American Umpire by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman (Harvard University Press, £25.95)
The United States has had a complicated relationship with imperialism. It was born in a fight among empires and defined its politics and its ideals against one. Like all states with global ambitions, the US has dabbled with formal empire, explicitly so after the Spanish-American War of 1898, when it annexed Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Yet it has also pushed for peoples’ rights to self-determination, acquired territory, military bases, and trading rights through negotiation rather than explicit imposition, and spread the gospel of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” less with gunboats than missionaries and financiers, Coca-Cola and Stratocasters.
If the United States is an empire, it is undoubtedly a strange one. But that complicated idea has been embraced by historians across the political spectrum. In the 1960s, as European empires retreated and America sank into quagmire in South East Asia, mostly left-wing historians led by William Appleman Williams attacked American foreign policy by labelling it imperial. They showed how the United States had always been an empire at heart, explaining how the Founding Fathers had seen expansion as a way of mitigating party politics and guaranteeing economic growth. By acting upon this imperial ideology, Americans fulfilled the Fathers’ ambitions, but only by negating the Fathers’ humanitarian and anti-colonial ideals.
Historians moved on from the economic specifics of Williams’s work as protest against the Vietnam War died down, but his critique of an American empire remained potent. When George W Bush invaded Iraq, talk of empire came to dominate American politics as it had not since 1898. (“We’re an empire now,” one Bush aide memorably declared.) Historians on the left and in the centre decried another instance of immoral American imperialism, led by historian and army veteran Andrew Bacevich; those on the right, chiefly Niall Ferguson and the neoconservative coterie, applauded the empire that the left attacked.
Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman’s ambitious but flawed new book, American Umpire, questions this consensus. She thinks that historians have unjustly damaged America’s global image by labelling it an empire. “The ivory tower overlooks the street,” she writes, and academics have…