Can America Be the World's Umpire?

Can America Be the World's Umpire?

Enforcing the rules of the international system is harder if you're also a player in it.

In her book and forthcoming documentary film, American Umpire , historian Elizabeth Cobbs likens America’s global role to that of the men in blue on the baseball diamond. By establishing the rules of the international system after World War II, and enforcing those rules when others stray, Uncle Sam allows everyone to play the game.

But it wasn’t always easy, and the costs are mounting. The film concludes (spoiler alert!) with the recognition that even the best baseball umpires have help. It would be unreasonable to expect John Hirschbeck to call balls and strikes at home plate, safe or out at first base and caught stealing at second, all by himself. That is why four umpires work a typical MLB game, and six or seven work the playoffs and World Series.

Similarly, it was never realistic to think that a single country, even one as great and powerful as the United States, could manage the international system all by itself, and never make any mistakes. But that hasn’t stopped primacists from claiming God-like powers for the policymakers at the White House and in Foggy Bottom. Recall Madeleine Albright’s famous claim to the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer: ''If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.''

That was in 1998, before Kosovo, before Afghanistan, before Iraq, and before Libya. After all those interventions, and many more, Albright’s eventual successor as Secretary of State, now the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, evinces barely a hint of doubt or introspection about America’s ability to stand taller, and see farther. As Mark Landler and Micah Zenko have noted, Hillary Clinton retains her hawkish instincts. In her broadside against Donald Trump back in June , she affirmed her commitment to U.S. global leadership:

I believe with all my heart that America is an exceptional country—that we’re still, in Lincoln’s words, the last, best hope of earth….We lead with purpose, and we prevail.


It is all well and good to love one’s country, and Trump’s suggestion that America has slipped to second-class status warrants a strong response. But to imply that the United States never makes mistakes, and always prevails, is nonsense on stilts. Like any umpire, even the best ones, we’ve gotten some calls wrong. There really is wisdom in crowds. When most of your friends refuse to follow you over a cliff, it might make sense not to jump. Sensibly, Cobbs’ film suggests that we step down from our perch as the world’s indispensable nation, and begin to share the burdens of global leadership with others. The idea is worthy of a wider discussion .

But there is another flaw at the heart of the idea that the United States can and should be the world’s ump: Umpires don’t play the game. They don’t swing the bats or throw the balls. They don’t run the bases. They wear different colored uniforms. They are, by definition, disinterested in the outcome of the contest. They can think that Alex Rodriguez is a horrible human being—but that doesn’t matter; if he hits the ball out of the park, he still gets credit for the home run.

This essential condition of umpiring—disinterestedness—obviously doesn’t describe the United States’ conduct in world affairs.

And yet, for primacy to hold, it must. Thus, defenders of primacy routinely claim that Uncle Sam can play the role of umpire without arousing the ire of other parties. (See, for example, Hedley Bull’s definition of primacy here). That supposedly explains why there has been so little balancing against U.S. power by possible rivals.

But the evidence of underbalancing is, well, underwhelming. China is balancing in the South China Sea, and Russia is balancing in the countries along its western border. Beijing doesn’t trust the American umpire to call fair or foul on nettlesome territorial disputes. Putin and his cronies challenge the United States’ authority to weigh in on the treatment of ethnic Russians minorities in Ukraine or the Baltic states. They don’t expect the United States to call the game fairly, because U.S. officials ignore the principle of territorial integrity when it suits them. China balks at our supposed disinterestedness in Asia for similar reasons.

Even poor and weak countries routinely defy the American umpire. How many presidents have tried to throw the Kim family regime out of North Korea? When an MLB umpire tells a quarrelsome manager “You’re outta here”—he’s out of there; the skipper doesn’t get to stick around in the dugout.

The sort of underbalancing that we have seen in the world is also problematic for primacy. U.S. security guarantees to like-minded allies, from Germany and Poland to Japan and South Korea, have likely discouraged these countries from spending more on their defenses. The U.S. alliance has also factored into the decision by many of these countries to eschew nuclear weapons. In that sense, however, U.S. foreign policy can be said to have done a decent (though not perfect, see, e.g. the United Kingdom, France and Israel) job at discouraging nuclear proliferation among its allies, but a lousy job of stopping bad actors from wanting nukes (see Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea).