American Umpire by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman (review)
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American Umpire. By Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. 440. $35.00 cloth; $35.00 ebook)

“Although the metaphor of ‘American Empire’ has shown enormous persistence,” Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman argues in this work of interpretive synthesis, “it has little basis in fact” (p. 352). Rather than an empire, she argues, the United States is best understood as an “umpire” enforcing mutually beneficial international rules of the game.

A substantive study grounded in secondary literature and comprising ten chapters and a conclusion, American Umpire surveys the entire history of American diplomacy. Like Jeremi Suri, whose recent book depicted the United States as “liberty’s surest guardian,” Cobbs Hoffman offers a postrevisionist, if not orthodox, defense of U.S. international diplomacy. By promoting and enforcing a system of nation states operating under the rule of law, the United States has led the world toward “democratic capitalism,” which Cobbs Hoffman exalts as the pinnacle of human progress.

Cobbs Hoffman emphasizes three values—access to opportunity, arbitration of disputes, and transparency in government and business—as the anchors of U.S. global leadership. When the United States has intervened in world affairs or attempted to enforce its will, she argues, this typically has been done at the behest of other nations and in defense of the larger global community.

Whether or not the United States should be labeled an empire is arguable and Cobbs Hoffman sometimes strains to make her case against the imperial frame. Whereas scholars of Indian history have moved toward interpreting continental expansion at the expense of indigenous people as part of a broader American colonialism, Cobbs Hoffman denies any suggestion that Indian removal should be considered imperial (let alone genocidal), though she makes little systematic effort to explain this exclusion.

The author bolsters a familiar thesis, perceiving 1898 as an ephemeral turn to empire with the U.S. decision to annex the Philippines. [End Page 624] “The one and only period in which the United States sustained an empire” lasted from 1898 to 1946, when the Philippines received independence (p. 13). This “tragic misadventure” (p. 175) was anomalous, a product of the nation’s “adolescent identity crisis” (p. 173).

Cobbs Hoffman criticizes proponents of the idea of an American empire, from the legendary diplomatic historian William A. Williams to the contemporary critic Noam Chomsky. Rather than engage any of Chomsky’s arguments, Cobbs Hoffman resorts to ad hominem attack, excoriating the MIT linguist for “three decades of pseudo-scholarly diatribes on topics outside his discipline” (p. 336). (Chomsky might reasonably reply that, after three decades, analysis of U.S. foreign policy is his discipline.)

In contrast to these other “pseudo” scholars, Cobbs Hoffman claims that her “more realistic, evidence-based diagnosis is that the United States is the enforcer of what is, most of the time, the collective will.” The nation typically intervenes only when it is forced to “step up” and selflessly bear the burden for other, weaker nations. If it “easily and too often exceeds its authority in doing so,” this is only because it lacks needed authority under the international system (p. 337).

Cobbs Hoffman is intelligent and well read, but American Umpire breaks no new analytic ground and is highly subjective in its own right, her condemnation of other scholars for lack of “evidence-based diagnosis” notwithstanding.

One final point: can a book on the United States in world affairs reasonably omit any discussion of the nation’s top recipient of foreign aid and closest ally in the world behind Great Britain, namely Israel? Despite passing reference to the “troubled Middle East” and the “misery of the Middle East,” apparently the special relationship with Israel is outside the lines and beyond the purview of the objective umpire (pp. 2, 350). [End Page 625]

Walter L. Hixson

Walter L. Hixson is distinguished professor of history at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio. He is the author most recently of The Myth of American Diplomacy: National Identity and U.S. Foreign Policy (2008).

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