From Wealth to Power

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

For over a century, political theorists have been attempting to develop a theory to explain the causes and consequences of a nation’s rise to prominence on the international stage. Fareed Zakaria, an editor for years with FOREIGN AFFAIRS, addresses the issue with exceptional skill in FROM WEALTH TO POWER: THE UNUSUAL ORIGINS OF AMERICA’S WORLD ROLE, a case study of the United States’ emergence as the dominant world power by 1910. Zakaria argues that neither of the most popular current theories of foreign policy are adequate to the task. Neither classical realism, which argues that economic growth leads directly to international expansion, nor defensive realism, which posits that states merely react to external threats, can account for the unusual circumstances which existed in the United States during the five decades after the Civil War. Instead, Zakaria proposes that a third theory, state- centered realism, can satisfy both descriptive and predictive criteria. Focusing on the political infrastructure, Zakaria shows how, as the balance of power in the United States shifted from a strong Congress to a strong executive branch, the country became more involved in events beyond its borders. His account of foreign relations in the administrations of presidents Johnson through Roosevelt reveals how accurately his hypothesis accounts for activities which led the United States from its position of relative isolation after the Civil War to a major diplomatic force in world affairs by the onset of World War I.

Zakaria is especially good at extracting from the historical record the general principles which lay behind American foreign policy during this unusual and turbulent period. Although cautious in extending his theory to cover all cases of expansion, he argues persuasively that any study of a nation’s foreign policy must include a review of the state infrastructure which is essential to supporting international expansion. He also offers a sobering reminder that elected officials are at times wont to pursue policies which they find valuable, but which are not always in accordance with the wishes of those who voted them into office.

Sources for Further Study

Foreign Affairs. LXXVII, July, 1998, p. 120.

International Affairs. LXXIV, July, 1998, p. 719.

International Security. XXIII, Fall, 1998, p. 157.

National Interest. Fall, 1998, p. 113.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, May 3, 1998, p. 25.

ORBIS. XLII, Fall, 1998, p. 631.

The Wall Street Journal. May 13, 1998, p. A20.

From Wealth to Power

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

What makes a nation great? What causes its leaders to channel national resources and direct the sentiments of the populace toward a position of prominence in the international arena? Why do some countries build large armies and navies and become entangled in political matters far beyond their borders? Can a theory be developed that accounts for such actions, and will the theory be strong enough to be used as a means of predicting future actions? These matters are ones political scientists mull over routinely, and the writings that fill journals such as Foreign Affairs and International Affairs provide what seem to be endless answers to these and similar questions. Library shelves are filled with monographs that purport to explain the causes for any nation’s entry into and behavior on the world stage. Consequently, any scholar adventurous enough to produce a new work on the subject must be grounded on a considerable body of scholarship, in both political theory and history.

Fortunately, Fareed Zakaria is particularly well qualified for the task. An editor for years with Foreign Affairs, he brings to his analysis a command of previous scholarship that few others might claim. In From Wealth to Power, he takes as his starting point the fact that the United States rose dramatically from a minor trading partner with Europe and Latin America to a world power—perhaps the predominant world power—in less than half a century. He then looks to both political theory and history to determine if the example provided by the United States can be used as the basis for a theory that would account for any nation’s decision to make a mark in global affairs.

As a consequence, for the educated general reader, From Wealth to Power may well seem to be two books: a theoretical analysis of the causes for a country’s leaders to enter the world arena and exert their will on other nations, and a historical review of the U.S. rise to international prominence near the turn of the twentieth century. The introductory chapters on political theory seem to be directed at specialists in the field. Zakaria reviews the work of dozens of noted scholars who have sought to develop explanations for the motivations behind individual countries’ attempts to exert their will beyond their traditional national borders, and to construct predictive models allowing scholars to forecast the behavior of nations and their leaders. He offers insights into the limitations of the two traditional theories used to describe the conditions under which a state determines to expand its political interests: classical realism and defensive realism. These he finds fundamentally different: “classical realism supposes that a nation’s interests are determined by its power,” while defensive realism “posits that states seek security rather than influence.” Both theories have had strong proponents among academic critics and politicians. In fact, attributing the growth of a country’s international influence to its increase in production of goods and harvesting of natural resources has long been a commonplace among both political theorists and historians. The United States has been a kind of poster child for classical realists who claim economic growth demands international expansion. At almost the same time, another group of scholars has long posited the more benign theory that a nation’s decision to increase its military capabilities and annex territories is largely a response to perceived threats to its sovereignty and security.

Even before he examines the case of the United States in the late nineteenth century, however, Zakaria argues that neither theory is sufficient to explain fully the peculiar situation that, in his view, has driven many countries toward expansion, either in territory or influence. Instead, Zakaria proposes his own theory, a modified version of ideas espoused by early theorists Otto Hintze and Leopold von Ranke: state-centered realism. Proponents of this theory argue that there is a distinction between the nation and the state: The former describes the people and the resources available within a given geographic area, while the latter more accurately represents the political infrastructure set up to govern within that region. Hence, Zakaria believes it is not sufficient to focus simply on the total wealth of a nation and its growing demand to obtain more resources to continue economic expansion, as the classical realists might argue. Neither is he willing to follow the line of argument put forth by defensive realists, who would claim that a country’s sudden desire...

(The entire section is 1888 words.)