Foreign Policy as Pseudo-Science
FROM WEALTH TO POWER
Princeton University Press, 1998, x + 199 pgs.
Mr. Zakaria finds a paradox at the heart of American foreign policy in the latter part of the
nineteenth century. The United States at that period was
rapidly becoming an economic giant. Yet its role in the international system did not exceed that
of far weaker nations. Why did economic strength in this
instance go together with diplomatic weakness?
In the decades after the Civil War, our author notes, "economic growth reach[ed] a truly
stunning pace. By one calculation, the United States grew at an
average rate of 5 percent per year between 1873 and 1913. This extraordinary rise manifested
itself in almost every sector of the economy.... In fact, its
meteoric rise was even more staggering in relative terms.... Great Britain was averaging growth
of only 1.6 percent. By 1885 the United States had
surpassed Britain, gaining the single largest share of world manufacturing output" (pp.
America's military and diplomatic power by no means matched Britain's. "Between 1865 and
1890, the United States acquired forsaken Alaska and the
tiny Midway Islands and gained basing rights in Samoa. During the same period, Britain and
France each acquired over three million square miles of
new colonies" (p. 47). Around 1890, the American army ranked fourteenth in the world, be- hind
Bulgaria; and the laughable United States Navy was
inferior in strength to the Italian navy.
These facts are not in dispute; but why does Zakaria think he has found a paradox that
demands resolution? In his view, America's behavior violated a
traditional rule of European statecraft: nations increase their power to the extent their resources
permit. "So common was this pattern that European
statesmen viewed the state that did not turn its wealth into political influence as an anomaly" (p.
4). Because the Netherlands did not in the eighteenth
century expand to the extent its vast economic capacity allowed, statesmen of the time referred to
the "Dutch disease." In sum, "[a]s European statesmen
raised under the great-power system understood so clearly, capabilities shape intentions" (p.
Here then is the paradox that confronts Zakaria. The United States suffered from the Dutch
disease. If capabilities shape intentions, why did the United
States during the relevant period shun expansion?
Zakaria's question is a good one, but only by accident: he lacks an adequate rationale within
which to consider the issue. As he sees it, the fact that many
European states pursued an expansionist policy somehow establishes a "law" that this is standard
Given this law, the task of the political scientist is clear. Aping the procedure of "hard"
scientists, he must formulate a hypothesis designed to explain the
supposed law. The hypothesis must then be tested: if verified, the law is confirmed.
Students of Mises will at once spot the flaw that undermines Zakaria's procedure. The fact
that states during a certain period have expanded in
proportion to wealth does not give us the material for a law, in the style of the physical sciences.
In human affairs, we are not given precisely defined
variables that can be measured: to talk of verifying a hypothesis, as if some law of science were
at stake, leads nowhere. Introducing pseudo-scientific
jargon, with accompanying charts, will not convert history into a science.
Zakaria of course would regard these Misesian strictures as nonsense. Given his "law" of
state expansion, he considers two hypotheses to account for it.
The first, classical realism, with which Zakaria sympathizes, holds that states expand to the
extent of their capacity. As you will recall (since I mentioned
it only a few paragraphs ago), this is the traditional European view of state behavior.
Against this stands another theory, championed by Walter Lippmann and George Kennan,
which our author terms "defensive realism." It holds that
states expand in response to perceived threats: "nations expand their political interests when they
become increasingly insecure" (p. 21, emphasis
Zakaria does not like defensive realism at all. He directs two criticisms against it, one good
and one bad. He rightly points out that many politicians
justify expansion by self-serving statements. Thus, Stalin took over Eastern Poland not of course
as an expression of Soviet imperialism, but in response
to fears of "Western aggression." Or so he told us.
Zakaria's point is excellent, but once more pseudo-science rears its ugly head. Security, it
seems, "is a malleable concept that is more difficult to
operationalize than most terms in political science" (p. 26). From it we cannot generate testable
predictions. Zakaria evidently imagines himself in a
1930s logical positivist's model of a physics laboratory.
But if Zakaria rejects defensive realism, it is not entirely to defend its classical realists rival.
Rather, he modifies classical realism in a crucial respect;
and his modification leads him, I fear unintentionally, to a most valuable line of inquiry. He
suggests that classical realists err in assuming that statesmen
have automatic access to the full extent of their nation's wealth. This need not be so: and what
determines a political actor's grasp for power is the
resources that he can command. In Zakaria's state-centered realism, "[s]tatesmen, not nations,
confront the international system, and they have access to
only that fraction of national power that the state apparatus can extract for its purpose" (p.
Here, at last, Zakaria strikes paydirt. The framers of the United States Constitution were not
pseudo-scientists. But they were disturbed by the dangers of
an expansionist state: they believed that a strictly limited government, devoted to peace, was
essential to a good society.
Accordingly, they made it very difficult for the national government to expand territorially
or to engage in war. Power-seeking presidents cannot acquire
territory by themselves, nor can they commit our country to war without the consent of an often
difficult to manage Congress. And, owing to limited
taxation, the federal government usually could not fund expansionist schemes.
Centralizers have from its inception disliked our constitutional endeavor to contain overeager
presidents. Thus, Alexander Hamilton "argued during the
constitutional debates in Philadelphia for both a more powerful central government and a more
powerful president. In Hamilton's opinion, if America
were to achieve the economic prosperity of Europe, greater responsibilities and power would
have to be placed in the hands of the national government
and, in particular the presidency" (p. 97).
Fortunately for Americans' well-being, the American system during the latter part of the
nineteenth century worked much as the framers had intended.
Thus, after the Civil War, Secretary of State William Seward was anxious to add Cuba to
America's possessions. He was unable to do so: "when, late in
his term, Seward espied an opening, he decided that congressional obstinacy made pursuing such
a path futile" (p. 97). Not even the much more
energetic efforts of President Grant to secure the island were sufficient to turn the trick.
How-ever much statists might balk, the national government had
been de-signed to be inefficient in imperialism.
Of course, such is not the case today, much to our loss and Zakaria's satisfaction. Our author
ably traces the undermining of the American system of
restraint. The Civil War dealt a severe blow to limited government, and Lincoln's usurpations of
power in that conflict set a precedent for his successors.
But, once more, nothing could be done until the central government commanded more resources.
Increased federal revenues, the development of a
professional civil service system, and the expansion of government regulation of business
strengthened the state's hand.
But of course trends do not act by themselves: they require actors to set them in motion.
Zakaria ascribes much of the credit, as he sees it, for the
overthrow of restraint, to two presidents. One of these I am sure readers will be able to
The other culprit is a president often portrayed as weak and vacillating: William McKinley.
Our author, by contrast, views him as bold and aggressive.
"Under William McKinley's leadership, America undertook the most dramatic extension of its
interests abroad since the annexation of Texas. McKinley
also so brazenly expanded presidential power that some have called him the first modern
president.... McKinley took advantage of his executive power
to enlarge the presidency still further: he dispatched troops to China to help put down the Boxers
without consulting Congress. Never before had a
president used force against a recognized government without obtaining a declaration of war"
Zakaria's able historical narrative breaks the bounds of his allegiance to pseudo-science and
offers a much-needed lesson to those who lack his devotion
to the expansionist state. Unfortunately, he never quite shakes loose from what P.A. Sorokin
One illustration must here suffice. A table purports to demonstrate the superiority of
state-centered realism to defensive realism. In it, twenty-two
opportunities for American expansion in the period 1865-1889 are considered. The number of
validations for state-centered realism far exceeds that for
its rival, and Zakaria waxes triumphant. But since he counts both a decision to expand and a
decision not to expand as confirmations of his favored
theory, his table is worthless. His theory will always come out right, just by the way he has set up
the test. Such are the ways of pseudo-science.