Wednesday, 16 November 2016


The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has led to a certain degree of panic in the general population and the media in particular.  After a hard fought and bitter campaign south of the border it is difficult not to be caught up in the wave of anxiety which accompanies all discussions of a Trump presidency.

Many observers are making the same mistake which caused Mr. Trump’s victory to come as such a surprise to so many.  The president elect is such an overwhelming presence as to overwhelm a clear view of his policies, their support among the American public and their relative legitimacy.

By Canadian standards Donald Trump is not an electable figure. The tactics he uses and the chest-thumping braggadocio that accompany them are fortunately alien to the standards that Canadians expect of public figures in this country. Add to that the frankly reprehensible organizations that were allowed to align themselves unchecked with his campaign were enough to swamp all rational discussion of the forces and beliefs that he championed. 

The truth is that even though president-elect Donald Trump is such an unlikable figure does not change the fact that some of the causes he espouses have deep and reasonable roots in the American political scene. One of these causes is what might be sometimes called “isolationism” by those who oppose it, or a re-ordering of strategic priorities by those who favour it.

For almost the first one hundred and fifty years of its existence the foreign policy goals of the United States were, at least as publicly articulated, to stand apart from foreign entanglements.  Their failure to achieve this goal, especially in modern times, does not make it any none the less a genuine part of the American ideal.

In her book, “American Umpire”, and the subsequent PBS documentary of the same name, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman argues that “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.”

Her position is that although America is no angel, and while the nation’s lofty rhetoric often falls short, “this does not make it an empire, nor does it mean that America’s highest ideals are hollow illusion”.

It is true that her thesis that, although actions in countries such as the Philippines saw America “briefly embracing European-style imperialism”, in the end “unprecedented in all of human history, America soon gave up its principle colony and protectorates voluntarily. It backed into imperialism and then turned around and backed out.” appeals to the American ego. However the fact that this interpretation of events puts American actions in a positive light does not make her argument less valid.

In the same vein Hoffman argues that post 9/11, “calling the United States an empire has yielded no practical solutions because the nation and the world system in which it fits are simply not structured in that way.” Instead, Hoffman sees America as “the enforcer of what is, most of the time, the collective will: the maintenance of a world system with relatively open trade borders, in which arbitration and economic sanctions are the preferred method of keeping the peace and greater and greater numbers of people have at least some political rights.”

Taking this critique a step farther she makes the claim that “American diplomacy in the twentieth century has been far more triumphant than tragic.” America is not an Empire, but rather a “player-umpire.” This is “not completely fair to anyone, the umpire or the other players. But it is often better than having no ump at all”

Despite having said that “it is often better than having no ump at all” Hoffman goes on to explore the idea that being the “umpire” is no longer working for her country. While the United States has benefited, it has come at a cost. U.S. defence spending represents about 20% of the federal budget; they regularly spend more on defence than the next 28 countries combined. In 1947, the U.S. represented roughly half of the world's manufacturing capacity. Today it is less than 20%. Yet allies fail to meet their minimal commitments on defence spending confident that the U.S. will defend them. This is an argument that Canadians in particular will have difficulty disputing.

In the end, 95% of all military personnel around the world who are stationed outside their home counties are American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. Their job is difficult, unpredictable, and often thankless. The question is, how long are they prepared to keep doing it?

Under a Trump presidency there is every possibility that these feelings, the desire to avoid foreign entanglements, long dormant but still alive in the American psyche, may come to have a greater influence on U.S. policies.  After we get over the shock of seeing Donald J. Trump in the White House Canadians are going to have to think of how they are going to react to the major changes happening with our most important ally.

American Umpire by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman