An Anti-Bases Network Finds its Base

  • The consolidation of an international network for the abolition of foreign military bases marks an important advance for the global  peace and justice movement

BY Herbert Docena
14 March 2007

On the perimeter fence of the Eloy Alfaro air base in Manta, Ecuador hangs a sign, “Warning: Military Base. No Trespassing.” Since 1999,  the base has been used as a “forward operating location” by the US  military – just one of over 737 US military installations currently  scattered in over 100 countries around the world.


On March 9, about 500 visitors showed up at the base’s main gate. One  of them walks up to the fence and pastes a bright blue and red  sticker saying “No Bases!” on the warning sign, a broken rifle  forming the diagonal line with the letter “o” to make the universal  sign of prohibition.

It is a small, symbolic act of trespassing for a newly formed  international network with a big goal: the closure of all such  military bases worldwide. But with the successful convening of a  conference that launched the International Network for the Abolition  of Foreign Military Bases (No Bases) in Quito and Manta, Ecuador from March 5 to 9, 2007, that goal has become a little closer to reality.



Perhaps the largest gathering against military bases in history, the  conference drew over 400 grassroots and community-based activists who  are at the forefront of local struggles from as far away as Okinawa,  Sardinia, Vieques, Pyongtaek, Hawaii, and dozens of other places from more than 40 countries. There were environmentalists, feminists,  pacifists, war resisters, farmers, workers, students,  parliamentarians, and other activists from social movements, human  rights groups, faith-based organizations, and various regional and  global networks and coalitions.

But even the final tally of those present probably underestimated the  extent of participation in the conference: In the network’s e-mail  list on the eve of the conference, an anti-bases activist from  Iceland wrote to say that their absence in Ecuador should not be taken to mean that they are absent from the movement. The range of  groups that made it to the conference – both in terms of where they  come from geographically and politically – demonstrate just how broad  the movement against bases has become.

International conferences are sometimes dismissed as talk-fests where nothing gets done.  But getting together and talking to each other is  often an important first step in building a community. In various  panels and self-organized seminars, film-showings, and forums,  participants deepened their understanding of the role of military  bases in global geo-politics, the various forms and guises that  military presence takes, and their impacts on local communities and  the environment. They also exchanged lessons about strategies and  approaches to more effectively campaign against bases back home. Even  the Pentagon has taken note of the growing domestic opposition to  their bases and it is these grassroots campaigns that are foiling  their plans.

But this was not all. What was significant about the conference was that the participants went beyond talking about how bad bases are and  why we should all oppose them. They rolled up their sleeves and, in  one intensive workshop after another, set out to establish a network,  articulate the bases of unity, agree on a higher level of coordination, and decide more concrete plans for common action.

That task proved to be daunting yet illuminating. As the participants tried to clarify what exactly brought them together, potentially divisive but fundamental questions soon rose to the surface: Should  the network just target foreign military bases or also domestic  bases? Since they all have military and war-making purposes,  shouldn’t all military bases – regardless of whether they are the US’ or Cuba’s – be abolished? What about the “domestic” military bases in  Hawaii, Guam, or Puerto Rico? Or in occupied countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan? What about NATO bases which are arguably both  “foreign” and “domestic” at the same time? If the network targets  only “foreign” bases, how does this distinguish it from all those  right-wing nationalist groups in Europe or the Middle East who oppose  bases just because they’re “foreign”? And while it was generally  agreed that no one comes close to the US in terms of the sheer number of bases, how much effort should the network exert against the bases  of Russia or France?

These proved to be important questions because the answers to them touch on the values and identity of the network. Underlying them are  broader questions that define some of the diverging – but also  overlapping – currents within the network and, perhaps, within the  larger anti-war movement. Broadly – and perhaps crudely – categorized, there are those within  the network who oppose bases from what could be called an “anti- imperialist” perspective. They see foreign military bases as both the  instruments – as well as the visible manifestations – of imperialism.  They are against US bases on foreign soil but will defend Cuba’s or  Iran’s right to have domestic military bases for self-defense. Within  this current, there are differences on the extent to which the US  should be singled out: While there is unanimous recognition that the US is the primary threat, others are quick to point out that the  European powers have their own imperialist drives and are equally  dangerous. On the other hand, there are those who oppose bases from  the perspective of “anti-militarism”: they’re against all military  bases – regardless of who owns them.

These debates also raise questions about the nature of “nationalism”  and “sovereignty.” In many contexts, mainly but not exclusively in  the South, opposition to foreign bases draws from a deep nationalist  well, with bases seen as “external” incursions against “sovereignty” and with “nationalism” seen as a necessary bulwark against  colonialism. In other contexts, however, “nationalism” and  “sovereignty” have become bad words, used to rally public support for  wars against “the other” and to justify repressive measures against  “foreigners.” Cautiously, the network treaded the fine line between  self-determination and chauvinism.

After ten hours of spirited but cordial deliberation, the draft  declaration presented in plenary was widely commended as a sharp but  nuanced formulation (see full text below) that succeeded in drawing  the approval of both anti-imperialist and anti-militarist positions.  (Or at the very least, it was not expressly rejected by either.) What  may have clinched the day was the broadening of the target of the  network to include not just foreign military bases but “all other  infrastructure used for wars of aggression.”

The formulation thus takes a more sophisticated understanding of the complex configuration of military bases  by allowing for the  inclusion of domestic military bases inside the US, as well as in  NATO and in other countries. It appealed to those who insisted on a  strong focus on foreign military bases – most of which are owned by the US and all of which are arguably used for aggression – while at  the same time not contradicting those who wish to expand the focus of  their own work.

In contrast to the right-wing, chauvinist opposition to bases, the declaration makes it clear that the network’s  objection to bases is  not premised on what analysts call the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard)  logic – i.e. foreign military bases are fine as long as someone else  bears the noise, the waste, and the crimes – but on the NIABY logic  (not-in-any-one’s backyard), i.e. foreign military bases are bad  because they “entrench militarization, colonialism, imperial policy,  patriarchy, and racism.” In light of the influence of the right-wing  objection to bases, the network’s opposition to all bases – and not  just those in one’s locality –offers a global counter-pole premised  on internationalism and solidarity.

For an incipient grouping still struggling to define its purpose and  to sharpen its focus, the importance of clarifying and reaching  agreement on the network’s bases of unity should not be  underestimated. As Helga Serrano, one of the conference organizers  concluded, “The ideological and political bases of unity of the  network is more consolidated than we had thought.” It is true that  the subsequent session for planning concrete actions and strategies 
proved to be less clarifying: only a grocers’ list of ideas emerged,  not a clear set of priorities. But without coming to anagreement on  its common vision, the network could have been paralyzed by  unresolved contradictions and confusion. The articulation of  collective principles lays the foundations for future actions.

Carrying out these actions requires, in turn, a certain degree of organization. On-guard against threats to their autonomy, wary of  centralizing tendencies, but keen to achieve their objectives, many  delegates stressed the need to combine openness and horizontality  with strategic and organized action. As Joel Suarez, a participant  from Cuba said, “We cannot continue with the way we have been  organizing. Horizontality is correct but, applied wrongly, it has led  to the disintegration and paralysis of the movements. Our advancement  depends on the efficiency of our organization. We can’t let this fall  apart.” The question, said Serrano, is “how do we create new forms of  horizontal relationships?” The challenge, as posed in one panel, was  to strengthen the coordination within the network without  centralizing and bureaucratizing it.

Put this way, the dilemmas faced by the network are little different  from that faced by other networks that have emerged in recent  years. . Accepting the need for closer interaction while cautious of  rushing the process, participants in the end reached a consensus to  remain as a loose grouping but with a higher level of coordination. A  process was set up for putting in place an open international  coordination committee with a clear but circumscribed political  mandate and a defined set of responsibilities for carrying out  collective projects.

Still, there are significant hurdles to overcome: The network still has to reach out to so many more local anti-bases activists,  especially from West and Central Asia; the issue of bases is still  not high on the agenda of the anti-war movements; the network lacks  resources because the issue is seen as too radical even for  sympathizers; and even within the network, there is uneven access to  resources and capacities; translation remains to be worked out more  efficiently; and so on.

Despite all these obstacles, the network has come a long way. The conference is a milestone in that it marks the consolidation of the  international network as both a space where the broadest grouping of  organizations, coalitions, and movements can come together and as an  organizational vehicle which can carry out globally coordinated   campaigns while providing continuing and sustained support to local  struggles everywhere.

But it’s more than this. The network’s development could also be seen as evidence of the consolidation of the anti-globalization/anti-war  movements that emerged in the last decade. While the idea has been  germinating before, the birth of the network could be traced back to  a gathering of anti-war/anti-globalization activists, shortly after  the invasion of Iraq, in Jakarta, Indonesia in May 2003. Attended by  representatives from some of the groups that were behind the  coordination of the historic February 15, 2003 global day of action  against the war in Iraq and who had previously been active in the  anti-globalization movement, the Jakarta meeting endorsed the  proposal of launching an international network against bases as one  of the priorities for the movements.

A group of organizations in that meeting then carried the idea  forward through various World Social Forums, local and regional  social forums, and other activist gatherings. As Wilbert van der  Zeijden, an activist who was among those who steered the network  through the years, said, “This would not have been possible without  the World Social Forum process.” While the concept remains debated,  the “open space” provided by the social forum process provided opportunities for networking, information-sharing, and organizing  that would have been too difficult or too expensive had the space not  existed. The consolidation of the network proves that the movement is  capable not only of uniting around a proposal but of actually seeing  it through.

Also often underrated and unreported is the degree by which the movement has been getting more efficient at organizing. While there  were a few of the usual glitches and some internal disagreements, it  felt as though the conference and the run-up to it was, on the whole,  better organized politically and logistically than similar projects  in the past. International conferences of the scale that activists  had been organizing in the last few years require a high level of  organization and coordination but, with very limited human and  financial resources, and activists are stepping up the plate. As one  participant remarked, “Five years of organizing the World Social  Forums and other meetings and we’re learning.” Ecuadoran organizers  of the network conference themselves acknowledge that they have  gained confidence and valuable experience from organizing the  Americas Social Forum and other international meetings in the past.

What is remarkable – but often taken for granted – is how activists – who are not trained and salaried professional events organizers –  have succeeded in realising ambitious projects for a small fraction  of the cost that corporations or governments spend on similar  meetings. That the movements are learning and becoming more  proficient heralds their development and growing capacity for  organized action.

More than anything, the consolidation of the anti-bases network  demonstrates that the movements have become more deliberately  strategic. The network is a “single-issue” campaign focused on the  issue of bases. And as Lindsey Collen, an activist from Mauritius,  warned, “Single-issue fragmentation may lead to short-term success  but long-term failure.” The single-minded focus on bases, however, is  neither fragmentary nor fragmenting; on the contrary, it arises from a comprehensive understanding of the conjuncture that locates bases  within the global strategy of domination.

Rather than being divisive, the emphasis on bases brings together a  much more holistic understanding of the ways in which the coercive  and corporate sides of militarized globalization come together to  perpetuate structures of dispossession and injustice. As Joseph  Gerson, an activist-scholar on bases, put it “Bases perpetuate the  status quo.” The decision to zoom-in and focus on the issue of bases  in a coherent and consistent manner comes out of an objective  assessment and a compellingly simple logic: without foreign military  bases, wars would be so much more difficult to wage; without wars,  the pursuit of geo-strategic and economic interests over democracy  and self-determination would be somuch harder. As Corazon Fabros, a  veteran anti-bases activist from the Philippines, said, “The strategy  of empire is global. So must our response.”