The United States has over 200,000 troops stationed in 144 countries and territories. At any one time, it usually has an additional 20,000 deployed overseas afloat on Navy ships. In the more benign post-Cold War international environment, why does the United States need all of those forces positioned overseas?

Although the conventional wisdom holds that ethnic forces unleashed after the end of the Cold War have made the world less stable, statistical indicators of stability show otherwise. In the post-Cold War period, the number of armed conflicts has declined by more than half--from 55 in 1992 to 24 in 1997. In addition, most conflicts now occur within states, not between them. Of the 101 conflicts occurring from 1989 to 1996, 95 involved combatants within a state and only six took place between states. A threat to U.S. security is more apt to arise from cross border aggression than from civil strife.

Another indicator of increasing international stability is the substantial reduction in worldwide military expenditures after the Cold War. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that such expenditures have dropped by one third from $1.1 trillion in the late 1980s to $740 billion in 1997. There has also been a drastic reduction in international arms sales. From 1986 to 1995, international arms sales plummeted 55 percent. In addition, during the same period, the United States and its allies have increased their control over the worldwide arms market. The U.S. share of the market increased from 22 percent to 49 percent and NATO’’s share increased from 44 to 78 percent. The U.S. and NATO shares increased as a result of greatly diminished subsidized sales of Russian weapons to third world outlaw states-such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, and North Korea.

In short, the absence of one superpower funneling arms and assistance to stir up opposition groups in a client state of the rival superpower has led to the worldwide decline in conflicts, military expenditures, and arms sales.

So why do all of those U.S. forces remain overseas? Some of the 200,000 military personnel in 144 nations perform the legitimate missions of protecting the U.S. embassies and collecting intelligence. But the presence of the vast majority of troops is a vestige of the Cold War.

Most of the 100,000 troops in Europe (mainly in Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Spain, Iceland, Belgium, and Portugal) and almost all of the 75,000 troops in Asia (in Japan and South Korea) are supporting wealthy nations against mild or declining threats. For example, the size of the combined economies of the NATO allies exceeds that of the economy of the United States. Each of the economies of Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom exceeds that of Russia-a country with a decimated economy and military. The economy of South Korea is 24 times the size of that of its archenemy North Korea, an economic basket case. The economy of Japan is almost twice that of China-a nation that has not yet become a serious military threat-and almost eight times that of Russia.

The other 10,000 troops in Europe (in Hungary and Bosnia) are conducting and supporting a peace enforcement mission in Bosnia that has nothing to do with American vital interests and is already becoming a quagmire that is unlikely to prevent a resumption of fighting after NATO’’s withdrawal.

Other relics of the Cold War include the U.S. military presence in Panama (6,000 troops) and Guantanamo, Cuba (almost 2,000 troops). With end of the Cold War and the advent of large aircraft carriers that cannot transit the Panama Canal, the canal is less strategic and faces no threat of closure. (The loss of Panama’s facilities in the failed effort to stop drugs flowing into the United States from South America also would be inconsequential.) With the Department of Defense acknowledging that the Cuban military poses little threat, the U.S. base at Guantanamo is expensive and serves only the symbolic purpose of tweaking Fidel Castro’’s nose.

The United States also has almost 4,000 troops in the Persian Gulf (Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) to guard against an Iraqi attack that is now improbable. An analyst from the Defense Intelligence Agency noted that Iraq-because of the Persian Gulf War and grinding economic sanctions-has less than 40 percent of its military left and is probably incapable of conducting an assault over an extended distance into Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps need a rotation base of over 150,000 people afloat to have 20,000 people deployed afloat in overseas theaters (Europe, the Persian Gulf, East Asia, and other locations) at any one time. The Navy claims that naval forward presence deters aggressors in those regions and reassures allies. The claim of deterrence is unsubstantiated and dubious. Moreover, forward naval presence only reassures wealthy allies that the United States will come to their rescue, thus enabling them to forgo adequate spending for their own defense.

Therefore, most of the 200,000 American troops stationed overseas and most of the 20,000 sailors and Marines performing forward presence missions could be withdrawn without negatively affecting U.S. national security. With no major adversary on the horizon in the post-Cold War world, the United States does not need to police every portion of the globe for its rich allies.