Democratizing Defense: Toward a More Responsive and Transparent US Security Policy

By Katya Abazajian and Tyler McBrien

US foreign policy decisions are guarded by a precious few. Decision-makers work in secret in the name of national security. Congress, which is constitutionally mandated to reflect the will of the people in foreign policy, has increasingly ceded its powers to the executive branch. Think tanks and the media reinforce the perception that Americans don’t care about security policy issues, despite unanimous public sentiment on overarching themes of our involvement abroad. This has created a democracy deficit in US foreign policy.

The established foreign policy community has remained the same across successive administrations. Despite increasing political polarization and recent shifts in public sentiment, security policy decisions still fall to a largely ideologically homogeneous group of experts dubbed “the Blob” by former Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes. President Trump, whose policies many view as a complete departure from those of past presidents, largely stayed the course in major focal areas like Syria, Afghanistan, and China. In The False Promise of Liberal Order, Patrick Porter called Trump “less an aberration than a culmination.” Though the times may change, US foreign policy stays the same. 

But it doesn’t have to. COVID-19 has exposed the US’s inability to adequately prepare for security threats that go beyond terrorism or conventional warfare, and the anti-racist uprising in the wake of George Floyd’s murder has brought structural racism in our country’s foundations into stark relief

Now is the moment for structural change, and policymakers need to reconnect with constituents’ demands. 

Every US city is facing calls from activists, journalists, and community members to defund violent police and focus on real human security in the midst of the greatest global health and economic crisis in modern history. In recent decades, police budgets have climbed at the expense of community services without any oversight or responsiveness to residents’ needs, despite widespread demand for improved access to those services.

The story of our aggressive military position in the world isn’t so different. In a national survey and report released in November 2019, the Eurasia Group Foundation found that “across generational and party lines, Americans favor a more modest and less aggressive foreign policy,” yet the basic structure of US security policy remains unchanged.

What’s not working?

The Pentagon’s vast network of overseas bases offers a helpful case study on misguided secrecy and the misalignment between policy and public opinion. Since the end of the Cold War, the number of countries hosting US military bases around the world has doubled. An estimated 800 military base sites exist across 80 or more countries, which constitute 90 to 95 percent of the world’s military bases belonging to any country.

The United States has not always maintained such a heavy military presence abroad. In describing the origin of what he calls the “pointillist empire,” historian Daniel Immerwahr explains that the government traded some of its larger colonies like the Philippines for an extensive portfolio of overseas bases. After the Second World War, Immerwahr writes, the US government “[divested] itself of large colonies and [invested] in military bases.” Neoconservative hawks and liberal internationalists alike agreed on US military predominance as the sine qua non of US security, and this Cold War-era idea still dominates the ideological landscape today.

Due to clandestine operations and classified information, the exact number of US bases abroad is impossible to know. But in a transparency gaffe in 2018, personal exercise app Strava seemed to accidentally publish the locations of military bases around the world based on users’ location data while using the app. Though the immediate response of security experts was to panic at the sensitivity of this information, it also begged the question whether technology companies and countries with powerful surveillance mechanisms don’t already have the locations of military bases through some means or another. This accidental transparency was a chink in the armor of US military secrecy, for a moment proving it obsolete.

Either in secret or in the open, bases have drawn the US into reckless and unpopular conflicts, tempting policymakers into knee-jerk military responses rather than diplomatic ones. In a message to US government leaders, the transpartisan Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition writes, “Overseas bases entangle the US in wars. Bases dotting the globe fuel hyper-interventionist foreign policy by making war look like an easy solution while offering targets for militants.” By the coalition’s count, the United States launched new military interventions from overseas bases 23 times since 1980 in the Middle East alone.

Bases can also provoke aggression and well-earned backlash, as they are both intended and perceived as a visible reminder of American military might and control. In a public letter from November 2002, Osama bin Laden cited the presence of US troops on foreign soil as one motivation for the 9/11 attacks. He wrote, “Your forces occupy our countries; you spread your military bases throughout them.”

The same racial biases underpin our domestic and foreign policy, and foreign policy decision makers bring the same frameworks to imperial policing in the Global South that America’s most repressive domestic police forces use against communities of color. In his article “America’s Disdain for Black Lives Extends to Africa,” Salih Booker argues that, “US militarism on the continent inevitably results in the killing of unarmed civilians in Somalia and elsewhere in Africa, mirroring the police killings of black Americans in the United States.”

In a viral moment in 2017, Lindsay Graham claimed, “I didn’t know we had 1,000 troops in Niger.” He went on, “We don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world, militarily, and what we’re doing… This is an endless war without boundaries, no limitation on time or geography, you gotta tell us more.” Behind his comment is a deeper truth about the status quo of policing the Global South and the fundamental lack of transparency in military decision making even to policymakers in the inner circles of power. The United States is over-policing at a global, as well as local, scale, leading  to deaths of people of color in countries where we send US troops.

But over-policing abroad is as unpopular and counterproductive to human security as it is in poor communities and communities of color at home. For decades, immigrants, refugees, and people of color have voiced the harms of American imperialist world policing, and called for it to end. Americans overwhelmingly favor a smaller Pentagon budget and believe that the United States should reduce its military presence in Asia and Africa. Yet neither these voices nor the overwhelming evidence that a US military strategy based on maintaining a constant global presence isn’t working are at the forefront of public debate. 

That silence stems from a lack of channels for US voters to affect the conditions of our security posture. Our extensive network of secret military bases is a function of the lack of democratic accountability in authorizing military spending, and the self-reinforcing systems of decision-making that circumvent traditional transparency and accountability measures. Even if Americans could see the full extent of our overextended system of bases, they would have a very difficult time ensuring a legislative remedy. 

A New Approach

The US military’s forward posture in the world not only makes the country less secure and perpetuates endless war; It also exacerbates a style of decision-making in smoke-filled rooms that is completely out of touch with democratic policymaking principles of evidence and public participation. 

On top of that, overseas bases are expensive. Some experts estimate that the US government spends $51.5 billion every year to maintain our network of bases, and yet even the Department of Defense claims to have upwards of 20 percent excess infrastructural capacity.

In the midst of COVID-19, the opportunity cost of maintaining this network might literally be personal protective equipment for frontline essential workers, funding for public schools that are at risk of closing, digital tools for disconnected kids at home from school, and shelter, food, and healthcare for the most vulnerable in our society. 

In this crucial moment, Congress must reclaim its mantle as the primary vehicle through which citizens can advocate for security policy decisions and enact stricter reporting requirements for defense agencies and military spending.

Congressional support for evidence-based approaches to governing in US security policy can be a first step toward restoring democratic accountability. In 2018, Congress passed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act. While it may seem like a fairly infrastructural piece of legislation, evidence-based policies provide the foundation for civic participation. By adapting this legislation to fit security policy needs and constraints, Congress may reclaim some of the oversight required to ensure the defense agencies are doing a good job.

Congress could also follow in the footsteps of international lawmaking bodies in adopting participatory budgeting techniques that allow citizens greater access to influence federal spending decisions. Participatory budgeting, while difficult to manage, gives people and their lawmakers a direct avenue for conversation about why money is being spent the way it is. 

Given the current climate of congressional gridlock, it may be simpler to ask lawmakers to enforce reporting requirements on the US security apparatus to begin improving transparency and accountability through the publication of open data and performance metrics. Existing reporting requirements are inadequate and, at times, inaccurate. In another letter to the US government, the Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition points out that the Pentagon’s annual “Base Structure Report” often fails to report on dozens of well-known military installations, and the “Overseas Cost Report” is always incomplete. Reporting out metrics is not only an important piece of governance and management, but also a crucial first step for allowing people insight into the security policy decisions that have been clouded from their view.  

Most importantly, lawmakers should take advocates and communities at their word. In this moment of reckoning, we must prioritize the dignity, health, and agency of people in foreign countries where we have used US bases to expand our control of global security.

Cracks have appeared in our century-old strategy. Emergent transpartisan think tanks like the Quincy Institute, bankrolled by the financial odd couple of George Soros and Charles Koch, are challenging America’s endless wars. The diverse Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition more explicitly advocates for base closures and military spending oversight. And even Richard Haass, the President of the establishment favorite Council on Foreign Relations wrote a book called “Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order,” which cautions against overreaching military interventions.

Such cross-cutting support on any issue is rare in Washington. Calls against US imperialism and for a more democratic, transparent foreign policy are not new, and yet more timely than ever. In an essay in The Atlantic from 1916, G. Lowes Dickinson wrote, “If there is to be war, it should be the people themselves that choose it with their eyes open.”


Katya Abazajian is an open government expert working with cities and states on data and technology use for stronger local democracies. She is a Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and an Affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. You can follow her on Twitter at @katyaabaz.

Tyler McBrien is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He currently writes case studies for Innovations for Successful Societies, an institute at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs. Previously, he worked as an Associate Editor at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Princeton in Africa Fellow in South Africa. You can follow him on Twitter at @tylermcbrien.

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