From wealth to power: the unusual origins of America's world role

TitleFrom wealth to power: the unusual origins of America's world role
Publication TypeBook
AuthorsZakaria, F

From Legro and Moravscik Legro JW, Moravcsik A. Is anybody still a realist?. International Security. 1999;24:5–55.


Fareed Zakaria offers an insightful analysis of the reasons why the U.S. government moved toward expansion in the late nineteenth century more slowly and less thoroughly than shifts in relative power predict. To explain this neorealist anomaly, Zakaria rejects the traditional realist assumption of a unitary state in favor of a distinction between domestic state apparatus (state) and society (nation). State power, he argues, depends not just on control over resources, but on the ability of states to extract those resources from society. The tendency of states to expand is thus a function of the international and domestic power of the state. Both, he contends, were necessary for late-nineteenth-century U.S. expansion. Insofar as states are influenced by relative power and can muster societal support for their policies, they exploit opportunities to wield influence.

Zakaria's argument is a noteworthy effort to bridge the gap between domestic and international politics. Yet it rests decisively on treating a state's ability to extract societal resources not simply as an exogenous factor predictably related to geographical control over material resources, but also as a function of particular domestic political circumstances. Zakaria compounds the inherent indeterminacy of an unweighted combination of material and domestic politi- cal sources of power by offering no general theory (or even consistent interpretation) of shifts in domestic state power. Absent a theory of domestic politics, any argument about why a particular state can extract more or fewer resources from domestic society (even an argument implying irrational state behavior) becomes consistent with what Zakaria terms "state-centered realism." This is reflected in the exceptionally wide range of considerations that he admits affected "the degree to which national power can be converted into state power"-including technological, ideological, institutional, partisan, cultural, and racial influences.63

Although Zakaria employs an indeterminate assemblage of causal factors, he draws disproportionately on precisely those liberal factors cited by contemporary liberal democratic peace or endogenous tariff theorists-as well as early twentieth-century "idealists." (This is particularly ironic, given his widely cited criticism of Snyder for adhering to just this Primat der Innenpolitik.) Zakaria returns repeatedly to a core claim of democratic peace theory, namely that legislative or judicial control over the executive undermines its ability to deploy force aggressively, except where expected costs are low. He frequently invokes mutual recognition among liberal republics, economic modernization, public unwillingness to increase taxes for overseas adventures or military procurement, popular opinion on questions like race, and partisan politics-all well-developed liberal causal mechanisms. Surely Morgenthau, Carr, and George Kennan would be hard pressed to recognize in such a view a renewal of classical liberalism.