Empire or Umpire?

Prior to 2003, American empire was but an appellation of the left used to describe US foreign policy and entanglements abroad. Since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, however, scholars from across the political spectrum have come around to the idea that the US is in fact an empire, whether it wants to admit it or not. The surge in those claiming empire has only caused those denying empire to be more vociferous, bringing new life to the debate surrounding the existence of an American empire. To some, such as Niall Ferguson, the imperial character of the US is undeniable; to others, it is questionable and misleading. Enter Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman. In her book American Umpire, she argues that the US is not an empire but an “umpire”—that is, a referee, a rule keeper and a supervisor. Making this claim, Hoffman makes it her burden to show that empire is the wrong moniker for the US’s role in global affairs. To do this, she first has to define empire, since her argument depends entirely on what one means by this word. As Hoffman sees it, history demonstrates that empire can take two forms: “The oldest type was that which subordinated multiple ethnic groups in a contiguous territory, like the Mongol, Ottoman, Roman, and Aztec Empires, as well as more recent ones like the Soviet Union. The second, newer type of empire was one that ruled multiple peoples from afar in scattered colonies, like those of the British, Dutch, French, and Spanish, sometimes called saltwater empires” (12). These two forms of empire demonstrate “two ubiquitous forms of government that incorporated and commanded obedience from people who generally did not wish to yield and who continued to seek political release after their annexation” (12). Therefore, besides a brief period between 1898 and 1946, when the US engaged in the second type, Hoffman claims that the US cannot be considered an empire.

An integral part of Hoffman’s definition is that people under imperial authority “generally did not wish to yield [to it] and … continued to seek political release after their annexation.” Whereas this feature can be used to describe the people under both types of empire defined, Hoffman contends that it cannot, as is sometimes argued, be used to describe the nations of the world under the US umperium. Since the rise of the US on the global stage, but even since its birth, other nations have looked to it as an example and guarantor of the economic, political and ideological assumptions undergirding democratic capitalism. Specifically, Hoffman points out three traits that not only made the US an example to the world but also its most natural leader: “access to opportunity, arbitration of disputes, and transparency in government and business” (6, emphasis in original). The larger argument Hoffman makes, then, is that peoples and nations looked to the US for guidance, assistance, and, when necessary, order, because they too wanted access, arbitration, and transparency; in other words, because they wanted those things, they yielded to the US and its desires. Nations yielding to the US by choice is what makes the US an umpire not an empire. As Hoffman states, “the United States acted not as an empire in modern foreign relations, but as a kind of umpire, to compel acquiescence as necessary with rules that had earned broad legitimacy” (17, emphasis in original). Hoffman will surely ruffle feathers with this argument, but that should not keep scholars of American Empire from reading her stimulating book.


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