American Umpire – Review

In Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman’s book American Umpire, the author examines the history of U.S. foreign policy from the founding to present day.  By exploring specific events in American history, the author challenges those scholars who suggest that the United States is an empire and she asserts that the term “umpire” better describes American foreign policy.  Cobbs Hoffman writes in her introduction that the term empire is hard to define, analytically problematic, and burdened with a significant amount of baggage.  She contends that the United States is an umpire because it has compelled other nations to acquiesce to “rules that had earned broad legitimacy;” moreover, she observes three practices that the United States encouraged and extended which have helped all nations transcend their differences including: access to opportunity, arbitration of disputes, and transparency in government and business.  As the global umpire, Cobbs Hoffman argues that the United States has sought, for the most part, to spread these practices and enforce international norms.

Cobbs Hoffman’s narrative is by no means triumphalist and she does not hesitate to criticize U.S foreign policy decisions.  For example, she does concede that the United States did acquire a formal empire following the Spanish-American War.  However, her interpretation is highly subjective and, by focusing on her three practices, she avoids important debates about empire and dismisses arguments for American empire without fully engaging in the scholarship.  Moreover, the author swiftly dismisses the Indian Wars, the Mexican- American War, and the westward expansion by explaining them away as actions practiced by other republics.  Yet this explanation remains confusing.  How are wars for territory and the subjugation of peoples not imperial practices?  Although the United States sought to make new territories and incorporate them into the Union as equal partners, this practices does not necessarily mean that the efforts to incorporate those territories were not imperial.

Another issue overlooked by Cobbs Hoffman is the concept of umpire.  An umpire is usually a third party with some type of authority chosen to decide issues of importance.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an umpire “decides between disputants or contending parties and whose decision is usually accepted as final.”  Thus, a nation does not just become an umpire because it declares so.  Rather, a nation must receive customary authority of other world powers to enforce rules and act as an umpire.  Working with this idea, the United States does not become an umpire until 1945 when the nation acquires both the prestige, power, and authority to be the global umpire.  Prior to 1945, the major powers of the world considered the United States a middling nation and thus just another participant in the game.  Therefore, if the United States was not an umpire for most of its history, the author needs to reassess the role of the United States from 1776 to 1945.  Furthermore, some nations never accepted the United States’ role as an international arbiter.  So, can American be an umpire if only certain nations agree that American’s decisions are final?  And how many actually did/do accept America’s decision making?  Certainly not Russia or China.

This leads back to the term empire, a concept which historian Paul Kramer still considers useful and necessary for placing the United States in global history.  Although he concedes that the term can be difficult to define, Kramer instead advocates the analytical capabilities of the term in helping historians consider dimensions of power, spatial ordering, and relations of hierarchy, discipline, dispossession, extractions, and exploitation.  Hence, using the imperial concept allows historians to contemplate the United States’ role in the world beyond policy and to include aspects of business, economics, cultural, and social in understanding the United States place.  Cobbs Hoffman’s strict focus on international agreements, policy, and arbitration ignores the features of U.S. foreign policy that the imperial paradigm can incorporate.

Ultimately, America was not and is not umpire, but many scholars also contend that America was not an empire, except for the imperial moment during the Spanish American War.  This is a debate that will hardly reach consensus in the near future, especially with American military bases scattered across the globe, but it is an important debate.  While Cobbs Hoffman’s umpire thesis fails to convince this reviewer, her effort to broadly rethink American foreign policy deserves credit and will force future historians to sharpen their analytic skills in attempting to characterize U.S. foreign policy.

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