American Umpire

American Umpire

by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman

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Commentators frequently call the United States an empire: occasionally a benign empire, sometimes an empire in denial, and often a destructive empire. Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman asserts instead that, because of its unusual federal structure, America has performed the role of umpire since 1776, compelling adherence to rules that gradually earned collective approval


Commentators frequently call the United States an empire: occasionally a benign empire, sometimes an empire in denial, and often a destructive empire. Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman asserts instead that, because of its unusual federal structure, America has performed the role of umpire since 1776, compelling adherence to rules that gradually earned collective approval.

This provocative reinterpretation traces America’s role in the world from the days of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt to the present. Cobbs Hoffman argues that the United States has been the pivot of a transformation that began outside its borders and before its founding, in which nation-states replaced the empires that had dominated history. The “Western” values that America is often accused of imposing were, in fact, the result of this global shift. American Umpire explores the rise of three values—access to opportunity, arbitration of disputes, and transparency in government and business—and finds that the United States is distinctive not in its embrace of these practices but in its willingness to persuade and even coerce others to comply. But America’s leadership is problematic as well as potent. The nation has both upheld and violated the rules. Taking sides in explosive disputes imposes significant financial and psychic costs. By definition, umpires cannot win.

American Umpire offers a powerful new framework for reassessing the country’s role over the past 250 years. Amid urgent questions about future choices, this book asks who, if not the United States, might enforce these new rules of world order?

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this bold revision of the history of American foreign policy, Stanford historian Hoffman upends the notion that the U.S. was ever an empire, arguing instead that democratic capitalism, in which the people are sovereign and individuals own and generate wealth, essentially sells (and is selling) itself. She begins her discussion of America as global umpire by exploring the forces that prompted a shift in the 17th and 18th centuries toward an empire-free world order, before moving chronologically through nearly 240 years of American international relations, crises, wars, and resolutions. During that time, Hoffman asserts that the benefits of democratic capitalism (e.g., “access to opportunity, arbitration of disputes, and transparency in government and business”) have allowed America, and then the world, to flourish. Yet as the United States’ stake in global affairs has grown greater, the country has been impelled to take on the “Burden of Preemptive Intervention,” a modus operandi that has defined our global dealings since WWII. Though some might argue that such nomenclature is merely a euphemism for a modern imperialist agenda, Hoffman suggests that having an umpire is usually better than not having one at all, especially when the result is the most “functional” form of government the world has seen—so far. (Mar.)
Jack N. Rakove
Few ideas about world politics seem more popular than the notion that the United States, still the world's great superpower, has formed its own form of empire. This is the notion that Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman challenges in this fast-paced, always provocative, and certainly controversial interpretation of America's global role.
Philip Zelikow
American Umpire is the most persuasive and sensible one-volume interpretation of the whole history of American foreign policy to appear in at least a generation.
Times Higher Education - J. Simon Rofe
[A] wholly engaging analysis of U.S. history...One of the book's underlying themes is a convincing critique of the depiction of the U.S. as an empire. In doing this, Cobbs Hoffman lends the long lens of history to contemporary debates on U.S. foreign policymaking...A key strength of this book is that it successfully embeds the founding and unfolding history of the U.S. into...broader global trends. In doing so, American Umpire engages in debates in the fields of global and international histories on the place of the U.S. in world affairs.
Erez Manela
American Umpire is startlingly original, a fascinating interpretation of the history of the United States in the world.
Jeremi Suri
Are we really exceptional? Have we really improved the world through our foreign activities? Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman offers a resounding yes to both questions. With insight and wit, she explains how Americans have helped to build more open, accountable, and peaceful societies across the globe.
Kirkus Reviews
A reasoned argument for the universally appealing power of American ideals over imperial might. Cobbs Hoffman (Foreign Relations/San Diego State Univ.; Broken Promises, 2011, etc.) makes a systematic case against American imperialism in favor of its assumption of the role of world arbitrator. The notion of empire had been devalued since the Peace of Westphalia brought an end to the Thirty Years' War in 1643 and established for the first time a notion of sovereign states, equal and free from international control. From this moment also flowed the preference for arbitration over violent dispute. The United States, as a nation of citizens truly able to "begin the world over again," as Thomas Paine described, enshrined in its very founding the three trends of democratic capitalism already being legitimized the world over yet taken to new heights here: access, in terms of opportunity for all; arbitration, or the use of diplomacy and sanctions over violence; and transparency, as being proven more useful in economic and political dealings than secrecy. Moving chronologically, Cobbs Hoffman reveals how America first had to heal its own internal conflict between federal and state authority inherent in the Constitution, nicely handled by Alexander Hamilton yet challenged and ultimately resolved in a bitter Civil War, so that at last the country could "pioneer the new norms of international relations of which Enlightenment thinkers had long dreamed"--most notably, in the implementation of the doctrines by presidents Monroe, Wilson and Truman. A useful, cogent examination of why, despite some folly and ill judgment, America continues to be the one country the world looks to when in crisis or need of support.

Product Details

Publication date:
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New Edition
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6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 6: The Open Door and the First International Playing Rules:

Or, How the United States Chose a Third Way, 1900–1920

The Belle Époque culminated in the creation of the first worldwide, inter-governmental organization to promote peace. Its immediate inspiration is normally attributed to the “Fourteen Points,” President Woodrow Wilson’s 1918 statement of America’s aims in entering World War I. Wilson’s first point appealed for transparency: “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at .º.º. in the public view.” The second and third points demanded economic access: “absolute freedom of the seas,” the removal of “economic barriers,” and “equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace.” Wilson’s fourteenth and final point called for a new organization to resolve future conflicts by means of what this book loosely calls arbitration: non-violent, orderly debate based upon “specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”

Wilson’s proposals had far reaching effect. They were embodied not only in the League of Nations, but also its successor, the United Nations. Indeed, the very idea that all nations have some inherent right to self-determination, and that world organization is required to ensure it and maintain peace, is traditionally called “Wilsonianism.”

Scholars have spent a century analyzing Wilson’s motivations and effects. Some are complimentary. They suggest that Wilsonianism was America’s most important gift to the twentieth century and that it remade international society. Opposing viewpoints dominate, however. One Dutch historian argues that Wilson’s proposals were “splendid, grandiose, and vague”—and “totally out of touch with reality.” Europeans simply did not know what to make of the President’s lovely, but utterly impractical ideals. Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state, concurs that Wilson’s ideas were “quintessentially American.” Indeed, “European leaders had no categories of thought to encompass such views .º.º. Wilson’s doctrines of self-determination and collective security put European diplomats on thoroughly unfamiliar terrain.” One Paris-based journalist avers that Wilson’s views were “formed in ignorance of the actual ethnic, religious, historical, and territorial complexities.º.º.º. He possessed a very American determination not to be confused by reality or bound by the past.” Even Sigmund Freud, the modern founder of psychology, found Wilson pathologically deluded about “the facts of the real outer world,” meaning Europe. To his critics, Wilson was naïve, provincial, and messianic. He was hubristic and disingenuous. He opened Pandora’s Box by applying principles to Europe that pertained only in America. From it escaped the gadfly of self-determination and the monsters of fascism and Nazism. One recent popularization of this thesis calls Wilson the “worst president in American history,” whose blunders “led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and WWII.”

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman holds the Melbern G. Glasscock Chair in American History at Texas A&M University and is a National Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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