From Wealth to Power

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 384

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.

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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

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1888

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 to gain territory or insinuate itself in the affairs of other nations arises because there is a general fear among a populace that its way of life is threatened. Rather, Zakaria contends that the underlying element determining the willingness of a nation to enter the international arena is the structure of its governing apparatus. He chooses as his test case the United States during the period 1860 through 1910 because during those decades there occurred a radical transformation in the relative power of the branches of government that permitted the country’s leaders to engage in international affairs on a scale much greater than had been permitted in previous years. While he acknowledges that the growth in resources, especially manufacturing, was important because the leaders had at their disposal the means to work as equals with other world powers, his principal line of argument is that the most significant factor determining the U.S. ability to become a world leader was the emergence of the presidency as the most powerful branch of government.

The central section of Zakaria’s study reviews the political history of the United States during the administrations of presidents Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. In three brilliantly conceived and tightly constructed chapters, Zakaria describes the slow shift in power from the Congress, especially the Senate, to the executive branch. The first of these, aptly titled “Imperial Understretch,” outlines the struggles that post-Civil War presidents such as Johnson, Grant, and Hayes had in convincing members of the Senate to approve even the most benign treaties with foreign powers. Each suffered reversals at the hands of a legislative body reluctant to grant anything to the chief executive lest it be seen as ceding its precedence within the federal structure of governance. “The Rise of the American State,” the second historical chapter, describes how the balance began to shift, not simply because presidents were more forceful and congressional leaders less so, but because growth and complexity in the economic sector demanded more centralized government with a professional bureaucracy managing national affairs. That phenomenon, coupled with a gradual demise of legislative power caused by internal squabbling and political corruption, permitted presidents such as Cleveland, McKinley, and Roosevelt to exercise significant influence in promoting policies that permitted the United States to take its place beside powers such as Great Britain, France, and Germany in determining international affairs.

In the course of his historical review, Zakaria is especially harsh in denouncing proponents of defensive realism, constantly pointing out the absence of real threats that would have given the United States government adequate justification for building up its military strength or rushing into alliances with other nations to fend off the aggressive actions of another country. Instead, Zakaria finds numerous instances in which politicians—especially American presidents and their cabinet members—took pains to orchestrate crises or to maneuver public opinion in such a way that the United States seemed to have no choice but to extend its influence outside its continental boundaries. The most famous example is the country’s behavior toward Spain at the end of the century, when every action taken by the Spanish government in Cuba or as far away as the Philippines was painted as horrific and in need of redress. Zakaria finds numerous other examples as well, however, including the decades- long attempt by a series of American presidents to bring the Hawaiian Islands under U.S. control.

Not surprisingly, the central figure in Zakaria’s study is Theodore Roosevelt. Committed to expanding U.S. presence and influence wherever and whenever he could, Roosevelt became the symbol of American imperialism both to his countrymen and to other nations. Roosevelt’s use of the bully pulpit, and his desire to have the United States surpass Britain as the world’s leading nation, is given prominence of place among the author’s analysis of key figures in the country’s drive toward international prominence. Zakaria is not wholly taken in, however, by Roosevelt’s aggressive stance on his country’s manifest destiny; his portrait of the president- diplomat is balanced, revealing some of the more mundane, egotistical motivations for the actions Roosevelt took both as assistant secretary of the Navy and later as president. Zakaria is also exceptionally astute in his assessment of figures such as Arthur and Cleveland, who are seen by other historians as being less prone to expansion than Zakaria finds them. In fact, as Zakaria demonstrates, considerable efforts toward expanding American influence in Latin America were made during Cleveland’s second administration, when the country found itself embroiled in disputes with Chile, Nicaragua, and Brazil. The analysis of early American theorists such as Alfred Thayer Mahan helps explain how the intellectual climate of the day gave McKinley and Roosevelt the arguments they needed to convince the country’s citizens that their future lay in achieving prominence among the nations of the world.

What is especially useful in Zakaria’s study is the author’s ability to sift from the historical record some general principles that undergirded American foreign policy during this unusual and turbulent period. His careful review of virtually every major and minor foray by the United States into international affairs during this half-century allows him to construct a series of charts that display graphically the opportunities the country had to expand its territory and influence, as well as the outcomes of those efforts. As he demonstrates conclusively, the majority of the successful efforts occurred when the country’s presidents made decisive efforts to exert themselves in favor of imperialist goals. When more chauvinist elements were in power, the United States remained aloof from the affairs of other nations. In Zakaria’s view, the amazing growth in the country’s economic base provided a necessary but not sufficient condition for the U.S. emergence as a great power. Instead, he concludes, the root of expansion and the rise to greatness rests within the political sphere: Politicians, especially presidents, make the crucial difference.

Zakaria is cautious in extending his theory to cover all cases of expansion. He claims, though, that a study of the role of state government should be a complement to any analysis of a nation’s economic growth as a predictor of its rise to prominence internationally. Nevertheless, one lesson to be drawn from his study is both enlightening and sobering: It suggests that those whom the public elects to power in America will shape the country’s destiny—but not always in accordance with the wishes of those who elected them.

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.

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