“William Appleman Williams viewed world history through the wrong end of the telescope,” writes Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman in her novel reinterpretation of American statecraft. “On balance, American diplomacy in the twentieth century has been far more triumphant than tragic.” While others might characterize the 20th century as dismal or barbaric, Hoffman looks past the bad news and finds much to celebrate. Most importantly, during the 20th century imperialism went out of fashion. In place of empire, new norms—“access to opportunity, arbitration of disputes, and transparency in government and business”—evolved and have now “taken hold around the world.” They have today become “the leitmotifs of national policy and global history.” Further, these new norms fostered the spread of “democratic capitalism,” which “drove material progress and facilitated enough peace and cooperation for humanity to flourish.” For Hoffman, a professor of history at San Diego State University, this describes the world in which we live.

Many factors account for this happy development. Chief among them, however, has been the role played by the United States, the “bellwether” and “pivot of this worldwide transformation.” America “nurtured new global trends” and “pioneer[ed] the new norms.” It provided “the cutting edge of a larger and growing international critique” of colonialism. As these “new international norms took hold… America gave history a decisive shove.”

In 1789 the Constitution had established the federal government as arbiter of disputes among the several states comprising the Union. By fits and starts over the next two centuries, the United States established itself as arbiter of disputes among the growing roster of nations comprising the international order. Unlike the imperial powers of old, the United States established itself as an “umperial power,” assigned the responsibility “to compel acquiescence as necessary with rules that had earned broad legitimacy.” Today, writes Hoffman, America has become “the enforcer of what is, most of the time, the collective will.” To charge the United States with committing the sin of imperialism, therefore, “is not simply improbable but false.” It’s also a pernicious slander. Those who perpetrate this do immense harm: “Diagnosing America’s problem as ‘imperialism’ is damaging,” she writes. Rather than suggesting an alternative approach to policy, “this flawed characterization merely saps morale.” Hoffman worries about American morale.

In any human endeavor requiring supreme effort, morale helps determine outcome. If citizens are uncertain about their own or their government’s motivation, they will find it difficult to prevail against enemies, inertia, pessimism, and all the other forces that continuously complicate human achievement.

By implication, historians bear some responsibility for bolstering the nation’s collective spirits, lest inertia and pessimism impede the onward march of progress.

Were that not enough, those falsely charging the United States with imperialism sow the seeds of anti-Americanism abroad. Take terrorism, for example. As Hoffman sees it, American critics of U.S. foreign policy helped persuade violent Islamists that “all Americans [are] part of a malignant imperialist plot,” thereby providing ammunition to the likes of Osama bin Laden. Put simply, she writes, “the events of 9/11 teach that words must be as precise as possible, for they can become like slippery knives. An umpire accused of being an empire may bleed out, to everyone’s detriment.”

As a determinant of the way that others see the United States, Hoffman implies, scholarly judgments carry greater weight than do the words and actions of those who actually make policy. By extension, historians should keep their criticism of U.S. policy within bounds. “American academics have a sober responsibility,” Hoffman warns, “to make sure that incriminations of their country and fellow citizens are made only to the extent warranted.”

Readers curious as to how over the period of a century and a half an inconsequential republic perched on the eastern seaboard of North America emerged as the globe’s preeminent superpower will want to look elsewhere. “Organically, over the course of time,” Hoffman remarks, “the United States had become indispensable to maintaining order against the evils of chaos on a crowded, globalized world.” Yet American Umpire does not explain how the United States acquired the muscle needed to perform this indispensable function.

Indeed, Hoffman’s interests lie elsewhere. She wants to show that access, arbitration, and transparency constitute the abiding themes of American statecraft. In addition, she aims to drive a stake through the canard of American imperialism. Making good on this dual purpose requires two things. First, Hoffman must show how the United States has promoted common global norms while serving as “umpire, arbitrator, bouncer, playground supervisor, policeman, whatever.” Second, she must demonstrate that U.S. actions others describe as imperialistic are not what they appear to be.

On the first count, she achieves modest success. Without doubt, the United States has on occasion functioned as an umpire of sorts. Hoffman opens her book by recounting the Suez Crisis of 1956, in which the “Soviet-American bloc” [sic] brought to heel an Anglo-French-Israeli coalition seeking to do in Egypt’s annoying Gamal Abdel Nasser. (On how the Soviet-American bloc fared in enforcing global norms with respect to the simultaneous Hungarian Revolution, she opts for silence.) Hoffman concludes American Umpire by describing Western interventions in the Balkans during the 1990s. Once U.S. forces entered the fray, the opposition, she writes, “folded like a cheap paperback” and “genocide came to a stop.” Points well taken.

On the second count, however, Hoffman makes her case by cherrypicking or ingeniously reinterpreting the historical record. Here are five examples.

  • During the 1840s, in their disputes with Mexico, peace-loving Americans “showed a decided preference for arbitration,” according to Hoffman. More specifically, “on three occasions [Washington] attempted to persuade Mexico, known to be insolvent, to sell all or part of sparsely populated California.” Mexican leaders perversely refused. Sure, the United States subsequently invaded and dismantled the country, but hadn’t Mexicans asked for it?
  • Does the Boxer Rebellion suggest American complicity in imperialistic exploitation of China? No, says Hoffman. Instead, with U.S. troops participating, military intervention offered a “new prototype for international policing.”
  • Annexation of the Philippines? Ill-advised, yet hardly proof of American imperialism, the episode amounting to “an adolescent identity crisis expressed in Euro-American cross-dressing.” Besides, no prominent American actually “praised colonialism outright”; Hoffman thereby airbrushes imperialist progressives like Senator Albert Beveridge out of the picture.
  • The Iranian coup of 1953? Washington was “forced by escalating events to pick a side,” Hoffman writes. “British officials maneuvered their U.S. counterparts into becoming ever more involved.” And anyway, Mohammad Mossadegh was an odd duck who “received diplomatic visitors in his pajamas” and “wept openly when moved.” Perfidious Albion made us do it.
  • Vietnam? After the 1954 Geneva Accords, “indigenous opponents of Ho Chi Minh formed a permanent government in the south and refused to hold the promised elections.” To judge by Hoffman’s version of events, the United States played no part in these developments. And don’t tag the presidents who stumbled into Vietnam with being imperialists. “The dynamics of the Cold War imprisoned them all.”

“This book concludes with the Balkans,” Hoffman writes, “where the twentieth century began and ended.” The conflicts of the post-9/11 era get little more than a passing glance, Hoffman noting that “These wars have not yet receded into history. They bridge past, present, and future, where only fools, angels, and journalists dare to tread.”

July/August 2013Still, terminating American Umpire in the 1990s is the equivalent, say, of publishing a history of American statecraft in 1950 and disregarding everything that had happened since 1938. It’s a tad too convenient. How, for example, might Hoffman incorporate the Bush Doctrine of preventive war or the Obama Doctrine of targeted assassination into her themes of access and arbitration? As for transparency, how does that mesh with Washington’s growing appetite for secret surveillance? Finally, in the wake of the Iraq debacle, is it really still possible to speak, as Hoffman does, of “the military harmlessness of the United States”?

No, it’s not. Whatever the implications for American morale, let’s not pretend otherwise.

Andrew J. Bacevich teaches at Boston University. His new book is Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.