The World's Five Military Empires

Four countries around the world host both Russian and American military bases. 

Despite talk of American decline, the U.S. still is the world's only superpower – if by that you mean: the country with by far the biggest military footprint throughout the world. 


These maps, produced at the end of last year by the Swiss Institute for Peace and Energy Research (SIPER), show the geographic distribution of foreign military bases for five countries with some of the largest defence budgets (1) in the world.

The United States spent $611 billion on its defence in 2016. According to this map, that kind of money buys you a military presence on every inhabited continent of the world. According to SIPER, the U.S. has 587 bases in a total of 42 other countries, in addition to 4,154 bases on its own territory, plus 114 bases in U.S. overseas territories. 

In the Americas, it's easier to list the countries where the U.S. military is not present: Belize, Nicaragua and Costa Rica in Central America; Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay in South America; and Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic (and, to be fair, most of the region's island nations) in the Caribbean. And yes, despite the decades of hostility with Cuba, the U.S. does maintain a base there: Guantanamo. 

Same thing for Europe: listing the countries without an American military presence is easier – and more instructive: Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Finland: all neutral countries, outside NATO. Serbia and Montenegro: the former enemy from the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. And of course Russia, and its satellite Belarus. A few decades ago this would have sounded surreal, but there are now American troops in Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Albania. 

In Africa, the American military has a presence across the entire north, from Morocco to Egypt (and including Libya); in a few west African nations, including Burkina Faso and Niger; and in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Remarkable: the cluster of countries in the Horn of Africa with U.S. military presence, from former no-go area Somalia all the way to war-torn South Sudan. Noticeable absence: central Africa. 

Also: pretty much the entire Middle East, except Syria and Lebanon. And Iran, if you include that country in the region. But again in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. If you were China, would that not feel like a link in the chain of U.S. military encirclement? That chain also includes Australia, South East Asia – from Indonesia all the way up to Vietnam and Laos – the Philippines, South Korea and Japan. 

SIPER says both the UK and France have military bases in 11 countries – not all the same ones, of course. France's military presence is focused on Africa – more particularly on a string of former colonies: from Senegal and Mauritania on the continent's western coast via Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad all the way down to the Central African Republic.

Not contiguous, but also included are Gabon, near the equator; and Djibouti, strategically located at the southern end of the Red Sea. This vast area was once commonly called Françafrique, a term since abandoned because of its neocolonial overtones. Nevertheless, the French army still regularly intervenes to support governments and suppress rebellions. 

A small corner of South America is also coloured French, and undoubtedly the armée française has soldiers stationed there; but this is French Guyana, an integral part of the French motherland rather than a foreign country (or even a colony). Two other French military outposts: Germany – since World War II – and, somewhat surprisingly, the United Arab Emirates.

The UK also has troops in Germany, also since (and because of) the Second World War, and maintains a military presence in the UAE as well. Otherwise, there is no overlap, except that much of the UK's military presence throughout the world is also distributed throughout its former colonial empire: Cyprus in Europe; Canada and Belize in the Americas; Sierra Leone and Kenya in Africa; Qatar in the Middle East; and Singapore and Brunei in Southeast Asia.

The presence in Afghanistan is of course due to the ongoing NATO-led fight against the Taliban. Nepal, strategically positioned between China and India, never formally was part of the British Empire, but was under strong British influence for most of the 19th century. 

All of which adds up to 12 countries: SIPER does not count British troops in UK overseas territories such as the Falklands, Gibraltar, Akrotiri (on Cyprus), Bermuda or Ascension, but does include Cyprus in the list of foreign countries in which British troops are stationed. Which means SIPER either undercounted (11 instead of 12) or miscounted (no UK troops on Cyprus outside its sovereign base areas). (UPDATE, reader comment: "The UK has military establishments on Cyprus, both inside and outside the 2 Sovereign Base Areas. The establishments outside of the SBA's include a 'signals unit' that is virtually at the top of Mount Troodos").

Russia maintains military bases in 9 other countries, many in the 'near abroad': former member states of the Soviet Union. These include, according to SIPER, two bases in Armenia, four in Belarus, four in Kazakhstan, one in Kyrgyzstan and seven in Tajikistan.

Russia also maintains bases in two other former Soviet republics, but without the permission of the local government: one in Transnistria, a breakaway republic in Moldova; and four in South Ossetia and five in Abkhazia, two separatist regions in Georgia. Further afield, Russia has one military base in Vietnam, and two in Syria. 

For all its grandstanding in the South China Sea, the armed forces of the People's Republic have no other foothold outside China proper – except for Djibouti: not just China's only military base away from home, but also in a tiny country that also hosts a French and an American military base.

Djibouti is not the only country where soldiers from hostile powers are within shooting range of each other. This last map shows the American and Russian military presence throughout the world (in blue and red, respectively) – and the few countries in which they overlap (in green): Moldova, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam. 

Maps found here on SIPER.

Strange Maps #848

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

(1) While the Soviet Union outspent the U.S. on defence for at least part of the Cold War, America has undisputedly had the largest military defence budget in the world since the late 1980s. In 2016, the U.S. came in (way) ahead of China and Russia. Completing the Top 10 were Saudi Arabia, India, France, the UK, Japan, Germany and South Korea, in that order.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.