Weekend Reader: <i>American Umpire</i> by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman

Weekend Reader: <i>American Umpire</i> by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman

This week, Weekend Reader brings you American Umpire, a book about how the United States has assumed the role of global arbiter throughout its history as a consistently stable government in the global world. Hoffman’s points are relevant and timely, with the U.S. withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, and looking toward an uncertain future in Iran and North Korea. The way these situations are managed now, she argues, will undoubtedly have serious consequences — not only for national security, but also for the way U.S. foreign policy is perceived in the years to come.

The following is excerpted from Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman’s new book, American Umpire. You can purchase it here.


Or, A Cautionary Tale of How the World Changed after 1776

Amid brutal mortar fire, lightning-fast air raids, and fierce hand-to-hand combat embroiling troops from four countries, the Egyptian siege defied every stereotype of the Cold War. Britain used its veto to overturn American peace resolutions in the United Nations Security Council. The Soviet Union vowed cooperation with the U.S. Sixth Fleet. India, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Canada, and numerous other countries feverishly but fruitlessly offered advice, while the Soviet-American bloc stood poised against the Anglo-French-Israeli alliance.

The stakes were high. They varied by country, but concerns common to both participants and onlookers included the principle of national sovereignty, the openness of world waterways, the right of self-defense, compensation for confiscated property, and access to crucial commodities of every type, including oil. Virtually every nation on the planet wanted and needed all of these things.

In the topsy-turvy Suez Canal Crisis of 1956, which would decide Egypt’s fundamental right to rule its own territory, the United States had limited resources, minimal financial investment, and zero authority. It exercised no direct control over its wayward best allies. It enjoyed little clout with the angry local government and had clumsily helped to provoke the crisis by denying Egypt a high-profile, previously promised, much-desired loan. The UN was divided and had delegated no responsibility. Yet the United States was the wealthiest nation on the planet, with the best-equipped military force. If any one player could halt the melee, rule on the dispute, and force the offending parties to retire from the field, it would be the United States of America. Remarkably, it was willing to do so, at the risk of reputation, friendship, and material resources.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower had personally commanded the Allied invasion across the English Channel that defended bombed-out Britain and liberated occupied France from the Nazis twelve years earlier. In 1951, as NATO’s first commanding officer, easygoing “Ike” had cooperated more closely with Europe’s leaders and common soldiers than any president in two centuries. But in 1956 he used the financial resources at his disposal to force America’s closest friends to back down. Egypt’s attackers withdrew and the canal came under full local control. Gamal Abdel Nasser triumphed. Arab dignity and Egyptian sovereignty were reinforced. The principles of national independence and compensation for seized assets were sustained. Britain was forced to accept the painful limits of storied family ties, and France decided to develop an atomic bomb to ensure its future autonomy from Washington, D.C.

America had violated the spirit, if not the letter, of international rules by exercising an unscripted authority that arose from sheer wealth—and it had become a little more entangled in the troubled Middle East in the process. All the outcomes were imperfect. Nonetheless, once Eisenhower achieved his objectives, punitive measures were dropped and the world went on with a collective sigh of relief.

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This book attempts to explain dynamics at work below the surface of events like the 1956 Suez Crisis, underpinning the modern world itself. Circumstances in Egypt were a tiny piece of a much larger puzzle. How did emerging nation-states like Egypt, with weak armies and paltry treasuries, stand up successfully to the kinds of empires that had ruled the globe since time immemorial? Why did world opinion matter, and why did it almost unanimously side with a man as verbally aggressive and unpleasant as President Nasser, who described other nations as stooges and bloodsuckers? Why did President Eisenhower intervene in a conflict 5,700 miles away, when not a single American life was on the line?

The story begins with the 1776 birth of the United States but embraces a history that transcends any one country. Thomas Paine, the passionate, poetic, politically reckless son of an English corset maker, declared in colonial Philadelphia that Americans had it in their power “to begin the world over again.”What Paine could not see from the self-described City of Brotherly Love was that the world was already remaking itself on a grand scale, and at a rapid pace. He correctly predicted that the former British colonists would play an extraordinary role in this transformation, but external events shaped Americans just as much as Americans shaped events.

The Western values that the United States was later sometimes accused of pushing onto an unwilling, culturally different world were, in fact, global ones that led to a new world order. The United States acted as an umperial power in this new order. Although umpire is not a perfect metaphor, it describes the U.S. function in global affairs more accurately than the outdated but widely used term “empire.” It also illumines the historical costs, consequences, and contradictions of such a role.

The Peace of Westphalia, the agreement in 1648 that ended the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, laid the foundation. Starting around 1648, quickening in 1776, and culminating in 1991 with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world of monarchies and empires dissolved. Over the course of three centuries, the dominant system of human political organization—dating back further than the pharaohs—was irrevocably replaced by a world of nation-states. The majority of them were republics, defined roughly as countries governed by commoners rather than monarchs. Nearly all of these nations became democracies, or at least pretended to majority rule. (Pretense is important, for it indicates what people think the world wants to see and reveals unwritten standards.) Almost uniformly, the nations of the world eventually adopted free-market, capitalist economies. Although cultural and religious diversity endured, the broad patterns of political and economic life converged in an altogether new mold that did away with empires.

The United States was the pivot of this worldwide transformation, having been first to show it was possible for a disparate group of people to proclaim a republic and will their state into existence. It was a “new species,” as British philosopher Edmund Burke observed at the end of the eighteenth century. In the following two centuries the species proliferated. Half the nations in today’s world began with declarations of independence that were inspired, at least in part, by the first such proclamation in 1776. No external force made this happen. In fact, peoples like the Vietnamese and Algerians founded nations against epic outside resistance. Others who demanded popular sovereignty faced massive internal resistance, such as Libyans in 2011.

Excerpted fromAMERICAN UMPIRE, by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman. Copyright © 2013 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


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