To repeat, the premise is that forward presence equals deterrence.
However, what if the reverse is actually true – that forward presence not only fails to provide deterrence but actively encourages war? Huh? Well that can’t be right. I mean, sure, maybe forward presence is debatable as far as accomplishing deterrence but it surely can’t encourage war … can it?
Well, where is the first place we always turn for answers? That’s right, history! What does history tell us about forward presence? Let’s look at some examples.
Pearl Harbor – The Pearl Harbor naval base was developed during the 1920’s and ‘30s and became the home of the US Pacific fleet in 1939 and beyond. It was hoped that the forward presence of the Pacific Fleet would temper Japanese encroachments on China and the surrounding region. Many US analysts believed that the Japanese, if they initiated hostilities, would strike the Dutch East Indies, Singapore or Indochina. Instead, as we know, the Japanese took advantage of the concentration of US naval and air power to deal what they hoped was a crippling blow.
It seems almost certain that the Japanese viewed the concentration of vulnerable US military power as too good an opportunity to pass up. Instead of acting as a deterrent, the Pearl Harbor forward base acted as a stimulus for the Japanese who believed that destroying that much of the US Pacific forces would ensure their successful occupation of the various South Pacific islands and facilities that were their ultimate objectives.
We see, then, that far from deterring Japan, the forward base of Pearl Harbor encouraged and hastened the onset of war by presenting a target too good for Japan to pass up.
Admittedly, this is pure speculation, though well reasoned. We have no documents or contemporaneous statements to the effect that Pearl Harbor’s concentration of military might encouraged the war. On the other hand, we have no statements to the contrary and many documented writings and statements about the attractiveness of Pearl Harbor as a target so the conclusion that the forward base encouraged war is eminently logical.
Falklands – The Falkland Islands (and South Georgia) provided forward presence and served as a forward base of sorts for UK interests in the Antarctic region and minor trade activities. The islands were the subject of disputed territorial claims by the UK and Argentina. Argentina, which was suffering from domestic unrest and economic troubles, seized on the opportunity to use the Falklands to deflect internal political criticism and create a rallying point for the population. With the UK’s main military forces far away and having witnessed the UK initiate territorial transfer discussions, Argentina believed that the UK would not respond to a seizure of the islands. As we know, the British did respond and the Falklands War resulted.
While not a forward base in the classic military sense, the islands were still a forward base for UK interests and presented a convenient and irresistible target for Argentina. The British forward presence encouraged the conflict.
United States Colonies – The forward presence represented by the British colonies in America in the early to mid 1700’s were a trigger for numerous conflicts between the French and British, including the well known French and Indian War of 1754-1763. Just a little later, the American Revolution resulted in the formation of the United States. Clearly, the British forward presence, in the form of colonies and military forces, acted as a trigger for multiple conflicts.
Poland – Germany began WWII by invading Poland. While Poland was not a forward base/presence in the strict definition of such, it did, by aligning itself with the UK (1939 Agreement of Mutual Assistance, for example), become a de facto UK forward base/presence for hostilities and operations against Germany. While there were multiple reasons for Germany’s selection of Poland as the initial strike of WWII (Lebensraum, for example), did Poland’s forward location (adjacent to Germany) and vulnerability make it too good a target for Hitler’s Germany to pass up and thus encouraged the start of war?
To be fair, this example is a bit of a reach and may be a case of attempting a bit of tortured reasoning to support the premise.
Guam – Although a war has not yet occurred, the US forward base at Guam offers the Chinese the same type of overwhelmingly enticing target that Pearl Harbor offered the Japanese. Elimination of Guam as a forward base would severely impair US military operations in a war and the Chinese obviously recognize this. Will a strike on Guam prove to be a temptation to good to pass up for the Chinese and encourage them to initiate a war?
US Middle East and Pacific Fleets – While not forward bases in and of themselves (though they are forward based in the respective regions), it is clear that the forward presence of the US Middle East and Pacific Fleets is stimulating aggressive acts, some meeting the definition of acts of war, by Iran and China – acts that would not occur if not for the presence of US naval assets. Thus, forward presence is encouraging aggressive, war-tending acts.
Spanish-American War of 1898 – The Spanish forward presence/base in Cuba ignited various United States economic, strategic, and humanitarian interests. The sinking of the USS Maine provided the trigger that allowed the US to justify the initiation of war but it was a war that was stimulated by the Spanish forward presence and was likely to happen with or without the Maine incident.
It seems clear that forward presence has the inherent tendency to encourage conflict rather than deter it. That makes the US geopolitical strategic policy linking forward presence and deterrence highly suspect. Thus, the entire rationale for the US Navy’s global forward presence is founded on an untrue premise that forward presence equals deterrence when, in fact, history suggests the exact opposite effect.
While forward presence has a clear antagonistic effect, it is important to recognize that forward presence also accomplishes beneficial objectives and that an accelerated movement to war may be a ‘good’ and necessary step to those ends. While the reverse case, meaning no forward presence, might have prevented many conflicts it would also have allowed many undesirable situations to arise. For example, without the forward base of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese would have been able to achieve their Indo-China goals and might have been able to prevail in any subsequent conflict. Had the British refrained from establishing forward bases in colonial America, the territory might well have been completely occupied by the French. If the US naval presence were absent from the Middle East and South/East China Seas, Iran and China would likely have established a militant and military presence (China has annexed the South China Sea even with our presence!). And so on.
Thus, the mere fact that forward presence encourages conflict is not, in and of itself, reason to avoid it. Instead, the use of forward presence should be entered into with careful forethought as to the repercussions and should be balanced against the desired gains and benefits.
One final thought is that forward presence, when combined with a policy of appeasement, which is how the US implements its forward presence, promotes all the negatives of aggressive behavior with none of the benefits. It is the worst of both worlds.
Comment note: The examples offered have varying degrees of validity and none are absolute, clear cut, indisputable proof of the premise. Any one example could be argued. Further, the reverse of the premise which would be that forward presence prevents war and, if true, would disprove the post premise, is impossible to prove, absent statements from foreign leaders stating that they wanted to initiate war but were discouraged from doing so by the forward presence of their enemy and, of course, there are no such statements on record. Thus, the way to read this post is to consider the totality of the examples and logic and consider the pattern described herein. I am specifically NOT going to entertain individual arguments about the examples. If you wish to comment, do so about the overall premise rather than individual examples. Fair warning.
Finally, regarding forward presence and deterrence, someone is inevitably going to claim that our forward presence in, say, Europe, has resulted in no Soviet/Russian war and, therefore, must be true. This is a case of correlation versus causation. Just because there is a correlation (presence and no war) does not mean there is a causation. One could just as logically argue that our implementation and use of fluoride in our water supply in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s correlates to no wars with the Soviets/Russia. Therefore, fluoride must prevent wars as well as cavities! Well, obviously fluoride doesn’t prevent wars – that’s correlation without causation.