American Umpireby Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman
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 valuesaccess to opportunity, arbitration of disputes, and transparency in government and businessand 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?
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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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