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SDSU Professor Wants Other Nations To Step Up To Bat

March 14, 2013 1:09 p.m.

GUEST

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, professor of American foreign relations at San Diego State University, and the author of, the new book "American Umpire."

Related Story: SDSU Professor Wants Other Nations To Step Up To Bat

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

sequestration is allowed to continue, it will bring big cuts to the U.S. defense budget. San Diego economist and local defense contractors are still trying to assess how big the impact of those cuts might be. Some voices are questioning the concept that cuts to the Pentagon's budget are always a bad thing. A recent oped article in the New York Times urged America to rethink its extensive and open-ended commitment to maintain military bases around the world. The article was written by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, author of the new book American Umpire. Welcome to the program.

HOFFMAN: Thank you very much, Maureen. Great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now, tell me about the title of your book. I think we've heard books that use the phrase American empire. Why do you think umpire is the right term?

HOFFMAN: Well, I think umpire is exactly the right term. And in fact it's the term that the founders used. I was surprised myself. I was thinking I don't think it's correct that we're an empire which is a present day assumption that a really solid look at history helps us to revise. And when I was thinking about that, I actually went back to Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and Madison and Washington and found that they sometimes used that word. But the other word they used was umpire. And they said we need to have something that will stand above the states, in this case the 13 states. But their idea was that states don't always get along. And sometimes they can come to blows. So what do you do? You have to have something above the states. And what happened in the post-World War II period is that when the united nations proved not yet up to the task of doing that role, the United States stepped in. And we stepped in partly because it's a role for which our government was designed.

CAVANAUGH: You say that the sequestration cuts give us an opportunity to talk about why we are in essence still fighting World War II. Could you expand on that idea?

HOFFMAN: Sure. People always say let's get out of Iraq or Afghanistan. But what about Germany and Japan? We essentially made a military commitment right after World War II which was for a very necessary, very important reason at the time. And in the 60 years and more since we made that commitment, violence between states in the world has declined in every single decade. So we I think have done despite a number of mistakes, overall done a fabulous job. But it's not a job that should be permanent. We play an umpire role but long-term, that's hollowing us out. And it also doesn't really stabilize the new world situation where states don't grab each other's territories anymore. They did for thousands of years. Let's stabilize that. And one way is to not always be providing the backstop role. At some point, you have to let the system work as it was intended to work am

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You make a case here in Germany and Japan. Do you also say that America should get its military bases or at least think about the long-term impacts of its military bases in other parts of the world as well?

HOFFMAN: Absolutely. People will sometimes throw out figure, oh, my gosh! We have military bases in 2,000 countries! A lot of these are just two people, by the way. So it's a misleading statistic. The majority of our overseas bases are in Japan, Germany, and great Britain. We also of course have a large base in Korea as well. And some of those are really Cold War relics. We pay a tremendous amount of money for this role. 85-95% of what we pay for defense is not for their own defense. It's for the defense of others, which again is an important role. But we have almost upward of 5% of gross national product don assumed by us. Other countries like Japan, it's 1%, or 2% in Britain and France. This isn't a sustainable role, nor should it be.

CAVANAUGH: Is this argument about saving money or shifting our role in the world?

HOFFMAN: I think it's both. I think there is a financial dimension but also a security dimension, long-term. Financially, it's -- the United States doesn't need the military industrial complex as much as we all worry about how to make the transition, and it's important to take that and measure it in a responsible way. It's also the case that the United States was the most prosperous and world's largest economy in 1890 long before we played this role. And playing that role now is robbing us. It robs our students. I'm a professor, and many of my students take on loans of $100,000 to get qualified for a job. And in places like France and Germany and Ireland, Finland, people go to school for free. And part of that is because we've picked up the burden that others have set down. So as our muscles bulge, everyone else's atrophy. That's not a good balance.

CAVANAUGH: But it sort of makes a lot of people feel good that America's muscles bulge. And it has -- this intervention into the world, especially after World War II, putting bases throughout the world, basically being a preliminary, a peace-keeper, that has sort of changed the -- not only our international image but our very image of ourselves, hasn't it?

HOFFMAN: I think that it has. But again, this is why history is so important. You get boxed in in the present and you think we can only be one way. And that's not true. The United States has been very good throughout its history at deescalating after conflict, and that's something also to take pride in. I also don't think we need to get out of the world because we've done a good job. We've made some big mistakes but also done a good job in a very unprecedented role. I think we can still take pride in that. But I also think that good leaders develop new leaders.

CAVANAUGH: I just said that a lot of Americans like to feel that we are the big guy on the block when it comes to the world, that we are the superpower. But how has American support or approval for bases around the globe shifted let's say over the last century?

HOFFMAN: Well, it's shifted a lot. Before World War II, the United States army was so small that when we started to gear up for World War II, we didn't have enough tanks to even practice military exercises. We'd have trucks. And the government would right tank on the side of the truck. Soldiers trained with wooden rifles. That was our older tradition because of the knowledge that military expenditures always rob domestic expenditures, and keeping that in balance is a part of the American tradition. After World War II, we played a very important and critical role at a moment in time where no one else could fulfill this role. And as I said, I think that's valuable. But I also think that we've paid a cost for it. The and cost, you're right, sometimes you pat yourself on the back and say isn't it great to be so big and strong? But you can be big and strong in other ways too. Our nation grows strong on the talents of its people and its technological innovations, and other investments that we make. And our education. One of the reasons yet United States did speed ahead in the 19th century was because we were the most literate people on the planet. Now, that's not possible today when we've so had to rob our education budgets for our defense budget. We need to make a transition. We need to be bold, just as the founders were bold, just as Abraham Lincoln was bold.

CAVANAUGH: One of the most revelatory things about your book is the idea, it reminds us about this strong feeling that America had for over a century of staying out of the rest of the world's problems. I mean, that was one of the hall marks of American politics for decades.

HOFFMAN: That's right. And people call that American isolationism. But that's sort of like the term appeasement. It's been tagged with being a backwards looking philosophy. And I I don't think that's fair to the whole historical picture. Americans when we decided to embrace the Truman doctrine, which was that doctrine from 1947 up to the present where we've said we will always backstop world security, before that, Americans understood that other people also have to look out for themselves. And one of the things that's really changed in the course of the 20th century is that nation states don't operate toward one another as they used to. We've been a big part of that transition. And I think we can let that transition happen without always being there with a club.

CAVANAUGH: What do you mean nation states don't have conflicts the way they used to? What is different about the conflicts now?

HOFFMAN: Well, I try to look at things in the broadest, longest possible picture. So I compare what happened in the left 100 years to the shift from the Paleolithic to the neolithic. There was no such thing as farming, and neolithic comes along and farming spreads like wildfire. No one has to go around shoving it down anybody's throat. They just recognize it's a better way to work. What's happened in the 20th century, especially offer World War II, empires declined and eventually disappeared with the Soviet Union. Nation states took their place. And nation states do not and have not for the most part competed territorial. We compete commercially. We look at conflicts in North Korea and such things today, we're now in a period of commercial competition. And so I think that the United States can sort of stand back and let some of that move forward. If you keep -- I always think of it like a tree. If you stake a tree and keep the stake there forever, the tree doesn't flourish. At some point, you have to pull the stake out.

CAVANAUGH: I want to go back to the idea of how much support our military presence around the world has among the American population. The Pentagon says the cost of our around 1,000 military bases and other security installations around the globe cost $22 billion annually. Some independent analysts put that figure much higher. Do you think if more Americans knew the cost of these bases, there would be more criticism of them?

HOFFMAN: I don't know that it's numbers that alarm the American people. I think the costs are not just about numbers. They're about the psychic costs, our young people who come back wounded or disabled. And the cost of the American self-image is very important. Americans have become very ambivalent about this. In a way, they always were. At the time the Truman doctrine was passed, Americans said, gee, do we want to be the ones doing this? The crazy thing is that we decided we did. And there's a tendency among historians sometimes to say that Truman scared us all into it, and McCarthy scared us into it. But there was a pretty bipartisan consensus. Equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats at that time said they were truly concerned about world war three emerging, and therefore we're willing to reach into our own pockets to help Europe rebuild. And everybody else was busted and bombed out. But the world has really changed. Now, today Japan devotes 1% of gross national product to defense. The U.S., 5% or close to it. And as you said, even estimates are a little unclear about it. Do you just count the troops or their wives and dependents and the civilian personnel there to serve them? I think what helps Americans get a handle on this is looking at how we got here, understanding the reasons why we are here, and understanding that some of those reasons no longer pertain. And I do believe that it's not basically about money for the American people, although money might drive us to it. It's about doing the right thing.

CAVANAUGH: After World War II, the UN was created in the hopes that this international body would be able to keep warfare and conflict in check. They had volunteer forces contributed from other nations under the UN flag. Why hasn't that worked out?

HOFFMAN: Keep in mind how young the UN is. Even our own system of government, it took us a long time, and we also had a civil war before we really got our own form of government clear. So the UN was very infantile, if you will. And the fact was that there was a cold war. And so those things enflamed every other possible conflict in the same way that the cold war is still playing out in the Korean peninsula. But the cold war elsewhere is really over.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you say that it's time for America to at least consider passing the baton of being the world's policeman to someone else. Who would pick up that baton? Isn't that why we've got it in the first place?

HOFFMAN: Well, you're right. But we took it -- we were volunteered for it, A, and we took it, B. There was sort of a combination there. In fact the British, it was the British for the period called the Pax Britannica. But they sent us a letter and said, okay, your turn. You've got five weeks, we're getting out of Greece and Turkey and we're not going to help anymore. So I think to some extent, that question is not fully answerable, Maureen. I'm not a soothsayer or fortune teller. But I can say we took on the role at a specific point for very specific reasons. We don't have to do it forever. Nobody does. There are new structures that are in place, and some other countries have stepped up. Until we say we need to start pulling back for everybody's sake, others will not come forward.

CAVANAUGH: What about the threats that America still faces in the world? I think the idea that we do have troops in Europe and in far-flung regions of the world really sort of make Americans feel a little bit more secure. Where would we get that feeling of security if we didn't have those bases?

HOFFMAN: Well, I think it's a kind of false sense of security. In a way, it's like having a loaded gun under your pillow at night. It could go off and hit you in the heck or you might not pull it in time. So I think part of the threats that we face are because of our exposure. We have exposed ourselves to harm, for good reasons with good intention intentions. And on 911, Osama Bin Laden and others say hey, it's because you have bases in Saudi Arabia. That's why we don't like you. Now, why are we being targeted by North Korea? It's because we have huge bases right on their border. We're in the middle of an unresolved civil war, and we've been there for more than 50 years, and people there are clamoring for some sort of resolution. Are we the ones to revolve that civil war? I don't know. I don't know that more of the same is going to help us out.

CAVANAUGH: My last question to you, there are some scholars who say the American century is over. What you're writing about when it comes to America being the global policeman, it's not a matter of will, it's just a matter of time before the U.S. is forced to cut back on that military role. Do you agree?

HOFFMAN: Well, keep in mind it depends on what you want as a country. The Soviet Union spent itself into the grave. And they wanted it passionately enough that they were willing to cut back on services to their citizens for many decades. I don't think we want that. Could we do it? Probably and when the economy looks good, we don't mind the cost. When it doesn't, we let go. And that's when we need to think outside the box. And that's what history allows us to do.

CAVANAUGH: Author of the new book, American Umpire, thank you very much.

HOFFMAN: Thank you!