Playing Umpire: America and the World

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman-1Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman
Dwight E. Stanford Chair in U.S. Foreign Relations, San Diego State University, & Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Why does international turmoil so often raise the question at home and abroad, “What’s the United States going to do about it?” Why not Mexico, Iran, France, or Switzerland?

Observers of today’s world are confronted by the fact that the U.S. exercises an unusual function as the nation with the greatest—yet, nonetheless, very limited—power to determine outcomes in foreign conflicts. This influence raises important questions. Why does any country play such a role, and who appointed the United States? Is America an exploitative empire that holds other nations in thrall, as many revisionists believe, or a benign hegemon that prevents the world from spiraling into violence and poverty, as realists do? And, are these the only two possible answers?

Synthesizing world and American history from 1648 to the present, American Umpire (Harvard University Press, 2013) posits a third answer. It argues that, under the press of catastrophic events in the 1940s, the United States reluctantly reversed its sacrosanct policy of political non-entanglement and took up a function akin (but not identical) to the one it was used to playing among its own states: an umpire to compel acquiescence between squabbling sovereignties, in moments of crisis.

“Umpire” is the very term that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay used in the 1787 Federalist Papers. The word had a metaphorical quality both then and now, but it still serves as an approximation for a powerful, supranational entity that intervenes episodically to enforce compliance with collectively established norms, without colonizing individual states to extract their resources or take their place.

The role of umpire arose from the long history of the past four centuries, as humans increasingly sought self-government. Outside control is the opposite of local control, and nation-states gradually replaced empires as the dominant type of polity on the globe. In 1870, there were 34 separate sovereignties in the world, including both empires and nation-states. Today there are 195 fully sovereign nation-states, none of which is an empire.[1] (Indeed, empires were ruled illegal in 1960, by international agreement.) The only higher power above sovereign countries today is the United Nations. It promotes peace and cooperation, but has limited powers of enforcement and no powers of taxation.

A similar scenario existed after the former British colonies established thirteen independent governments in 1781. The “Congress of the Confederation” struggled even to obtain quorums for its meetings. It had no direct authority over the states, which reserved for themselves the responsibilities of self-defense, security, and taxation. Thomas Jefferson called Virginia his “country.” The United States was these United States: a weak coalition whose members frequently disagreed on fundamental questions, especially with regard to resource issues such as slave labor, tariffs, and territorial boundaries. Future violence between them was not out of the question.

For this reason, the Federalists created what they called an “umpire:” a higher sovereignty with the coordinating and coercive functions that imperial metropoles had played throughout history, but without a hierarchy among the constituent members. New members of the coalition possessed all the same rights as original members, and no state was allowed to aggrandize itself territorially at the expense of others. New territories came in as self-governing units. Over time, thirteen states became fifty, bound together under a single, shared government.

Today, members of the United Nations enjoy a similar juridical equality to one another, but the organization has few governing powers and the Cold War delayed its development. As a consequence, after 1947, many European and Asian governments urged the United States to leave troops behind to defend international borders and enforce international agreements. At the prompting of Great Britain, Harry Truman announced an epochal change in American intentions and actions. It would be the policy of the United States to “to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure.” As President Barack Obama described this role in 2013: “for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements—it has meant enforcing them.”

Some argue the U.S. imposed these agreements upon an unwilling world whose aspirations and values would otherwise have been different. This objection overlooks the fact that colonized peoples consistently demanded freedoms and opportunities much like the ones that Americans claimed in 1776. Argentina, Brazil, Ethiopia, India, Ghana, Lithuania, Malaysia, Burma, Philippines, and dozens upon dozens of new nations did not have to have self-determination shoved down their throats.  The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed without a single dissenting vote (although South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet bloc abstained).

american-umpire-hoffman201303061509American Umpire describes this aspect of world history as a broad trend towards “access, arbitration, and transparency.” Over time, in fits and starts but moving in a clear direction, more and more peoples demanded access to free markets and democratic government, arbitration of conflicts between states, and transparency in domestic and international matters. They demanded what the Atlantic Charter called the Four Freedoms, and pressed the United States—as the country with the greatest capacity and resources—to defend them.

The United States generally supported the trend towards access, arbitration, and transparency. Sometimes it was ahead of the curve, other times behind. Even its most terrible mistakes—and it made many—were part of the effort to ensure a freer, more secure world. If the United States ceased to exist in the future, the trend would likely continue. It is hard to imagine that China would turn its back on open markets, Hungary would submit readily to Russian tanks, and Australian journalists would cease hectoring for greater transparency.

The theoretical framework of “Umpire” does not exculpate the U.S. federal government for times that it abused its powers. American Umpire takes full account of the genocidal Indian Removal policy of Andrew Jackson in 1830, the theft of Mexican land in 1846, the colonization of the Philippines in 1898, the tragic intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s, and many other such calamities. It recognizes that powers explicitly delegated to the central government in 1789 were never formally delegated to the U.S. as a member of the international community after 1945. It acknowledges that interventionism across borders is controversial, costly, and may have deadly results—whether in South Carolina or South Korea.

But the book also balances undeniable disasters against equally undeniable successes: the wealth created by free markets, the proliferation of independent countries, and the steady decline of inter-state violence in every decade since World War II. Admittedly, America has no exceptional qualifications for the job of international guarantor beyond the resources to perform it, and the frequent requests that it do so. The United Nations is the most legitimate candidate to act as Umpire. Yet it has no army or navy.

American Umpire reaches deep into world history to explore these problems, examining the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as fully as the twentieth. Beginning with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and culminating with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the book shows that nation-states gradually trumped empires as the primary form of big government on the planet, that the world as a whole moved in the direction of access, arbitration, and transparency, and that the U.S. acted as Umpire after 1947 in response to external pressures and in ways consistent with its Constitutional DNA.

None of this created a perfect world, but it is the world in which we live, and which scholars must explain.


[1] The Statesman’s Year-Book: Statistical and Historical Annual of the States of the World (London, 1870). For current statistics, click here.

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