American Umpire by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman

May 23, 2013

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman’s wholly engaging analysis of US history characterises the American republic’s role as that of an umpire in an evolving world order. This role involves not only a responsibility for overseeing the global order with all its failings, but also the acknowledgement that in exercising that responsibility, the umpire may make “bad calls”. In this characterisation, the umpire is not an entirely neutral figure (he can intentionally or otherwise influence the outcome of the game) and the perception of his role is as important as his real influence, as has been borne out by 250 years of American history. As befits an author who is a prizewinning novelist as well as an academic historian, Cobbs Hoffman displays a careful eye for detail, the capacity for broad narrative, a flair for overarching analysis and chapters with memorably Dr Strangelove-esque subtitles. (The introduction and conclusion are respectively subtitled “Or, A Cautionary Tale of How the World Changed after 1776” and “Or, Who Wants to Be Ump? 1991-Present”.)

Importantly for the depth of the argument, in the book’s opening pages Cobbs Hoffman recognises that this “umperial” portrayal is necessarily imprecise, while contending that “it describes the US function in global affairs more accurately than the outdated but widely used term ‘empire’”. Indeed, one of the book’s underlying themes is a convincing critique of the depiction of the US as an empire. In doing this, Cobbs Hoffman lends the long lens of history to contemporary debates on US foreign policymaking. She argues that empire “must be examined on its own terms”, and having done so in erudite fashion in the course of this book, she pertinently concludes: “The nation cannot stop being something it is not.” Labelling the US an empire, she convincingly argues, “has yielded no practicable solutions because the nation and the world system in which it fits are simply not structured in that way”.

The world order that Cobbs Hoffman identifies is a long-standing one: “starting around 1648, quickening in 1776, culminating in 1991 with the break up of the Soviet Union, the world of monarchies and empires dissolved”. A key strength of this book is that it successfully embeds the founding and unfolding history of the US into these broader global trends. In doing so, American Umpire engages in debates in the fields of global and international histories on the place of the US in world affairs, and Cobbs Hoffman “encourages us to look for broad patterns that are visible if we step back far enough to see them”. In this she identifies three “goals or practices that gradually transcended ancient differences and pushed both the US and the rest of the world in the direction of democratic capitalism”: “access” - a system open to all comers; “arbitration” - a preference for diplomatic solutions over use of force; and “transparency” - a predilection for open communication. Their collective importance is that “the practices of access, arbitration, and transparency have taken hold around the globe. They can be uprooted, of course, but for now they broadly define the imperfect, evolving, disorderly new world order.” Moreover, for Cobbs Hoffman, “the US was the pivot of this worldwide transformation”.

Beyond its compelling analysis, the triumph of Cobbs Hoffman’s book for this self-confessed sports fan is that I can find little to discount the characterisation of the US as umpire in - baseball’s claims notwithstanding - the real world series.

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