Honest broker

In 1823 the infant United States was asked to sign on to a treaty by the mighty British Empire.

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May 16, 2013 16:41
4 minute read.
4th of July pageant (circa 1905)

4th of July pageant (circa 1905). (photo credit: Library of Congress)

In 1823 the infant United States was asked to sign on to a treaty by the mighty British Empire. “George Canning, foreign secretary of the United Kingdom and America’s former adversary, courted Washington’s opinion,” Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman writes in American Umpire. The treaty sought to stop re-colonization of Latin America by European powers.

This seemed to be in America’s interest and policy makers jumped at the opportunity.

Only one member of president James Monroe’s cabinet dissented, John Quincy Adams.

Adams had lived in Europe and he saw the treaty as a British plot against other European powers, in which it was trying to enlist the US. There was no reason to be a “cock-boat in the wake of a British man-ofwar,” explained Adams.

This example is one of many provided in Hoffman’s work that illustrates how the US sought to act as an intermediary rather than take an active role. This flies in the face of the current view that America has sought to be an imperial hegemonic power on the world stage.

In her erudite account, Stanford professor Hoffman challenges prevailing wisdom, and in so doing presents a compelling and fascinating picture of the history of the US.

The source of American neutrality was George Washington, the first president of the country. Washington saw the US role in the world as one that could be guided by economic concerns, which were necessarily peaceful since commerce thrives in the absence of war.

He articulated this in 1793, noting that economic incentive would “introduce between nations another umpire than arms.”

From this starting point Hoffman sets out to examine the history of US foreign policy, with an eye towards how it mitigated imperial leanings, rather than encouraged them.

The US was one of the world’s few true democracies even as late as 1900. By 1920 it was the world’s wealthiest nation.

Yet despite its wealth and growing power, its elected representatives shied away from foreign acquisitions. In 1867, Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner argued in favor of purchasing Alaska from the Russians.

Even though the territory was equivalent to 17 percent of US territory and was being offered for several million dollars in gold, Congress demurred.

“The New York Times, then identified with the Republican party, was one of the few papers to urge Congressional acquiescence. It conceded that Alaska had little inherent value but predicted that one day the Pacific coast might be ‘as thickly studded with ports and cities as the Atlantic is now.’” When Congress was offered the Virgin Islands by Denmark in 1867, it declined to purchase them. Ironically, Hoffman notes that the US paid four times as much to buy them in 1917 for strategic reasons. Some Americans, including the one-time antislavery advocate Frederick Douglass, even suggested incorporating the Dominican Republic. The country’s president Buenaventura Baez begged to join the US, but the US said no.

The author complains that the general view of US history has been full of clichés about racism and belligerent intentions.

She notes that the debate about acquiring the Dominican Republic was one that united racists and anti-racists.

William Seward, president Ulysses S.

Grant’s secretary of state, argued that “the intermingling of races always was, and always will be, the chief element of civilization.”

Thus, the incorporation of a mostly black populace from the Caribbean would be a positive thing.

Later, the US role in the world was challenged by the outbreak of World War I and II. In the 1920s the country had turned towards isolationism and neutrality in world affairs. Those who opposed allying with the English against Germany in the 1930s called themselves the America First movement.

“In later years, historians and other commentators tended to dismiss non-interventionists as cranks, anti-Semites and naïfs… but anti-interventionists were correct that involvement in another world war would profoundly reshape the nation, with unforeseeable consequences,” the author notes. Indeed, the aftermath of the war found parts of the world in ruins and the European colonial powers at pains to maintain their empires.

Many independence movements, such as those in Ghana, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, looked to the US for inspiration and support.

However, with the outbreak of the Cold War, the US found itself in a bind. Some of the anti-colonial movements were also inspired and advised by the Soviet Union.

The CIA worked overtime to thwart Communist expansion, at the risk of supporting dictators abroad. “Although CIA activities gave the US a black eye, it was in Vietnam that America received its worst pummeling,” writes the author.

Hoffman concludes that America’s “core values proved stable [over time]. Between 1776 and the present, Americans continued to believe passionately in the equality of states.

“They might dislike or disrespect other polities, and compete strenuously against them, but they defended the principal of juridical equality with their very lives.”

She argues that the US has helped create the present world system, which puts a premium on democracy, human rights and free trade. Some will see this as a view tainted by rose-colored glasses, but it is a welcome corrective to the view that the US has generally sought to imperialistically meddle in the affairs of other countries.

As Hoffman shows, this view, predicated primarily on the negative experiences of the US in some places like Vietnam, should be weighed against many of the values that sought mediation and worked against colonialism.


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