to see if Washington, with its new Commander-in-Chief, will resume its role as global policeman. China and Russia, the two strongest military rivals of the US, are playing the waiting game.

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Despite an increasingly persistent flow of reports suggesting that China is taking over world military domination, the United States remains the world’s sole army superpower - by far.

According to global military watchdog SIPRI, the US registered a 718 billion dollar military budget in 2020, while China, with a population four times larger, budgeted a 178 billion USD (1.3 trillion RMB)

The statistics do indicate that China’s budget has been steadily rising since the year 2000, while Washington’s budget decreased under the Obama administration, only to take off again after Trump came to power.

The 2019 US military budget compared to the one of China and India.
The 2019 US military budget compared to the one of China and India. © CSIS/SIPRI

According to the latest statistics published by the US Defense Manpower Data Center, the Pentagon employs a total of 2,923,477 people in military and civilian functions (on active duty as well as reserves), including 224,481 military personnel stationed in bases in 176 countries (not including troops in Afghanistan.)

Most of these are small posts, manned by just a handful of people - so-called "lily pad" bases, but some US outposts are home to thousands.

Meanwhile, China has only one single military base abroad, with an estimated manpower of around 2,000 military personnel.

A US military aircraft takes off at United Staes' Ramstein Air Base in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, June 9, 2020. According to various media outlets, the US wants to reduce the number of soldiers stationed in Germany by up to 9500.
A US military aircraft takes off at United Staes' Ramstein Air Base in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, June 9, 2020. According to various media outlets, the US wants to reduce the number of soldiers stationed in Germany by up to 9500. AP - Michael Probst

Empire of bases

Japan is home to the largest cluster of US bases (62,712 people), followed by Germany (46,315 people), South Korea (29,684 people), Italy (14,745 people), Puerto Rico and Guam (13,573 and 11,206 people respectively) and the Middle Eastern Navy bases UAE and Bahrain (10,716 and 4,469 people respectively).

US Military bases around the world.
US Military bases around the world. © Courtesy David Vine

A statement by the White House published on 30 October boasts that “terrorists lose and peace wins.”

The US “destroyed the ISIS caliphate,” killed “terrorist leaders (IS head) Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and (head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps) Qasem Soleimani” while “securing peace deals with our real allies across the Middle East, including Israel.”

The White House statement claims that Trump is “the first American leader since Ronald Reagan not to start a war,” insisting that he “renewed the ‘peace through strength’ foreign policy that helped the United States win the Cold War.”

The United States has been involved in some form of combat or war in at least 24 countries since 2001.

PODCAST: David Vine, author of "Base Nation" on USA's military around the globe under President Biden

“I believe this is accurate,” says Professor David Vine of the American University in Washington DC, author of Base Nation and The United States of War. “But operations of the US military are not transparent. It is very difficult to know exactly where the US military has been operating.”

In this Sept. 11, 2001, file photo, smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers, in New York City. The attack marked an acceleration of US military operations world wide.
In this Sept. 11, 2001, file photo, smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers, in New York City. The attack marked an acceleration of US military operations world wide. AP - Richard Drew

He points out that the US has been involved “in some form of combat or war” in dozens of countries since the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. According to The United States of War, "in the nearly two decades since US forces invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military has fought in at least twenty-two countries," most of them were "aggressive, offensive wars of choice," which grew "lengthier, deadlier and larger in scope".

Trump 'anti-war, anti-imperialist'

In spite of a sentiment among the Trump base that he is “anti-war, anti-imperialist,” Vine points out that Trump “escalated drone assassinations, other forms of military action in a range of countries,” and even though he pulled out some troops from Syria, military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen continued.

“Trump claiming to be an anti-war president is a complete misrepresentation,” Vine says. “The basic US military infrastructure has remained pretty much in place around the globe, and in some places, has actually increased in size, particularly in Africa, and in eastern and Central Europe,” he says.

In this file photo taken Monday, April 16, 2018, a U.S. and Niger flag are raised side by side at the base camp for air forces and other personnel supporting the construction of Niger Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger.
In this file photo taken Monday, April 16, 2018, a U.S. and Niger flag are raised side by side at the base camp for air forces and other personnel supporting the construction of Niger Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger. AP - Carley Petesch

In fact, Trump accused the Obama administration of “gutting the US military” and increased funding for national defence, securing nearly $2.2 trillion during his first three years in office, including “$738 billion secured for fiscal year 2020 alone,” while between 2016 and 2019, Canada and US European allies added $130 billion to defence budgets to support Nato, after Washington alleged that other countries had, for years, taken advantage of American taxpayers.

So what will change when Biden takes over as Commander-in-Chief on January 20, 2021?

Washington will try to reset the relationship with its allies, but the US military presence around the globe will “at least initially” stay in place, says Vine. Existing strongholds such as the massive complex of bases in Rammstein, Germany will remain, while Biden may be “pushed to increase the US military presence in East Asia”.

n this June 24, 2020 file photo, soldiers from China's People's Liberation Army march toward Red Square during the Victory Day military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in Red Square in Moscow, Russia. Chinese and Russian forces took part in joint military exercises in southern Russia later in September along with troops from Armenia, Belarus, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan and others, China's defense ministry announced Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.
n this June 24, 2020 file photo, soldiers from China's People's Liberation Army march toward Red Square during the Victory Day military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in Red Square in Moscow, Russia. Chinese and Russian forces took part in joint military exercises in southern Russia later in September along with troops from Armenia, Belarus, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan and others, China's defense ministry announced Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. AP - Alexander Zemlianichenko

Much will also depend on how the relationship with Russia and China developd, with the Kremlin trying to win back some of the influence it enjoyed in the times of the USSR, and with an increasingly assertive China. Neither Russia nor China have officially acknowledged the Biden victory, indicating that they would rather wait for the result of ongoing lawsuits regarding the voting process.

“These relationships have to be built, not around bases and the presence of troops, as they have been for 75 years since the end of World War II,” says Vine, “but a Biden/Harris administration should drop the outdated, Cold War era strategy and build on diplomatic engagement,” he says.  

 

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