Perspectives on Politics

Research Article

“The Empire Will Compensate You”: The Structural Dynamics of the U.S. Overseas Basing Network

Alexander Cooleya1 and Daniel H. Nexona2

a1 Barnard College

a2 Georgetown University


Many commentators refer to the U.S. overseas network of military installations as an “empire,” yet very few have examined the theoretical and practical significance of such an analogy. This article explores the similarities and differences between the basing network and imperial systems. We argue that American basing practices and relations combine elements of liberal multilateralism with “neo-imperial” hegemony. Much, but far from all, of the network shares with ideal-typical empires a hub-and-spoke system of unequal relations among the United States and its base-host country “peripheries.” But Washington rarely exercises rule over host-country leaders and their constituents. Historical examples suggest that this combination of imperial and non-imperial elements has rendered the United States vulnerable to political cross-pressures, intermediary exits, and periodic bargaining failures when dealing with overseas base hosts. Moreover, globalizing processes, especially increasing information flows and the transnational networking of anti-base movements, further erode U.S. capacity to maintain multivocal legitimation strategies and keep the terms of its individual basing bargains isolated from one another. Case studies of the rapid contestation of the terms of the U.S. basing presence in post-Soviet Central Asia and post-2003 Iraq illustrate some of these dynamics.

Alexander Cooley is Professor of Political Science at Barnard College in New York City ( He is also a Ph.D. Advisor in Columbia University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, a Faculty Member of Columbia's Harriman Institute and Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, and also teaches at the School of International and Public Affairs. His most recent book is Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Daniel H. Nexon is Associate Professor in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University ( He is author of The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change (Princeton University Press, 2009). During 2009–2010 he worked in the U.S. Department of Defense as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow.


  The authors would like to thank our anonymous reviewers, Jeffrey C. Isaac, Barry Buzan and Paul MacDonald, as well as participants at presentations given at the International Studies Association, the Danish Institute for International Studies, the Korbel School at the University of Denver, the Mortara Center for International Studies at Georgetown University, the Norwegian Institute for International Studies, and the School of Oriental and African Studies.